Jun 10, 2022
Michigan asparagus industry remembers icon Tom Oomen

 

It’s been 4 ½ months, and the loss is still fresh.

With the asparagus season in full swing, many in the asparagus community are feeling the loss now more than ever. It was a shock to hear back in January that Crystal Valley asparagus producer and Oomen Farms Ltd. partner Tom Oomen had died unexpectedly. His family, friends and those in the industry are still wrapping their heads around the news.

Tom Oomen. Photo: Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board.

Anyone who knew Tom knows that he wouldn’t want an article written about him. Instead, he’d be the first to say that the losses of asparagus industry giants in the past several years were far more significant. That’s just who Tom was and one of the reasons he is missed so much.

For the Oomen family, the past few months have been an adjustment to say the least.

“He’s everywhere, which is a struggle and a comfort at the same time,” said his wife, Jill.

She and Tom were married for 41 years. She’s been an integral part of the operation since their marriage, working on the bookkeeping side of the operation and holding vigil through many long asparagus seasons.

Starting Off Small, But Growing Year by Year

Tom, a graduate of Hart High, worked off the farm shortly after high school and came back to farm full time with his brother Rick in 1975. Tom and Rick, the only sons born to John and Ruth Oomen, were active on the farm from a young age. Even though they both pursued other endeavors after graduation, they, like many before them, ultimately returned to the farm to do what not only came naturally, but what brought the greatest amount of satisfaction and success.

In 1975, the two brothers planted their first seed to raise asparagus crowns. As the years passed and one success followed another, the farm began growing a variety of vegetable crops.

“Early on we did everything together,” Rick said. “Then we realized that there was plenty to do.

Tom began to focus on the asparagus and I focused more on the vegetables. We each trusted what the other was doing.”

Considering farm operations now include nearly 2,000 acres, a cooling facility, interest in a local processing plant and sons who have branched off into their own successful organic vegetable business, you could say the example they set is working well for the next generation.

Tom would give credit where credit is due and say that Oomen Farms wouldn’t be where it is today without the mentorship of some great men. Gerald Malburg, Dick Walsworth, Don Walsworth, Bud (Gerald) Greiner, Max Kokx and Bob Shafer were just a few of the names his wife and their sons shared.

Tom and Rick knew that to be successful they needed to take advantage of the wisdom and experience of those who had done it before. From the beginning of their careers, they not only sought out mentors, but took what they’d learned and became the next generation of innovative producers. From planting their first asparagus seed to becoming one of the first to pick asparagus for the fresh market or being one of the first to hire H-2A workers, they haven’t shied away from a challenge and doing what needed to be done. In turn, they paved the way for numerous others to follow.

‘He stayed to the end …’

Tom’s sons Brock, Derek and Kyle recall the many ways their dad has been a mentor to others, including them:

  • He’s been there through all the ups and downs.
  • It didn’t matter who it was, he always took the time to listen to people.
  • He had a gift. Grandpa was like that, too.
  • Dad took care of his employees, whether listening to them or bringing food to the fields.
  • He stayed to the end of every day during harvest, no matter how many times you told him to go up to the house.
  • He was a resource to a lot of people. Many, including us, have said how much they miss being able to call him.

Norm Myers, Michigan State University Cooperative Extension director in Oceana County for 20 years and retired senior vegetable production educator, recalled how he and Tom met.

“I started working for MSU Extension in Oceana in 1989. I knew very little about asparagus when I moved here, having worked more with other vegetable crops. Also, I was following Ed Strong, who was basically a legend in the asparagus industry. To say that I was intimidated would be an understatement.

“Fortunately for me, Tom was one of the farmers I met early. He, as well as a number of other vegetable growers, were patient enough to take the time to teach me about asparagus. In addition to teaching me, he and his brother Rick, as well as their cousins, became some of MSU’s best cooperators in field research. They allowed us to try out studies other growers probably wouldn’t have, including applying thousands of pounds of salt to asparagus test plots.

