Enterprise

Tunnels of Berries

Hunt's Hillside isn't the usual raspberry farm
Michael Hunt, inside one of his many raspberry tunnels.

Michael Hunt gained his first taste of entrepreneurship in high school, after purchasing a greenhouse that sold small spring annuals. He has since sold the venture, but the experience proved an excellent introduction to business ownership. It also drew out his interest in farming.

In 2009, two years after Hunt earned a degree in horticulture from Michigan State University, he and his uncle Jim Hunt started Hunt’s Hillside, a raspberry farm at 27867 66th Ave. in Lawton.

“I knew the raspberry farm wasn’t enough income by itself,” says Hunt, who also works as a production coordinator for Kalamazoo Flower Group, in Galesburg. “But it was the start of something.”

That “something” has blossomed into a promising enterprise. Besides selling raspberries at the farm’s location in Lawton, where customers can pick from July through October, Hunt’s Hillside distributes its product across the state to breweries and wineries as far north as Traverse City. Local clients include Bell’s Brewery, Paw Paw Brewing Co. and St. Julian Winery, which purchases Hunt’s raspberries for brandy and dessert wines, such as All That Razz. Schramm’s Meadery, in Ferndale, buys Hunt’s product to make mead, a medieval-style alcoholic drink made from fermented honey and other ingredients.

Before beginning the raspberry farm, the Hunts did their homework. They researched raspberry growing, attended fruit and vegetable expos and spoke to experienced raspberry growers — even making a visit to Driscoll’s, one of the largest berry growers in the nation, with headquarters in California. But Hunt says that the learning curve never ends.

“The industry is continuously changing so I have to keep educating myself as much as possible in all aspects in agriculture,” he says. “The prior knowledge was only the beginning of building a successful business. It’s been very important for me to build a strong relationship with other businesses in the agriculture community. The most important thing is not only keeping customers happy, but having a superior product to have them keep coming back to purchase more raspberries.”

To deliver high-caliber raspberries, Hunt’s Hillside diverges from most raspberry producers’ methods by growing its berries within high tunnels with dimensions of 24 feet wide by 600 feet long and tall enough to walk in. The structures can’t handle snow, so the laborious tasks of erecting and dismantling the tunnels occur each year. Working from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., six people raise the eight tunnels in two nights. They work at night because of decreased wind levels. Hunt considers the effort worth it since the tunnels generate healthier fruit. Driscoll’s also utilizes high tunnels.

“We can kind of control the weather a little more,” he says of the tunnels. “Moisture is the biggest threat to raspberries, and we can eliminate moisture on the crop.” The tunnels produce a nice size and uniformity to the berries, Hunt says. “We can yield more pounds of berries, and the plant doesn’t have to fight fungus and disease.”

Drip irrigation also prevents moisture from getting on the plants when watered. Ron Goldy, with the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University, visits every week to check a water-measuring device mounted in the ground.

The raspberry plants take up 2.5 acres and produce 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of raspberries each season. Hunt’s offers two types of berries — summer and fall, the latter also called ever-bearing. Pruning is a big maintenance effort, since every year the fall berries must be trimmed to the ground and the old canes raked out of the aisles. The summer fruit requires a different method of cutting.

“Last year’s new growth is this year’s fruiting cane,” Hunt says. “In the spring you cut out last year’s canes that had fruit on them.”

In addition to the tunnels, berry pickers might notice another interesting element at Hunt’s Hillside — bee boxes throughout the rows. Not to worry, though, the bees mind their own business while searching the vines for the colorful fruit.

“Raspberries are pollinated 100 percent by bees,” Hunt says. “We use bumblebees early in the season from a local farmer.” The six to eight bumblebee hives arrive near the end of May. In the summer, Hunt’s uses 10 to 13 hives of honeybees and attracts native bees with a perimeter of wildflowers.

The farm has space for more berries, and in the future Hunt hopes to expand its retail business and sales to grocery chains. He also wants to expand the number of brewers that purchase raspberries and to increase the yield of berries sold to current brewery customers.

Hunt sees a good outlook for small, local farms. “Anything local is on the rise,” he says. “We’re seeing people who want to know where their food is coming from.”

So far, Hunt’s Hillside has drawn a steady stream of visitors grabbing a bucket and heading into the tunnels during the summer, including visitors from Chicago, Indiana and Ohio. But berry pickers should take note: Don’t write off a trip into the high tunnels simply because of fall’s chilly approach.

“Retail dies off in the fall because people don’t know (about late-season berries),” Hunt says. “It’s an item that goes along with apples and stuff to do in the fall.”

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Superior raspberries

The most important thing is not only keeping customers happy, but having a superior product to have them keep coming back to purchase more raspberries.
-- Michael Hunt