By Mark Longstroth, MSU Extension Educator
In 1988, I attended my first Michigan State Horticultural Society Meeting in Grand Rapids. I was very impressed. There were several hundred Michigan fruit growers and a large trade show.
Michigan's specialty crops have come a long way in 24 years. In December, the largest fruit and vegetable trade show in eastern North America takes place in Grand Rapids. The Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo draws an audience of more than 4,000 from across North America and Canada. This year's event is Dec. 4-6. Fruit, vegetable and greenhouse growers and farm marketers converge on the DeVos Place for three days of educational sessions and a huge trade show with almost 400 vendors. The synergy created by merging two specialty crop shows – fruit (Michigan State Horticulture Society) and vegetable (Michigan Vegetable Council) – with the venue of Grand Rapids' world-class DeVos Place Convention Center has allowed the expo to become the premier show for fruit and vegetable growers and farm marketers. In no other venue can you find so many educational sessions and see so many vendors of services and supplies for specialty crop growers.
When I get calls from people who want to start a fruit or vegetable farm, I always recommend that they attend the Great Lakes Expo to get a true picture of the industry. Recently the Michigan Greenhouse Growers began to schedule their winter expo with the Great Lakes Expo, and this has added opportunities for growers and vendors to see and do even more at the meeting.
The educational sessions are designed by Michigan State University Extension educators with growers in mind. The sessions feature experts and practitioners from Michigan and across the nation. Crop-specific sessions cover everything from asparagus and blueberries to peppers, peaches and raspberries. There are sessions on cider (sweet and hard), chestnuts, hops, niche vegetables, and organic fruit and vegetable production. Besides the crop-specific sessions, the expo offers sessions on timely topics such as labor, irrigation and food safety. Two important problems from 2012 – spotted winged drosophila (SWD) and spring frost protection – will be addressed in several sessions. There are often eight or more educational sessions during the morning (9-11 a.m.) and afternoon (2-4 p.m.) time slots on Tuesday and Wednesday. The frequent complaint is there are too many things to see and do.
In addition to the fruit and vegetable programming, there is a line of programs for farm marketers and other direct marketers. The focus of these sessions is often on building the customer experience and negotiating the ins and outs of the unique farm market enterprise. The highlights of the farm market programs are Monday's preconference bus tour of Michigan farm markets, Tuesday night's farm market roundtable discussion and Thursday's workshops. Several program lines have sessions on using social media to enhance and grow your business.
Registration for all three days of the Expo is $70. There is a one-day registration of $40 for Thursday, when the trade show stays open until noon. I do have growers who go just on Thursday to save $30, but I wonder what educational opportunities they miss in an effort to save a little money. I certainly think that they would have the opportunity to make much more than $30 from an idea they pick up at an educational session on Tuesday or Wednesday. The Thursday programs are for general audiences and include organic production, crop Insurance, farm business transitions, irrigation and the farm market workshops.
For many Michigan State University Extension educators, the Great Lakes Expo is a flagship program where they have the opportunity to program for and meet a large number of growers. I always enjoy the expo. I get to see many Michigan growers and discuss the season with them. It is one of the few times I get to visit with people outside my area. It gives me a window into the health of Michigan's horticultural industries. I hope to see you there.
For more information and specific session information, visit Great Lakes Expo website. The early registration is now closed, but registration is offered at the door.