Nov 13, 2014
Michigan Vegetable Council celebrates 50 years

The Michigan Vegetable Council (MVC) turned 50 in November. Its purpose, improving and aiding Michigan’s vegetable industry, hasn’t changed in all that time – especially its emphasis on supporting research and education.

“The need for research and education to support and advance our industry can’t be overstated,” said Ralph Oomen, MVC’s current president. “The commitment to support research and education made by growers and others 50 years ago is helping us today. We need to continue this commitment to help assure a strong and growing vegetable industry for the future.”

The council was incorporated on Nov. 27, 1964, by Duane Baldwin of Stockbridge, Frank Smith Jr. of Carleton and Clark Nicklow from Michigan State University’s (MSU) Department of Horticulture. According to information provided by MVC, the intent of forming the council was to bring together growers, commodity associations, processors, shippers and others interested in promoting the welfare of the state’s vegetable industry.

It wasn’t the first time an attempt was made to create a statewide vegetable organization, but the first attempt, from 1946 to 1955 or so, fizzled out for unknown reasons. Industry leaders decided to try again, in a more permanent fashion, in 1964, according to MVC.

“We hope the Michigan Vegetable Council will develop into a statewide organization which will have as its main objective the advancement of the vegetable industry in Michigan,” Nicklow said at the time. “We need one loud, clear voice for the vegetable industry and we hope this organization will serve as that voice.”

In its early years, MVC was administered by MSU faculty members and volunteers from the board of directors. Nicklow helped administer the council for a number of years, along with playing a significant role in planning and conducting its annual convention. He was followed by MSU faculty members Hugh Price and Bernie Zandstra. Tom Stebbins helped with convention planning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Byron Carpenter became the council’s first executive secretary in 1992. Dave Smith became executive secretary in 1998, and he continues to serve in that position (the title was changed to executive director in 2007). In 2014, Ben Kudwa, former executive director of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission, joined MVC on a part-time basis as director of external relations, according to the council.

“We could not have reached this point without the foresight of those who started the Michigan Vegetable Council and those who have led it through the years,” Oomen said.

Hugh Price gave “tremendous credit” to the people he worked with at MVC, including past presidents Peter Brink, Frank Smith Jr. and Al Brandt Jr., as well as Jim Moats, Bob Rood and Barry Brand (former publisher of Vegetable Growers News).

“I enjoyed the opportunity I had to work with the MVC during my tenure at Michigan State,” Price said. “The Michigan Vegetable Council has served the industry well and established a proud legacy. Its role today is just as important as it was at its inception.”

Duane Baldwin, MVC’s first president, shared his thoughts about the need for industry research in a 1966 Vegetable Growers News article.

“Research isn’t a question of bushels or tonnage of vegetables, but a matter of fresh-market quality, processing types, as well as yield and other factors,” Baldwin said. “We are losing out in the trend toward processing because our varieties are unsuitable for the expanding processing industry. Similarly, we need new knowledge to effectively compete in the fresh market. Our climate, water supply and market location should give us the advantage of a terrific expansion in all vegetables, both fresh and processing.”

The council’s ability to fund research and education activities has increased significantly over the years. Its first recorded grant was a $100 contribution toward an MSU research project in 1976. Through 2014, grants to MSU have totaled $721,477, according to MVC.

The council also has obtained outside funding for vegetable research. MVC helped gain approval of a federal appropriation that provided more than $2.2 million over six years to Mary Hausbeck’s lab at MSU for research on phytophthora capsici, a major disease for many vegetable crops. Over the past three years, MVC has obtained specialty crop block grants from USDA totaling $180,727.

In 2003, MVC started the Michigan Vegetable Council Fund with an investment of $50,000. Since that time, the endowed fund has grown to more than $311,000. To date, research grants of $46,737 have been made from the fund. As part of commemorating its 50th anniversary, MVC has set the goal of raising new gifts of $50,000 by the end of 2014.

Today, MVC has 1,330 members, 743 of them from Michigan (membership is attained by registering for the Great Lakes EXPO, so there are many members from outside Michigan now). Seventeen people sit on the board of directors, according to MVC.

Great Lakes EXPO

As part of its educational mission, the council, in cooperation with MSU, initially sponsored a two-day program for vegetable growers during the annual convention of the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS) in Grand Rapids. In January 1968, MVC started holding its own annual trade show and educational meeting – the Great Lakes Vegetable Growers Convention – in Lansing.

Nicklow and Herb Turner of Saginaw were instrumental in getting the convention started. In those early years, the hope was to generate enough revenue to cover the cost of organizing the event. MVC had a small fund balance at the time, and directors were always concerned they might have to dig into their own pockets to pay all the bills. Attendance at the show increased over the years, however, and the conference started generating surplus funds, according to MVC.

Price, who joined the MSU faculty in 1971, got involved in planning MVC’s annual convention a couple of years later. By 1974, he was the liaison between MSU and MVC, and responsible for organizing the educational program.

“That year, I believe we broke even monetarily,” Price said. “It has been uphill ever since.”

Including the first conference in 1968, 34 annual conventions were held through January 2001. In 1989, the convention was moved from Lansing to Grand Rapids to provide for further growth. In 1993, the event’s name was changed to the Great Lakes Vegetable Growers and Farm Marketers Convention to reflect an expanded program for retail farm marketers. In 1999, the annual conference of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association was held in conjunction with the vegetable convention, according to MVC.

In the mid-1990s, the convention’s planning process was changed to include MSU Extension educators and other campus specialists, said MSU professor and Extension educator Bernie Zandstra, still one of about 10 educators and specialists who plan the educational sessions.

A major change came in 2001. After several years of discussion and study, MVC and MSHS decided to combine their annual conventions and become the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO. Everything was agreed upon except the date (both groups preferred holding the new conference on their traditional dates: December for MSHS and January for MVC), which was decided by a coin flip. MSHS won the flip, and the first EXPO was held Dec. 4-6, 2001. It immediately became the largest gathering of fruit and vegetable growers and farm marketers in North America. Five years ago, the Michigan Greenhouse Growers EXPO joined the Great Lakes EXPO; more than 4,200 people signed up for the combined show last year, according to MVC.

MVC’s anniversary will be commemorated at the 2014 EXPO, during a luncheon on Wednesday, Dec. 10, for past presidents, former directors and others who have been involved over the years.

Matt Milkovich

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