Farmers Shelly and Dennis Hartmann, who own the blueberry operation True Blue Farms, say sticking to conservation values has been vital to reaping the fruits of success.
Producing a variety of blueberries in Grand Junction, the Hartmann family first began cultivating the fruit on just 25 acres in 1993. Today, True Blue is one of the largest blueberry growers in North America.
The Hartmanns, along with their daughter, Kara, credit much of the farm’s success to sound growing methods – engaging in integrated pest management and good agricultural practices, promoting beneficial insects on the farmland, and encouraging healthy, clean, cultivated fields. Plus, they work hard to reduce the amount of chemicals they use.
With these techniques and values in mind, the Hartmanns chose to become verified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) about a decade ago. MAEAP is offered through the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) in partnership with local county conservation districts.
“We started looking at what’s available that shows we can produce a product that is environmentally friendly,” Shelly Hartmann says, “and what would provide assurance to our customers and consumers that we’re doing everything we can.”
MAEAP, a voluntary program helping farms prevent or minimize ag-related pollution risks, is one of the most proactive ways that Michigan’s farmers can help protect and conserve water and soil. Farmers get an added benefit: MAEAP signs for display, boldly stating their farm is environmentally verified.
“Our customers really like that we care about the environment,” Shelly says.
The program has four verification systems: farmstead, cropping, livestock, and also forest, wetlands and habitats. With the help of MAEAP technicians, farmers can choose what conservation methods work best for them.
To Conserve and Protect
Ronald Bates co-chairs the Advisory Council for MAEAP, which advises the MDARD director regarding updates and revisions to MAEAP standards. He says that 3,687 farms in the state were MAEAP-verified as of December 2016.
From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 that year, 637 farms completed MAEAP verification. Compare that to 338 farms verified for all of 2012, Bates says – not including farms that were in the verification process. That is an 89 percent increase in farms verified.
“The program has gained tremendous momentum since it was fully recognized by state statute in 2011,” Bates adds.
He says farmers are getting involved to “do the right thing” for the environment so that they can maintain their farms through their lifetime and pass them on to future generations.
“MAEAP provides a straightforward process to help farmers understand best management practices and how they can be practically implemented within their farming system,” he says.
That includes protecting lakes and waterways like the Great Lakes. However, MAEAP began long before concerns of algal blooms in Lake Erie emerged.
“Farmers have a long legacy of improving farming practices to benefit the soil and water they depend on,” Bates says. “Concerns regarding water quality in streams and lakes make the issue more pronounced and have a role in the interest of farmers to participate.”
To help them, MDARD gives farmers many tools through MAEAP by employing local technicians who farmers can call on to review their present methods.
“MAEAP technicians review farming practices with farmers, pointing out what they are doing well and where they can improve to meet MAEAP standards,” Bates says.
Farmers work with these technicians and multiple agencies, such as their local conservation district, as well as their Natural Resource Conservation Service office and Michigan State University Extension educators, to find appropriate ways to make improvements and meet standards.
Kyle Mead, MAEAP technician at the Van Buren Conservation District (VBCD), says he has verified 65 individual farms for 117 verifications in his district alone, including True Blue Farms. VBCD had a Groundwater Stewardship Program, which morphed into the MAEAP program, Mead says.
“MAEAP is a broad overlook of all of those practices and more, so the VBCD is set up very well to assist producers in whatever aspect of the farm they are interested in improving,” he adds. “Both programs were based on helping ag producers become educated on conservation practices and state regulations.”
VBCD has several technicians who help growers with cover crops and management, and soil health improvement. They work to get rid of invasive species, and use water quality management practices incorporating cover crops and no-till practices, as well as controlled drainage systems for tiled fields.
“I also do a walk-through of the farm with the producer, offering an extra set of trained eyes that can see where an issue is present and where one isn’t,” Mead says about his role. “MAEAP techs can easily identify the real issues, and this often puts the farmer’s mind at ease about an issue that was non-existent.”
A True Blue Effort
True Blue is verified under the cropping and farmstead systems, which offer farmers help with identifying soil erosion, creating sensitive area maps and using tools to reduce runoff. One area of focus at True Blue is the best practice of spray applications on cropping.
“For example, with a fertilizer, you calibrate the rate based on the soil recommendations for that ground type and area,” says Kara, who heads the farm’s MAEAP verification efforts.
Mead says the Hartmanns are MAEAP “all stars.” “It makes my job very easy when the farmer wants nothing more than to be a good steward of the land,” he says.