For 34 years, Don Gibbs was a berry farmer. But for the past six years, he’s been a farmland owner and observer, watching his lifetime accomplishments continue on.
Gibbs now leases his 51 acres of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and table grapes to one of his former employees. It’s a one-year, renewable lease, but the perennial crop creates a rather unique relationship. To understand how this came about, you have to go back a few years.
Gibbs bought the 128-acre run-down farm in 1970. He started with 3 acres of strawberries. Located in Onondaga in Ingham County, the farm drew residents from Jackson, Lansing, Battle Creek and Ann Arbor for the U-pick operation, which first went like gangbusters.
• Don Gibbs saw both the success and collapse of his pick-your-own business.
• A short stint raising cucumbers provided experience with migrant workers.
• Leasing arrangement with former worker allows farm to continue and Gibbs to retire.
A few raspberry acres were added to the offering, and more strawberry acres were planted until it peaked at 36 acres. “But then business really started dropping off,” Gibbs says.
Three major factors almost put him out of business. “People used to come and pick berries as a food gathering exercise,” he explains. “It was about harvesting a crop and storing a good portion of it for later. Now, picking berries is more like recreation.”
With the introduction of varieties like the day-neutral berries, which bare fruit for nine months in the warmer climates of California, Mexico and Chili, it made it harder for Michigan’s five-week bearing cycle to compete. Food stamps, Gibbs say, contributed to this trend, as lower-income consumers could now buy berries in the store year-round.
Add in increased competition in the U-pick market, and by 1982, the demand had fallen off. “When we started, there were two small pick-your-own operations servicing the Lansing and Jackson areas. By the early 1980s, there were 22 competitors,” Gibbs says.
The market had changed, and Gibbs knew he would have to change with it.
In the mid-’80s, he planted some acres into cucumbers for pickles. The decision to raise pickles forced the need for migrant labor. “It was a big headache with the labor,” Gibbs says.
However, there was one migrant worker who stood out. Juan Garza became a year-round worker, even after Gibbs chose to get out of pickles five years later.
With the U-pick business being unreliable and crowded with competition, Gibbs recognized the growing number of farmer, or “fresh,” markets and identified the urban love of raspberries, particularly Michigan’s more affluent southeastern markets.
He refocused on growing strawberries and planted more raspberries, some blueberries and a few table grapes. By using migrant labor, he was able to bring the crop to the consumer at eight different farmers markets. “As I look back, I wonder how I was able to start the farm with really limited knowledge or experience, except that you plant with roots down. I sure made my share of mistakes over the years,” he concedes.
Through trial and error, Gibbs adopted management techniques allowing him to hedge strawberries two weeks earlier and plant fall raspberries. Planting new raspberry varieties and using some unique pruning strategies, Gibbs was able to close the gap between strawberry and raspberry harvest, creating a constant labor draw all summer.
In the late 1990s Juan’s teenage son, Juanelo, joined the operation and the two worked side by side.
In 2003, Gibb’s wife, Josephine, called Jo, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “She was really starting to have problems, and she needed my help,” he says.
Not only was Jo his wife and life partner, but also a business partner in the farm, who performed important functions, such as bookkeeping. “She would forget and misplace stuff, and things were not getting recorded,” Gibbs says. “She really couldn’t do it anymore.”
A question by one of Gibbs’ friends and MSU Extension educator, Roger Betz, helped put things into perspective. “He asked me, ‘Why and what are you farming for?’ ” says Gibbs, who knew his wife would require more assistance.
But with his children, Judy, Ginger and Greg, all engineers living in North Carolina who had no desire to run the farm, what were his options?
Juan had retired a couple of years earlier, but son Juanelo and other family members were still working.
“I approached Juanelo with the idea of leasing the farm,” Gibbs says.
With lawyers’ assistance, the two hammered out a lease agreement. The one-year, renewable lease includes a dollar amount per acre. Juanelo is responsible for all labor, chemicals and fertilizer, and he must carry a liability policy.
Gibbs pays for the taxes on the property, the pond cleaning and the maintenance of the buried irrigation mains and all the buildings, except the 13 mobile homes, which are Juanelo’s responsibility. Gibbs also carries insurance on machinery and pays for the planting stock. “So if either one of us decides to terminate the lease, there is no dispute over the value of the plants,” Gibbs says.
Gibbs was never one to buy new machinery, but he kept extra sprayers, irrigation pumps and tractors, including several narrow vineyard types, in ready-to-go condition as backups. The machinery was appraised when Gibbs retired in 2004, and Juanelo pays 5% of the appraised value per year and is responsible for maintaining the equipment.
Juan is back from retirement to help Juanelo, whose wife Elvira now takes care of the books. “I don’t know anything about the financial condition of the operation or the daily running of the farm anymore,” Gibbs says.
The Garzas offer limited pick-your-own options, but employ 34 workers during the summer and concentrate more on the eight fresh markets they serve. “We like this farm and have a nice relationship with Don. We’ve learned a lot from him,” says Juanelo, who is a U.S. citizen. “We’re able to give our kids an education and keep on farming. We have established relationships with the people at the markets, who see us as offering good food at a reasonable price.”
Now in her seventh year with Alzheimer’s, Jo’s health is requiring more support. Gibbs, who is now 71 and has had some health issues of his own, says he’s happy with his decision to lease the farm and retire. They frequently visit their children.
“I never thought I could live day-to-day without the farm,” Gibbs says, “but it was the right decision.”