Young Grower, Packer Running At Full Speed

On a hot day in late July, Jason Kuehnle, a young, aggressive vegetable grower and packer was busy hustling. He was in the midst of supervising and working alongside packing employees who were boxing bell peppers for shipments all over the Midwest and beyond.

Kuehnle, 28, learned early and fast that aligning yourself with the right people is the key to success. He graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in horticulture in 1994. Now out of college and moving full speed ahead, he’s in his fourth season of operating Lake Michigan Produce LLC, a vegetable packing line, and growing squash and peppers on 160 acres in and around Hartford in southwest Michigan.

“A big part of my success are the key people that do a good job for me,” Kuehnle said. These key people include one person in charge of irrigation and spraying, two people in charge of harvest and one person overseeing the packing line, a new addition this year.

Jason Kuehnle (left), vegetable grower and packer in
Hartford, Mich., hired Gasper Soria (middle) to coordinate the harvest and Ron McKinven to supervise packaging.

Kuehnle started working on his father Robert’s farm in Hartford. His father has grown vegetables, apples, peaches, plums, grain and also raised livestock. Kuehnle’s father started farming with grandfather, Rod and his brother Kurt currently still farms with his father.

He knew the only thing he didn’t want to be was a farmer in his first year of college. That changed when his father gave him more responsibility and let him make more decisions.

“As I got more responsibility it made it more interesting, more exciting,” said Kuehnle. He took what he learned from MSU, especially the business classes, and his first year out of college branched out on his own.

“I was a little more aggressive than he was at that point. I wanted to grow at a rate faster than my father,” said Kuehnle, adding that he and his father still help each other out. He said he especially appreciated the tremendous help of his father on the packing line this spring.

Early on Kuehnle spotted a vacant piece of land and made a cold call to Hilltop Nurseries in Hartford. He currently rents acreage owned by Hilltop in Hartford, Decatur and Watervliet and he leases space in a Hilltop Nursery building for his packing line and produce warehouse. He operates the produce warehouse with his partner, Wayne Bradford.

“Hilltop’s been real fair with me. They’ve been very helpful owners,” said Kuehnle, about Ken Swank and Jim Hartman, owners of Hilltop. He does plan to buy his own land in the future for firmer control of his ventures. He said he plans on doubling the size of his current operation. When he does manage this, getting the correct equipment for safe practice will be crucial – certainly he’ll need something similar to to make sure heavy produce is loaded safely.

The best part about having trusted employees in key positions is a little less hustling from the vegetable fields in different locations and back to the packing line. “It’s the challenge of being in five places at one time,” said Kuehnle, who relies on a cell phone to communicate with his 60 workers and drivers.

Kuehnle said the hardest part of managing employees is the language barrier. “As long as you treat them well and show them they can work hard and make money, they want to work and it goes a lot better,” he said, about supervising workers.

“Stay positive” would be Kuehnle’s advice to other young entrepreneurs. “You have to have a positive attitude to overcome difficulties. Surround yourself with good people. With farming so much is out of control,” he said.

On a typical summer day Kuehnle starts picking peppers at 8:30 a.m. after it warms up a bit. He stays out in the field until about 12:30 p.m. when it’s off to the packing line from 1-7 or 8 p.m. Then he’ll hang around and help in the shipping area until about 10 p.m. He says the support of his wife, Elizabeth is critical, especially in the hectic months from mid-April through October.

“I receive, cool and ship all my product, along with several other farmers,” said Kuehnle. He said he is happy with the work of Cal Ceel & Sons, based in Niles, Mich., who sell his product to chain stores in the Midwest, the south and Texas.

This year’s yield for squash was good but the market was low, according to Kuehnle. He said that yield and market for peppers looks good. Kuehnle said he’s also evaluating a couple of different crops for the future.

This was the first year his peppers went to a packing line, which helped create more consistent, high quality boxes of product, he said. This packing line also gave his company the capability of packing specialty boxes. With the help of external companies like Pro-Tect Plastics, who provide shrink wrap tape to attach materials together, his boxes of produce will be able to stay fresher for longer, increasing their demand.

Kuehnle’s employees were done packing his 30 acres of squash in late July and will pack up to 6,000 boxes of bell peppers a day in early August. Packing peppers from his 160 acres was just getting started, when workers packed 2,500 bushel and l/9th boxes per day. Kuehnle said he averages 180,000 boxes of vegetables per season.

Reprinted from The Vegetable Growers News – August 1999

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