Apr 7, 2007
New Michigan Vegetable Council President Optimistic

Kent Karnemaat was just a lad in grade school when his father, Al, decided he’d worked for other farmers long enough and bought his own farm.

Now, 30 years later, that farm has become one of Michigan’s largest vegetable operations, and Kent owns a share of the enterprise he helped grow as he himself grew up there.

And grow up he did. Now 38 years old and 6 feet 6 inches tall, he is friendly, calm, self-confident, verbal but soft-spoken and a leader both on the farm and off. At Karnemaat Farms LLC near Fremont, Mich., he organizes 100 workers and coordinates operations on 1,300 acres of vegetables.

He’s also president of the Michigan Vegetable Council (MVC) and active in its efforts to speak on behalf of an industry made up of many producers of a diverse array of crops – most too small to have the clout they need.

Yet with all the demands, Kent seems unfrazzled and focused, giving his full attention to people who need him, whether it’s an employee, someone on his cell phone or a visiting farm writer. Moreover, he has time for the really important things in life.

He and his wife, Kim, take their family west for a month each fall on a hunting trip. The family spent several weeks doing missionary work in Mexico last winter, and plans to go again. He’s trying to master Spanish. They adopted two children from Guatemala, to go with the four they already had. How can you take kids out of school for trips like this? Well, they home-school their children, not just during the trips but all the time.

Kent has good reasons for all this. He gives the credit to others.

He farms with his brother, Tom. They have a good working relationship and a good division of responsibilities. Kent handles the field operations and Tom manages the greenhouses, the packing shed, the marketing and the sod production.

Sod production? The Karnemaats started growing sod a few years ago, to use land that had become infested with phytophthora and no longer would grow vegetables. Part of his Michigan Vegetable Council activity the last two winters has included trips to Washington, D.C., in support of researchers seeking more funding to battle the devastating disease.

“We were forced into growing sod, or something else, on that land,” Kent said. “We used it for corn, wheat and soybeans for 15 years, but when we rotated back to vegetables, the disease was still there. Back in the ’80s, crops were rotated based on information we had at that time. Phytophthora wasn’t an issue.”

Ideally, he’d like to get back the land the disease took from him, but in the shorter term, he’d like to manage his remaining land to keep it disease-free. That means finding better ways to control the difficult disease.

The Farm

Karnemaat Farms is owned by Kent and Tom and their father, Al. For the last dozen years, Al operated a three-branch real estate business and the sons ran the farm. This year, Kent said, his dad sold the real estate company and is again becoming active in the farm. As the major owner, he can choose his role, but what that will be isn’t yet decided.

The farm grows two crops that go through the packinghouse for distribution as fresh vegetables. Those are slicing cucumbers and bell peppers. The two crops, Kent said, only keep them busy about 60 days each summer, starting July 15. Because of the short production season, the farm looks to processing markets.

“We’re not growing in fresh market,” Kent said. “Our growth is on the processing side.”

The farm is 25-percent owner, with three other farms, of Michigan Freeze Pack in Hart. That company handles their zucchini, onions and celery. It produces diced, IQF products.

Their remaining three field crops are carrots, butternut squash and green beans, all of which are contracted for sale to Gerber Products Co.

“We’ve been growing for Gerber for 30 years, and it’s a key to our success,” Kent said.

Not only do they grow for Gerber, they provide services for other Gerber growers.

“We wash and prepare all their carrots and custom harvest their squash,” he said. “We also do trucking and storage.”

Gerber is demanding of its growers, but a good company to work with, Kent said. Gerber tells growers how often they can grow certain crops in certain fields, what crops they can plant in the rotation, what chemicals can be used for pest control and even tests the soil, looking for diseases and chemical residues.

As he cut into a butternut squash with his jackknife, Kent noted how things had changed in the industry. At one time, if a box of squash looked like squash, it was good enough. Now, Gerber tests for sugar levels and the harvest is carefully timed.

