Berrien produces world’s largest fruit market

Published 10:45 pm Friday, March 3, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily News
DOWAGIAC - Many southwest Michigan residents take it for granted, but Michigan State University scientists who study this sort of thing consider this region one of the most productive fruit-growing climates.
Not in Michigan.
Not even in North America.
In the entire world.
That ideal climate in turn spawned the world's largest growers-to-sellers fruit market in Benton Harbor.
Yet there had been no slew of articles, books or documentaries that chronicle this legacy, even as it slips away.
What better time than this year's 100th anniversary of Blossomtime, the state's oldest and largest multi-community festival, to document “this remarkable story,” Kenneth Pott said Wednesday night at The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College's second spring lecture.
The series continues at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 5, with John Devendorf of Niles speaking on Midwest interurban lines.
Pott, executive director of the Fort Miami Heritage Society in St. Joseph, previously served as curator at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven for 17 years. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Western Michigan University.
The exhibit divides the subject into a series of themes - research, processing and shipping, growers, labor, allied industries and culture and commemoration,
Despite orchards and vineyards around Dowagiac, Pott considers the fruit belt primarily encompassing a tri-county area of Berrien, Van Buren and Allegan counties.
Just as it spills over into the lakes area of Cass County, it also extends north along the Lake Michigan shore “all the way, some might say, to Traverse City and the cherry industry.”
Pott said undertaking this project now proved “very timely.”
He said in the last five years alone, Michigan lost 360,929 acres of farmland - an average of eight acres every hour.
The Benton Harbor fruit market was formally established in 1931. At that time it represented one of four public-owned wholesale markets in Michigan. “By bypassing the middleman, Benton Harbor growers received the highest possible payments for their crops.”
It actually originated downtown in the 1850s and moved several times. According to a 1939 report, growers began to shift their marketing activities around 1900 from the wharves. The center of marketing would shift again. By the 1920s, it became apparent that “motor trucks” would be the dominant transportation mode for marketing Michigan fruits and vegetables.
The market's “golden era” extended from the 1930s into the '50s, Pott related.
Cherries, plums, pears were sold, plus up to 3.5 million packs of grapes.
A whopping 76 agricultural products in all.
Quoting from a 1960 report, Pott said 200 to 400 trucks would wait in line for the market to open. The turnaround time was so intense that customers in Chicago could buy produce picked less than 12 hours before.
Local government support and federal urban renewal funds in 1967 moved the market to its present location on Territorial Road.
More than 1,000 farming families still belong, dealing with 3,000 buyers each year.
California alone is responsible for more than 50 percent of U.S. agricultural production, with 10 to 15 “large conglomerates that control all the food marketing and distribution,” according to Pott. “They require large quantities of these kinds of products and the Benton Harbor fruit market is no longer capable of that kind of production.”
MSU established research stations to study this area as long ago as the 1850s. Farmers formed societies to share information and were extremely innovative, such as designing their own specialized equipment.
A photo showed growers picking cherries at night with a locally-developed harvester to show how to extend production hours.
Dwarf variety trees developed in this region became an international industry.
The region was geographically positioned for processing and shipping, with fruit buyers for large companies such as Smucker's or Gerber baby foods arranging rail, steam and truck shipments.
Pott traced the transition of growers. Some of the earliest fruit farms were established by immigrants from New York and New England. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, families of German, Polish and Italian descent settled here. A Jewish farmers association formed. They have been joined by African Americans and Hispanic migrant farm workers and allied industries, such as nursery stock, sale of farm implements, storage facilities and public you-pick operations.
Labor - pickers - “have played a vital role in the fruit industry for 150 years as orchards grew in size. There weren't enough people in this region to meet its needs. Workers in the 1920s, '30s and '40s migrated from Southern states. They were principally from Arkansas and Tennessee. The Work Progress Administration (WPA) brought in a photographer to document migrant labor in Berrien County. He produced well over 1,000 images of these early Southern whites who came into this region. They're right out of ‘The Grapes of Wrath' and you can look them up on the Web at the Library of Congress. In the middle to late 1950s and early '60s, Hispanics from Mexico and Texas arrived.”
Hundreds of German prisoners of war were also brought in for orchard work. The exhibit includes some of their “poignant” letters to farmers here after they returned home after World War II.
Pott said at one time Berrien County produced 95 percent of all fruit-picking baskets used in the United States. “And businesses like St. Joseph Iron Works were making 99 percent of the world's machinery engaged in making the baskets. There was also wine making, barrel making and cherry tree shakers.”
He displayed an early blossom float that was no more than a “horseless carriage” covered in flowers.
The blessing of the blossoms began in 1906. The Grand Floral Parade didn't evolve from that until the 1920s. The parade in the 1950s and '60s attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Pott said the exhibit has been designed for travel after it completes its two-year run next year.
It's complemented by a curriculum guide. “Preserve the Fruit Belt” is going to be sent next fall to hundreds of teachers “in the tri-county area and beyond,” he said. “It's an educational guide for instructors. It allows them to have students engage in historical research and documentation,” funded by two foundations.
The project is a collaboration between the Fort Miami Heritage Society and WMU's public history program, involving more than 100 students in producing materials.
Western's public radio station, WMUK, produced a half-hour broadcast, “The Fruitful Land,” by interviewing people engaged in the industry. “In the course of our research, we did some 50 oral history interviews with representatives of farming families and related industries. They have all been transcribed and they are available at our research library. We have also produced a Web site, We couldn't entirely do justice to such a rich and diverse subject in the exhibit.”
Michigan History magazine, the state publication, devotes its May/June issue to the fruit belt. “They're fascinated that this issue has never been addressed in any significant way before,” Pott said.