Nov 13, 2014
Labor, food safety, transportation priorities for new MVC president

Joe Pirrone will be the next president of the Michigan Vegetable Council (MVC). He’ll start his two-year term in 2015, replacing outgoing president Ralph Oomen.

Pirrone, 59, is the former owner of Mike Pirrone Produce, a grower, packer and marketer based in Capac, Michigan. He sold the business a few years ago, but he’s still heavily involved as a salesman and consultant. He and his wife, Nina, have been married for 32 years. They have three children.

Serving as MVC’s president will be an honor and a responsibility, Pirrone said.

“I want to make sure I do it right,” he said. “You have to represent everybody’s interests, not just your own.”

He said labor shortages, food safety, pests and diseases are all areas of concern for Michigan’s vegetable growers, and should be top priorities for the council. Another concern is rising freight costs, which limit where product can be shipped.

The buy-local trend has helped mitigate the transportation problem, at least.

“One of the things that’s helped the Michigan vegetable industry in the last few years is the desire of retailers to use local product,” Pirrone said. “I think that has saved us. We would be at a tremendous disadvantage if retailers did not want Michigan product.”

Sustainability is key for Michigan’s vegetable industry, Pirrone said, and the most important component of sustainability is profitability.

“You can’t farm until the money’s gone and you go broke,” he said. “You have to have profit.”

But there are “economies of scale” taking place in agriculture that are hampering profitability, he said. Sixty or 70 years ago, you could support a family off a 10-acre farm. Today, you need a 500- or 600-acre farm. Fifteen years from now, you might need a 2,000-acre farm. If the trend continues, America’s agricultural base might disappear and its food production end up overseas.

“We need a safe, affordable domestic food supply in this country,” Pirrone said.

Also critical is the need to educate the public about the importance of agriculture.

“Forty years ago, everybody knew somebody who had a farm, and they understood agriculture at least a little bit,” he said. “Today, we’re totally divorced from that. Most people today have no clue where their food comes from or how the food system works. If they don’t know how important we are to society, it’s hard to have elected officials who are proponents of agriculture.”

Farming tradition

Pirrone’s grandfather started growing and selling mushrooms in southeast Michigan about 1939. His father, Mike Pirrone, eventually joined the family business, which expanded into rhubarb and summer produce. Pirrone and his brother joined about 1969. His brother died in 1984, and his father died three years later.

The family business was based just north of Detroit for decades, but moved further north to Capac in 1998. The suburbs were creeping around the old farm by that time, and they found a nice facility in Capac. They also picked up more growers by moving there, Joe said.

These days, Mike Pirrone Produce grows vegetables on about 1,200 acres, and packs and ships its own product. Its main crops include cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini, cabbage, peppers, carrots, rhubarb, pumpkins, squash and Halloween ornamentals. The company also buys and markets produce from about three dozen growers. Most of the produce ends up in grocery stores, but some ends up in the wholesale and foodservice sectors, Pirrone said.

He decided to sell the family business a few years ago. It was a difficult decision, but his three children – who range in age from 22 to 16 – weren’t showing much interest in taking over. He needed to think about the future.

“I didn’t want to be 70 and having this place, and then what?” he said.

He sold Mike Pirrone Produce to his partner, Henry DeBlouw, who kept the company name. Henry died two years ago, and his son, also named Henry, now runs the company.

“Joe was my boss my whole life,” the younger DeBlouw said. “Now, he’s teaching me the ropes.”

The transition from owner to employee wasn’t easy, but Pirrone’s goal now is to mentor his co-workers and get the company in a position where it’s fine without him.

The current owner of the business summed up Pirrone’s importance like this: “Joe, don’t leave. Put that in the paper.”

But he can’t stay forever.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll do this,” Pirrone said. “I’m trying to work my way out the door, or into a position where I don’t have as much responsibility. I don’t want to keep working as hard as I have the last 35 years.”

There are things Pirrone won’t miss. He won’t miss going home at night and thinking about work. He won’t miss waking up at midnight and wondering how he’s going to sell those 7,000 cases of cabbage in the cooler – or the 4,000 cases coming the next day.

“It totally consumes you,” he said. “I never learned how to not live the business.”

When you’re growing and selling so many perishable crops, the difficulties never end, he said. You’re always stuck with something, or short of something, or you don’t have enough workers to keep up with production, or there’s a multitude of orders to get out but you can’t harvest because it’s raining cats and dogs, or everything’s going right but you can’t get enough trucks. The list goes on.

Being a salesman instead of the owner might not be as overwhelming, but it still keeps Pirrone busy. By the time he’s in the shower, he’s already thinking about what he has to do that day. He starts making calls on the drive to work (he’s got a hands-free system in his truck). He spends most of the day on the phone. He’d like to spend more time in the field, but the sales calls take precedence.

For Mike Pirrone Produce, harvest starts with cabbage, normally between June 15 and June 20. That’s followed by lettuce and zucchini – every few days another crop is ready. The busy season starts around Labor Day and ends around Oct. 20, Pirrone said.

“We’re constantly reacting to weather and market conditions,” he said. “Nothing messes up our world more than a wet fall.”

DeBlouw said the company hires 300 to 400 employees during peak season for its field, packing, shipping and other endeavors.

“There’s not a lot of people who can do what we do on the level that we do it – with as many items as we do,” DeBlouw said. “The future looks pretty bright for us.”

Matt Milkovich

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