JoAnn and Harold Thome: Apple Grower of the Year



Sitting with JoAnn and Harold Thome at their dining room table on a cold February morning, it was evident that they were a little reluctant to “toot their own horn,” and maybe even just a bit nonplussed at being selected as American and Western Fruit Grower’s Apple Grower of the Year. Having a magazine editor scribbling down their words was also probably a little unnerving.

Still, as we talked over a cup of coffee, it was clear that their numerous activities and dedicated work on behalf of agriculture and the apple industry more than qualified them for this award.

Now in its fourth year, the Apple Grower of the Year award recognizes a special recipient who has taken a position of leadership and worked on behalf of other growers. It indicates a high level of achievement and sound management, both on and off the farm.

Active in Many Groups
JoAnn and Harold Thome are abundantly qualified on all counts. Their selection as a team is appropriate, as their strengths are complementary.

Harold is a skilled orchardist who also is involved in horticulturally oriented organizations such as the Michigan State Horticultural Society and the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association (IDFTA). JoAnn has worked extremely hard on farm issues and on apple marketing through the Michigan Apple Committee, International Apple Institute (IAI), and a host of other groups.

Located in Alpine Township, just a few miles North of Grand Rapids, MI, the Thome operation covers about 400 acres, half of which is in fruit. It is a partnership that includes their son Steve and two nephews: Bernard and Charles, the sons of Harold’s brother Mark.

Any success the operation enjoys should not just be credited to themselves, say JoAnn and Harold, but also to these close partners. For over 100 years, the farm has been a family operation, and that tradition is continuing. A week before meeting with the Thomes, a phone call to their operation brought a predictable result — getting the answering machine.

JoAnn, it turned out, was participating in a Farm Women’s Symposium. Harold was in the orchard pruning, but was heading out the next day to join his wife. After the symposium, they would both be able to spend some time at the farm — Harold handling orchard chores, and JoAnn taking care of the office — before heading out for the IDFTA meeting in New York, followed a couple of weeks later by the IAI convention in California.

While that particular stretch of time may have had more major events than normal, it is indicative of the Thomes’ high level of involvement. They aren’t compulsive joiners, but they are willing
to step forward and work in organizations in order to accomplish something worthwhile.

Working to Preserve Farmland
JoAnn’s involvement in her township planning commission is a good example. With downtown Grand Rapids only 10 miles from their farm, urban encroachment is a threat to the prime fruit-growing ridge that includes their farm and dozens of others.

To preserve farmland, the township has developed a unique land-use plan that is being copied by other areas. Basically, the plan divides the township into two halves. In one half, further development can continue as normal. But in the other half, there is a strict limit on the number of “splits” that can be made in a piece of agricultural land.

For instance, as of the date the plan was adopted, an 80-acre farm might be limited to only four splits from that time on, regardless of who owns it. If the current owner were to sell a field to a neighbor and then sell off two small lots for houses, no further development could take place because all the allowed splits would have been made.

Like any land-use plan, JoAnn acknowledges that it is not perfect, but she fought for it as a good way to preserve agriculture in the area. Her involvement in the township planning commission has recently led to her appointment to the Metro Planning Council, a group including high-level officials from Grand Rapids and other communities.

“In a way, I was a little nervous about working with some of these people who always appear on the evening newscast,” she says.

But she is resolved to be a spokesperson for farmers and work on their behalf.

“My mission,” she says, “is to work for the preservation of agriculture.”

While preserving farms is one of JoAnn’s goals, she has two other major objectives that relate specifically to apples: market expansion and educating consumers about what it takes to grow apples and get them to the market in good condition. She has pursued these objectives while serving on the Michigan Apple Committee for six years and as a current member of IAI’s Executive Committee.

Export Expansion Important
She says export expansion is an area the apple industry must pursue. She acknowledges Washington state’s leadership in this area, and is pleased that the Michigan Apple Committee recently obtained over $200,000 from a government program to promote exports of the Empire variety. But she feels more can be done.

For instance, she thinks cooperative efforts, particularly between Eastern and Great Lakes states, could greatly enhance the chances of cracking foreign markets. Such cooperation might make it easier to tap government export promotion funds. Also, coordinating shipments from different areas would provide the volume and consistent supply necessary to meet demands of foreign buyers.

Harold and JoAnn concur that apple growers need to take a greater interest in marketing.

“Why grow the darn things if you don’t know how to sell them?” She laughs when she says it, but her point is made.

Look at Local Markets
Exporting is not the only avenue to expanding the apple market, however. Through a group called the Michigan Apple Promoters, JoAnn and Harold worked together in a large Detroit-area supermarket for a day, handing out samples of Empire apples. The response was tremendous. Consumers enjoyed the chance to sample and learn about a variety that was new to
them, and lots of Empires were purchased. Other farm wives or couples did the same thing and reported similar results.

If this approach could be repeated occasionally and expanded over the whole country, the impact on apple sales, particularly for varieties that aren’t well known, could be considerable. A side benefit to handing out apple samples in supermarkets was the chance to respond to questions about apples and tell the shoppers a little bit about apple growing.