“As older farmers retired, Tom rose to become one of the leaders of the asparagus industry. He served on nearly every committee and board dealing with it (including) the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association, Marketing and Bargaining Committee and Michigan Asparagus Research Incorporated. He was one of Michigan’s representatives on the Asparagus USA organization and was serving as chair of the Michigan Asparagus Growers Incorporated (MAGI) board when he died. To say that the asparagus industry and the grower community will miss him is an understatement. Tom was a leader at the state and even national level in the vegetable industry.”

‘He was always going 100 mph!’

Caleb Coulter of American Asparagus in New Era said “Tom was one of those guys who could hold everything together. There are not many farms in Oceana he hasn’t touched in some way. Anyone who knew him, saw him always going 100 mph! One of my last thoughts of Tom was last year when he called me because they were out of packing tape. Next thing I knew, he was pulling up on his Harley. I don’t even think he shut it off. He hopped off long enough to dump half a box of tape in one saddlebag and the other half in the other side saying, ‘You gotta get it while you can,’ and drove away. He is really missed. In my mind, he was one of Michigan asparagus’s strongest allies.”

Ben Werling, West Michigan Vegetable Educator with MSU Extension, shared a similar experience.

“I was privileged to get to know Tom Oomen as a young-in-my-career Extension agent. Tom was an open and engaged voice and served in just about every role imaginable within the asparagus industry. From the MSU side of things, having growers like Tom, who are well respected and visibly engaged with MSU as a partner in research, is priceless. His farm was also a major collaborator with MSU, hosting on-farm work and engaging in really tough discussions when the industry faced some big challenges.

“He never hesitated to help out; a standard reply was ‘tell me what you need’ when I called asking for a willing partner on a project. On a personal level, I could always call Tom and ask him questions and get an honest and helpful answer. I never felt like I needed to worry about what I was going to say before calling. He has been one of the growers who launched my young career, whether he knew it or not.”

When things have been tough elsewhere, he’s a big reason the Oceana grower community has felt “like home,” whether I deserve it or not.”

A Farmer Common-Sense Approach

Stan Hallack, a longtime friend and retired manager for the Ceres Solutions Co-op of Hart, said, “He had a calculator for a brain. I was always amazed at how he could figure out quantities for things in his head and never use a calculator.” Tom’s sons echoed that fact saying he would count the number of crowns being planted in part of a row and calculate in his head the total number of crowns in an entire field.

John Bakker, executive director for the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board and brother-in-law to Tom, has felt the impact of Tom’s involvement more than ever since his passing.

“Late winter, early spring I started taking calls from people who would have normally called Tom with their questions. He had so much knowledge, whether it was about seeds or crowns or whatever. It was eye-opening,” Bakker said. “With Tom, there was never a stupid question or the feeling that he’d already explained something to you before. His approach was more ‘let’s talk it through.’ In thinking about his industry involvement it might be easier to name the boards he wasn’t involved with. He was always involved on some level or another. He wanted to be, and the industry wanted him to be involved. He had a common sense, farmer approach and was willing to work together to make business beneficial for all involved,” said Bakker.

After his passing, the farm even received a condolence email from an asparagus farmer in Australia, who had been conversing with Tom about the Pacific Challenger variety; of which Oomen Farms was one of the first to plant. His knowledge and friendship was literally shared with the world.

His sons noted that he would say he didn’t relish the idea of being “the next generation.” It could easily be said that during his time here, Tom gave it his all, whether for his family and friends, his community or his farming. As the rest of the ag community continues to give its all; growing and harvesting the best asparagus in the world, many remember and are grateful for Tom’s friendship, knowledge and influence in an industry that has affected literally every area of this county’s life. The torch has passed a little sooner than was expected.

Rick Oomen, his brother and business partner, who is just as humble and amiable as his brother Tom, summed up what everyone has been thinking: “It’s going to be different … but everyone will come together.”

He’s right. It’s different without Tom, but we’ve got a long-shared history, and working together is what Tom would do. So as a community, we will too.

By Sharon Hallack. This originally appeared in Oceana’s Herald-Journal.

 

 




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