The Land: ‘It’s not a job — it’s a way of life.’

October 13, 2020

Robert Bush

The Land: ‘It’s not a job — it’s a way of life.’

The Land is a series telling the stories about local agriculture. It is a presentation of Peterson Farms, Inc.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — For decades and through generations, Bush’s Apples has been harvesting fruits and vegetables on its gorgeous 400-acre farm.

The farm is located north of New Era along M 20 about 3/4 of a mile east of Oceana Drive.

“My dad bought this farm in 1974,” said owner Robert Bush. “I was about 11 or 12 years old.”

After attending college for a year, Robert decided it wasn’t for him and returned to the farm. “I wanted to come back and be on the farm.”

His dad, James, “retired” at the end of 2006, and Robert took over at the beginning of 2007. However, Jim continued working on the farm, helping his son.

Sadly, Jim passed away in January of 2017. “Even the last couple years that he had cancer, he still worked as much as he could. It’s what he loved to do.”

Jim worked at the tannery in Whitehall for 13 years and then farmed after work. “He did that until ’74 when we bought this farm.”

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Robert’s oldest son Jim — named after his grandfather — works full-time on the farm with his dad.

Both Robert and his son have three other siblings who have pursued other careers. One of Robert’s sisters is a nurse; the other is a sign language interpreter; and his brother is an attorney. His daughter is an x-ray technician; one son is an engineer; and the other son is a film and video editor.

“My oldest boy, it’s always been something he likes. He likes mechanical stuff, working on trucks and tractors. It’s been a good fit.

“He learned that from my dad. It’s not just the name he got from him, but he learned a ton of stuff from him. He was very mechanically inclined like that, too.

“That’s one of the best things about the farm — getting to work with my dad for many years and getting to work with my kids for many years, too. It’s not a job — it’s a way of life. You just live it.”

His kids worked on the farm as they were growing up, which taught them valuable life lessons.

During harvest time, additional workers are hired, and the farm provides onsite housing for its staff. This year, an additional 19 employees are helping harvest, he said.

Robert’s 80-year-old mom, Lois, helps out in the roadside produce store that they call their “Ma and Pa operation.”

Robert’s wife Sharon also helps out at the farm market when she’s not working her other job as a nurse at Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon. She has been a nurse for 34 years, he said.

Produce sold in the retail area is a small percentage of what is grown on the farm. The rest goes to Peterson Farms Inc. in Shelby, Gerber in Fremont and Materne, which has a plant in Traverse City, to make “Go Go Squeez” pouches. Bush’s packing apples and asparagus are hauled down the road to American Apple.

The Bushes have close working relationships with the other farmers in the area. “We help each other.”

In addition to many varieties of apples, the farm produces asparagus, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and pears. This year, the farm has yielded approximately 55,000 bushels of apples. A bushel is approximately 44 pounds. The farm grows 18 different varieties of apples — Macintosh, Gala, Honeycrisp, Ida Reds, Jonagolds, Pink Ladies — to name a few.

Compared to his neighboring farmers, such as American Apple and Lewis’ Farm Market, he runs a small-scale operation. “Their farms are three or four times the size of mine.”

The apple picking season runs seven to eight weeks. This year, the season began Sept. 10 and is expected to continue until Oct. 28, he said.

It has been a good crop, said Robert. The apple trees mainly avoided frost damage this spring that took its toll on the cherry trees in the area. “We had a really cold night this spring that froze a lot of the cherries, but the apples were just far enough behind for the most part that it didn’t hurt them as much. We got down to 20 degrees that night for awhile, and I got up the next morning and said, ‘Everything’s gone. It’s got to be froze.’ Surprisingly, looking at the apple crop, it wasn’t that bad.

“Overall, we’re calling it a good crop.”

The valuable advice that his dad gave him over the years continues to guide him. “My dad always told me, ‘You can’t keep doing things the way you always did. You need to change. You need to do new things.’ The other thing he always told me was, ‘Don’t just do things the way everyone else does. You need to do something to make your farm better or different than everybody else’s. Embrace change.’

“You make mistakes along the way — you just hope they’re not too expensive.”

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