Episode 175: Kassie Grasmanis and Andrew VanTil
Aug 11, 2021, Updated Aug 19, 2021
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Did you know there are nearly 150 different varieties of blueberries? Given any trip to your grocery store or farmers market, you’re more than likely going to be exposed to any of the 30 main varieties. As a smaller farm, Bowerman Blueberries has been family-owned and operated since the ’50s and is now going on its fourth generation of leaders. While it wasn’t always easy to adapt to the changes in the farming industry, Bowerman has kept its focus on quality and safety throughout the years. This mission was further engraved thanks to a partnership with grower-owned co-op, North Bay Produce.
As most farms are, Bowerman Blueberries has been passed down in the family for generations. Kassie Grasmanis’ grandfather, William, planted the first blueberry bush in 1948, but didn’t have the first official harvest until six years later when Bowerman Blueberries was formed. Kassie’s father, Randy, grew up on the farm and it only made sense to begin working on it as well shortly after marrying her mother. At that time, the farm wasn’t enough to support both families, as blueberries can take anywhere from seven to 10 years to fully mature. As the crops began producing in sizable quantities, Randy was able to purchase the farm from his father along with the adjacent 40 acres to take Bowerman to the next level. Now, the farm consists of around 100 acres of blueberries, an on-site farm market store and even a bakery. The farm continues to stay in the family with six members working on the business including Kassie, her brother-in-law Andrew VanTil, and even a fourth generation of Bowerman’s.
Much like her father, for Kassie, working with the family business was a given. She grew up on the farm as well and after going to college for management and accounting, it was a simple choice to take the business into the next generation, particularly with food safety.
Andrew joining the farm, however, was not as simple.
“Before joining the farm, I couldn’t have even kept a houseplant alive.” – Andrew VanTil (05:21 – 05:25)
Those of us outside of the direct farming industry might think when they see someone that works on a farm that they’re a grower. But as farming has developed throughout the years there are many many other needs for the business besides growing. And this is where Andrew came in. Despite his lack of “grow” knowledge, he came in to become a jack of all trades for the family business. Focusing mostly on production and sales, Andrew has also been able to advance technologies available to Bowerman to ease processes like harvest and packaging.
Food safety has also been a main focus of Kassie and Andrew’s with Bowerman’s as of late. Blueberries have some of the highest nutritional values compared to other types of fruits, along with lasting longer on shelves. Therefore, quality assurance of their crop is vital to providing their customers with top-notch product.
Testing, technology and tracking are the three most important factors at Bowerman when it comes to their food safety. As an ever-evolving industry, the technology around farming has dramatically changed when it comes to harvesting, production and packaging. There are now machines that can detect bruising inside berries before it even manifests. They can even sort out pieces of fruit that have the potential to ruin an entire batch. These are the types of technologies Andrew and Kassie are working on at Bowerman to further allow an extended shelf life and top-quality product.
Kassie reflects that when she was a kid, the only time you could get fresh blueberries in Michigan was mid-July to mid-September. The way the industry used to work is that grocery stores would deal with individual farmers and as that has shifted through the years, grocers are wanting berries year-round. Communication then shifted to co-ops and marketers, which led Bowerman to search for one to join. In their eyes, North Bay co-op is top of the line and certainly aligned with their high-quality expectations.
Advancements over the years at Bowerman have reached the point that they provide 13 varieties of blueberries, all with different harvest windows. This, and thanks to the North Bay partnership, allows them to pick earlier and provide longer throughout the year.
Even though Bowerman provides blueberries year-round there is still an off-season where they continue to focus on quality assurance, and replacing varieties they grow and make available. Anything to make their jobs easier come summertime.
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