Feb 11, 2016
Technology, consolidation have transformed the vegetable industry

Greg Boese doesn’t know where the last 50 years went.

“It’s just bang, somehow we got to this point,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t understand how it happened.”

Boese, now 68, has spent most of his life in the vegetable industry. He grew up on the family farm in Saginaw, Michigan, where his parents and grandparents moved from South Dakota during the Depression. Boese went to college with the idea of becoming a teacher, but he hadn’t been teaching long before he realized it wasn’t for him.

“Spring came and the grass grew green and the birds started chirping, and I said ‘I can’t do this. I’ve got to be outside,’” he said. “So I went back and started farming with my dad.”

At the time, they grew cash crops like corn, wheat, soybeans, dried beans and sugarbeets. They started growing vegetables after one of their neighbors, a fieldman for Vlasic, convinced Boese’s father to plant a few acres of peppers. They also raised cabbage for Vlasic, which had a processing plant nearby, Boese said.

These days, Boese runs Cass River Farms with his son, Aaron. He and his wife Suzanne also have three daughters.

The farm’s primary focus now is banana and jalapeno peppers for processing. There’s been tremendous growth in the consumption of banana and jalapeno peppers, neither of which were a big deal 50 years ago. People didn’t eat much Mexican food back then, or as much hot food – but they do now, Boese said.

Boese has witnessed the consolidation of the vegetable industry in the last 50 years. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, food companies like Vlasic had fieldmen “all over the place,” visiting small family farms, inspecting crops and scheduling deliveries. The growers would deliver small loads of pickles and peppers to receiving stations, where the companies would gather what they needed for the year.

Today, the few remaining growers – much bigger than they used to be – deliver loads of produce by the semi-truck to the few remaining processors, who are also much bigger than they used to be. Those processors eliminated their field departments over the years, and farms like Boese’s were forced to take over much of those duties themselves.

Cass River Farms now grows 600 acres of banana and jalapeno peppers, and contracts 1,200 acres from other growers. Cass River supplies the growers with seed, bins and transportation. All the peppers are shipped to the farm’s pre-processing facility in Saginaw, where they’re cleaned before being shipped to processors, he said.

Cass River Farms has been hiring H-2A workers from Mexico for the last few years. A crew arrives every summer to pick peppers by hand. Even though he manufactures machine harvesters, Boese sticks to hand picking his own peppers. Jalapenos need to be de-stemmed, which can’t be done by machine.

“We could replace 100 people in the field by mechanically picking jalapenos, but then we would have to take the stems off one by one,” Boese said. “It defeats the purpose.”

The H-2A guest-worker program wasn’t necessary a few decades ago. Back then, migrant workers from Mexico and Texas, local people – even Laotians who came to the United States after Vietnam – would pick sugarbeets, pickles and other crops in the Saginaw area. They worked hard and made good money. But these days the migrant stream has dried up and local people have moved on to easier work – or they don’t want to work at all, he said.

Boese and his son also run Boese Equipment Co., which manufactures machine harvesters (Boese Harvester Co. is the sales arm).

The machine endeavor goes back about four decades, when Boese teamed up with Dale Marshall, an ag engineer with USDA, to find ways to mechanically harvest peppers. By 1995, after about 20 years of trials, Boese had created a workable harvester. A Florida grower heard about what he was doing, so Boese brought the machine down to test it out, and the grower bought it from him on the spot. That was his first sale. There are dozens of Boese harvesters in Western states today, picking the vast majority of the country’s dried chili peppers, he said.

Boese doesn’t have an engineering background, but he learned a lot along the way. He and his son have an ag engineer on staff, and are always working to improve their designs. They now have machines in Australia, South Africa, Brazil and Chile, and are working on selling machines in China, he said.

Technology definitely has changed the way farmers do business in the last half century. There’s a lot more planning, research and computer skills required today, and not as much physical labor, Boese said.

“We walk around with telephones in our pockets,” he said. “Tractors steer themselves and go straight across the field. It’s gotten a lot easier physically, but maybe not mentally.”

Matt Milkovich, managing editor

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