The rotation restrictions have forced the Karnemaats and other Gerber growers to do things differently. To get adequate vegetable land with good infrastructure (such as irrigation), they have rented land in Montcalm and St. Joseph counties – 50 to 100 miles away – and done land-swapping deals with non-vegetable growers.

The Karnemaats, for example, grow corn as a rotation crop, but have a cash crop farmer do the production work. Two years ago, they built a 4,000-head hog-finishing barn, largely so they could use the corn and have the hog manure to improve their land.

Kent calls it all “exciting. We have developed partnerships with so many other farm businesses.”

Of the 1,300 acres of crops, about 800 are hand-harvested. It takes about 50 migrant workers to do that, and 50 more to man the packinghouse and work in other supporting roles.

The Karnemaats have not gotten into plastic mulch or drip irrigation for vegetables. All vegetables are irrigated, about half by traveler and half by center pivot, but all are open-field grown.

Disease control is a major consideration.

“When we choose varieties, whatever has the best disease package is what we plant,” he said.

They also use greenhouses.

“We grow about 60 percent of our transplants,” Kent said. “We also grow bedding plants and hanging baskets.”

Those are the only parts of their business that are oriented to retail customers.

Vegetable Council Goals

The main thrust of the Michigan Vegetable Council used to be educational programming through the Great Lakes Vegetable Growers Convention, Kent said. In recent years, the vegetable industry effort has been merged with the efforts of direct farm marketers and fruit growers into the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO.

“In the past, 80 to 90 percent of our effort went toward the show,” Kent said. “Now, with the joint effort, we have a stronger show with less work and more time available for other things.”

Not only did the council support vegetable researchers in their effort to get greater funding for phytophthora research, it has created a foundation to accumulate a trust fund. In the future, this may be used to fund projects that can’t get support from other sources.

The MVC needs to “fill the holes,” he said, providing greater strength for a fragmented industry. While some vegetable producers, like potato and carrot growers, have their own associations to stand up for them, people who grow peppers or cucumbers “have no voice as an industry,” he said.

The MVC, with 14 board members, tries to represent both commodities and geographic regions within the state to give voice to all interests.

One other big issue the MVC needs to be involved in is water, he said. As other industry leaders have pointed out, Kent believes water is abundant and readily available in Michigan and could be a huge asset to the state’s agriculture. However, some interest groups want to treat it as a scarce resource and regulate water use tightly.

Abundant water, he said, is “one of the things that make us optimistic about the future of the vegetable industry in Michigan.”

Another source of optimism is the problem of obesity in the American population.

“The overweight issue is a huge thing, and fruits and vegetables fit right in as the solution,” he said.

Kent is serving his third three-year term on the MVC board, and is just ending his first year as president.

“It’s been a good thing,” he said. “It’s been easier because the council has been so well run in the past. It’s a time commitment, but I’ve been in position to make it, thanks to support from my wife and brother and dad.”

His dad is a former MVC president.

Vision of the Future

Kent said the farm’s future growth will be “controlled. It keeps us busier than we want to be, but we’re happy. It’s a good lifestyle, a good way to raise a family. And the future for vegetables is very promising. We intend to be here.”

About eight years ago, the farm was organized as a limited liability company with stock owned by the three families.

“We chose to form an LLC in an effort to strategically position our business for the uncertainties of the future and provide a vehicle to pass it from one generation to another,” he said. “So far, this has been a positive change, and if and when other people want to become part of the business, it should be an opportunity that is available.”

Tom has two children. With Kent’s six and the employees who might seek an ownership position, “the possibilities seem endless,” Kent said.

Kent wants to pass on a legacy to his children: Nathan, 15; Trent, 13; Gillian, 7; Hope, 5; Spencer, 4; and Justin, 2.

He hopes they’ll show “the ability to work hard and adapt to the changes that will certainly come.”

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