The Land: Asparagus packing, a new generation of farming at Oomen Bros.

June 13, 2017

 

The Land: Asparagus packing, a new generation of farming at Oomen Bros.

#TheLand #OceanaCountyAgriculture.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

The Land is a monthly series that focuses on the agriculture industry in Oceana County. 

CRYSTAL TOWNSHIP — Oomen Bros. Inc. is a four generation 2,000-acre farm located in eastern Oceana County that farms 300 acres of asparagus. Five years ago, Nick Oomen, 27, returned from Michigan State University with a degree in agricultural industries and decided to move the farm into the asparagus packing business as well at its location at 2157 E Jackson Rd. 

“We were paying someone else to pack our asparagus, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it just created another avenue where we could cut out the middle man somewhere,” Nick says. Nick brought with him many ideas he acquired while working an internship in Canada. He developed two packing lines, one that is manual and one that is automatic.

Nick Oomen, right, and his cousin Tara Oomen.

“It started with just our asparagus for the first year. Then in the second year we had a little more line time so we decided to start running asparagus for a couple neighbors.”

Michigan is the second leading asparagus growing state in the U.S., following California, growing about 20 million pounds a year on 120 family farms, which make up about 9,500 acres. About 40 percent of Michigan asparagus is sold fresh in May and June, the rest is processed through freezing or canning.

“Michigan asparagus is sold throughout Michigan, of course,” Nick says, “but it is also sold pretty much south all the way to Texas and Florida, west to the Rockies, and east to Boston and New York. It goes all over.”

Oomen Bros. Inc. packs for both the fresh market and the processing market. The two different markets require different lengths and quality of asparagus spears, which are sorted by up to 130 workers, working two shifts daily, at the farm. Fresh market spears are longer than the processed spears.

In addition to the 130 workers who work the packing plant, the farm also employees people who pick asparagus in the fields. An asparagus picker holds five people on a cart who can harvest two to five acres a day.

For the past 30 years, the farm has been mostly operated by brothers Ken and Ralph. The brothers converted their father’s farm from dairy to mostly vegetables and some fruits. Today, the farm raises asparagus, carrots, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, and tart cherries. It also raises hogs and grows cover crops such as corn, wheat, rye, and soy beans. While Nick, Ken’s son, decided to come back to the farm, his brother, Spencer, 24, has chosen to have a career off the farm. Ralph’s daughter, Tara, 24, graduated from Michigan State with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business. She works full-time for an agricultural retailer and helps at the farm when she can. Her brother, Tyler, 22, recently graduated from Michigan State with a bachelor’s degree in crop and soil science and has returned to work on the farm. Tara’s mother, Karen, is the farm office manager while Nick’s mother, Sandy, works off the farm.

“My dad instilled the passion in me to work in the ag industry,” Tara says. “He is just a really smart guy. I believe I learned more from him than any college class I have taken or any textbook I have read and his influence was huge on what I wanted to do in my life.”

After college, Tara worked for Michigan Farm Bureau and then was hired at CHS, Inc. and moved to Grand Rapids. She says she has made the decision to move back to Oceana County, continuing her career with CHS.

The choices of the Oomen cousins are very much a common pattern among young adults who grow up on the farm. Some decide to stay, some continue in a similar industry, and some move on. Tara says there are many jobs available in agriculture besides farm work. “Not a single friend of mine who graduated with me from MSU doesn’t have a full time job in the ag industry,” Tara says. National and state statistics agree with her statements. According to Michigan Farm Bureau, there are 54,400 agriculture-related job openings annually for individuals with four-year and higher college degrees, but only 55 percent of those job openings are expected to be filled by graduates who earn degrees from colleges of agriculture, life sciences, natural resources and veterinary medicine. Those stats don’t even include the many more jobs available for individuals with two-year certificates from programs such as the joint program offered by MSU and West Shore Community College, Farm Bureau’s website states.

Tara says making the choice to return to the family farm is often a matter of economics. A farm can only support so many full-time people. She says the younger generation becoming an active part of a farm, with the eventual goal of succession, means balancing tradition with an openness to change.

“I think that’s a challenge with a lot of farms,” she says. “There are a lot of successful farms that have been doing something one way for many years and it’s worked. The next generation comes in and has new ideas. It’s often a struggle to overcome those changes, but the two generations — and sometimes three generations — have to work together and remember that things worked successfully before but new ideas may work as well.”

That seems to be the formula for Oomen Bros. Inc. as it continues to grow its asparagus packing operation and welcomes its next generation.

This story, and associated videos and photography are copyrighted © 2017, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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