Blueberries are nothing new to Dale Mitchell and his nine siblings.
“We’ve been around blueberries our entire lives. Before we had our farm, our neighbors had them. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have access to a blueberry field,” says the 59-year-old co-owner of Mitchell’s Blueberry Farm in Grand Junction.
Mitchell’s Blueberry Farm, started nearly half a century ago on just five acres, today is one of a handful of certified organic blueberry farms in the region. Last summer 10,000 pounds of the farm’s organic blueberries were picked and sold fresh and frozen at farmers’ markets and grocery stores and to u-pickers. It’s hard to tell that the operation started out small and slow.
In 1968, when Dale was starting middle school, his father, Philemon, worked for Bohn, a South Haven manufacturer of automotive pistons, and his mother, Jeanne, was a schoolteacher. Phil wanted to invest in land and plan for retirement. He looked around at his neighbors and saw blue.
“Dad started the farm as a retirement business, but it ended up being my mom’s summer vacation business,” says Josephine Woods Brown, one of Dale’s sisters and another co-owner of the Van Buren County farm. “Dad managed the fields, and Mom was more in charge of harvesting. She managed the shed. She managed the pickers.”
“He saw that there was financial gain to be made,” Dale says. “He also enjoyed working in nature. It was therapeutic for him to work the field.”
The Mitchells’ operation was unusual from the get-go.
“There have been African-American farmers throughout history, once slaves were free, but to be organic farmers — and this is the second and third generation owning this blueberry farm — is kind of unusual,” Jo says.
However, before the land was even purchased in the late 1960s, the odds were stacked against Phil’s dream of owning a farm. He was affected by “redlining,” a practice that started during the Great Depression. Bank lenders refused to lend money to African-Americans looking to buy property in white and affluent neighborhoods, based on a federal rating system that ranked non-white neighborhoods as fiscally hazardous.
Urban areas across the United States, like Kalamazoo, were notoriously affected, says Donna Odom of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society.
Land loans in rural areas were a little different, but the practice remained discriminatory. It was nearly impossible for African-American farmers to buy land with highly rated soil, and they were forced to buy land near one another, say historians Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton in their book, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass.
“All of the black families (farming in Southwest Michigan) are or were in this area,” Jo says. “This was a former swampland. Dad moved a lot of the dirt, but you can still tell in some low-lying areas that it was swamp. But I always say, ‘Man made it for evil, but God made it for good.’”
With the help of neighbors, Phil Mitchell was able to move soil and create an irrigated orchard, Jo says, “so our berries are exceptionally good because of what used to be here. It turned out to be great for the plants.”
Dale notes that support for the farm was strongest in the immediate African-American farming community in and around Grand Junction. Other farmers taught his family how to farm.
“When we planted another field in ’91, we had the field dug up by a neighbor, because at the time I didn’t have a rototiller,” Dale says. “We were out there digging holes with shovels to get the plants in when another African-American farmer — name of Osborne Jones — stopped by and told me about a single plow that creates a trench far easier. From the very beginning, people would assist each other in that way.
“Dad didn’t have enough acreage at the time, nor was (the land) cleared,” Dale continues, explaining that his father used the small piece of land he could afford to start a nursery of blueberry bushes. “To get them started, he put them closer together than they should be.”
Jo, who is 10 years older than Dale, was grown and living across the state in 1971 when their father decided to move the young starter plants into a bigger field. “When they transplanted the plants from the nursery to the fields, I came home that summer,” she says. “I rode in the back of the tractor, dropped the flats off. Then the boys would cover the plants and get them ready for the field.” Three years later, the bushes were bursting with fruit.
The Mitchells joined the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association but maintained a relatively small operation, farming just five acres. It wasn’t until 1990, when Jo moved back home, that she and Dale bought another 4 1/2 acres.
As the Mitchells’ business grew, so did the family. By the time of Jeanne’s death in 2013, she and Phil had 100 living descendants. The farm became a place of huge family reunions and a landscape for memories.
Heather Mitchell, Dale’s 34-year-old daughter, now lives in Kalamazoo with her children and works as a dance teacher and choreographer. She remembers the farm idyllically, from “epic blueberry fights with my cousins to walking through rows of bushes looking for the biggest and sweetest berries.”
Heather says she learned important life values on the farm. “My grandfather said, ‘He who don’t work don’t eat.’ It sounded reasonable to me.”
A new niche
According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, July marked the centennial celebration of the first profitable crop of blueberries in the world, cultivated by the daughter of a cranberry farmer in New Jersey. Southwest Michigan was the leading global producer of crop blueberries until 2014, when it was surpassed by Georgia and then by the state of Washington.
By the time the Mitchells’ bushes had matured and started producing fruit in 1971, blueberries were an iconic Fourth of July treat, and Violet was turning violet in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In that movie, Gene Wilder shook his disapproving top hat and said, “It happens every time — they all become blueberries.” From pop culture to kitchens, blueberries had become ubiquitous and ordinary.
For years, the Mitchells weathered a rollercoaster blueberry market. “You’d have a good year or two and then there would be an abundance of blueberries,” Dale says. If the frozen market had not cleared out, then the prices would be lower. In addition, U.S. growers were competing with blueberries from other countries like Mexico.
After a lull in the market in 2007, the Mitchells hit upon a new niche to make them more competitive — their business became the first organic blueberry farm in Van Buren County. Even though they rarely used pesticides through the years, it took three years of chemical-free farming to transition to certified organic crops.
“That three-year period is a difficult time to transfer over,” Dale says.
During that transition, most farms take a loss, according to the USDA. While consumers won’t pay more for products labeled “pesticide-free,” more and more shoppers don’t mind the upcharge for “certified organic.”
“After we got our organic certification, things really started picking up. We started to sell in health-food stores,” Jo says.
In 2015, the Mitchells sold all of their organic berries fresh, and they are in the process of transitioning more of their acreage to organic. Mitchell’s Blueberries are for sale in Kalamazoo at the People’s Food Co-Op, Sawall Health Foods, the Natural Health Center and the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market.
Many of the original 10 Mitchell siblings worked in the farm’s production shed, and now many of their children have continued the tradition. Heather’s 13-year-old son is working on the farm this year for the first time. “He will be working alongside his older cousins just like I did when I was his age. He will teach my younger sons to pick the berries and let them roll off their fingers like my grandpa taught me,” Heather said prior to blueberry season. “The farm is our legacy.”
And 48 years after Philemon and Jeanne decided to become farmers, Dale still gets excited about blueberry season. “I like going out there. I have a lot of nice pictures of the berries when they are green. Then they turn so blue! I just watch the bees pollinate. The whole process of seeing them develop season after season has been a part of my life since a time when I was quite young.”
But this year Dale made a hard decision. After 25 years as an owner of Mitchell’s Blueberries, he will retire and sell his house and a share of the business to two of his sisters, though he says he’s not ready to let go of blueberries entirely.
“My wife and I are just going to keep one acre right close to the house because I enjoy doing it,” he says. “Blueberries have always been a part of who I am.”