Harold and JoAnn aren’t the only apple ambassadors in the Thome family. Their son, Steve, is a partner and actively participates in running the farm. Daughter Geanne was the Michigan Apple Queen two years ago, an honor which led to lots of travel and appearances, accompanied by her proud parents. Son Dennis and daughter Patty aren’t directly involved in the farm, but maintain some ties with agriculture.

Many Washington growers remember Patty, as she worked with Washington’s fruit maturity program for a year.

Women Play Big Role In Agriculture
JoAnn is involved in many farm women’s groups, and is convinced that farm wives playa key role in agriculture.

“A rural sociologist recently referred to farm wives as ‘the invisible farmers,’” she says. “The wife is often the one who sits back and really analyses the operation, especially its finances.”

In JoAnn’s case, she went back to college part-time in order to get a degree in business administration about seven years ago. She makes good use of it in keeping up with the administrative end of the farm, which includes computer applications.

Farm wives can also be very effective working on key issues. JoAnn has been involved with Women for Survival of Agriculture in Michigan for many years, and is a past president of the organization. She recalls working for the passage of Michigan farmland preservation legislation, which at one point pitted her and other farm women against a professional lobbyist at a hearing.

“We weren’t experienced, but we were prepared and determined to do the best we could,” she recalls. “After the hearing, the lobbyist came up to me and said ‘You girls did a good job.’ We felt for him to admit that, we must have done pretty well.”

The legislation they pushed for was adopted.

IDFTA Important
While Harold is less involved in organizations than JoAnn, he also firmly believes that growers have to keep up with changes and be active in their industry. The IDFTA has been an important organization for him. He was a longtime member of the Rootstock Research Committee, which collects and then allocates funds for many research projects pertaining to growing fruit on dwarf trees. He is currently on the IDFTA Board of Directors. The IDFTA has also helped him update.

“I used to say we’d never get into high density because our land prices weren’t high,” he says.

Then he grins as he looks out over his orchards that are almost all dwarf or semi-dwarf trees and says, “Now look.”

It wasn’t land prices that caused him to go to higher density, but all the other advantages that could be obtained with smaller trees, such as better fruit quality. Tours in other areas, some with IDFTA, also convinced him that moving to dwarf trees was essential.

“If you are going to remain competitive in the fruit industry,” Harold says, “you have to know what’s going on elsewhere in the world.”

Harold, who is currently vice-president of the Micigan State Horticultural Society, feels that agriculture needs more unity.

“All commodity groups in agriculture are going to be compelled to work closer together,” he says. “We’re all trying to say pretty much the same thing, but we’re saying it differently.”

In light of all the challenges ahead for agriculture, he feels it will be vital for agricultural groups to cooperate and speak with one voice.

Growers Must Respond to Issues
Individual growers also have to respond to key issues, such as groundwater pollution and pesticide use, with actions.

“We all need to be more aware and more cautious in chemical use,” he says.

Despite their long list of activities and achievements, the Thomes don’t claim to be, in JoAnn’s words, “anything special.” They also are humble about being named Apple Grower of the Year. But, they say, maybe this can be used to carry a message.

“We haven’t done anything other growers couldn’t do,” says JoAnn. “Maybe the fact that we’ve received this award will encourage others to get more involved so we’ll all be better off.”

Award Is Deserved
Not “anything special?” We disagree. Their teamwork, leadership, and service to fellow growers and to the apple industry are special, and definitely show that JoAnn and Harold
Thome deserve the Apple Grower of the Year award.

Fruit Farm Profile
Of the 200 acres of fruit trees on the Thome farm, almost all are apples — and the majority of those are young trees.

“Sixty percent of our orchards are under 10 years old,” says Harold Thome.

Most of these are dwarf or semidwarf trees, with only 15 acres of standard size trees left on the farm.

Back when his father and grandfather ran the farm, a considerable quantity of peaches were grown. But the heavy clay soils and losses due to winter freezes and spring frosts convinced Harold that apples were a better choice.

The most recent plantings are at densities of up to 350 trees per acres, using M.26 rootstock.

He is not jumping on the bandwagon and planting lots of Fujis and Galas like some other growers. One reason is that the farm’s clay soils tend to delay fruit maturity, which could lead to late fall freeze damage on long-season apples like Fujis. He thinks Gala is a good apple, but it is prone to produce very small fruit.

Recent plantings include improved strains of what he calls “traditional” fresh and dual purpose varieties, such as Early Spur Rome, Golden Supreme (Golden Delicious), and two better-coloring strains discovered right on the farm — Thome Empire and Thome Jonathan.

The object with these variety selections is to produce better quality fruit, and also begin picking earlier to even out the harvest season. This gives better use of labor, allows more fruit to be sold quickly into a (hopefully) profitable early market, reduces storage costs, and provides quick turnaround on bins so they can be used again later in the season.

Changing varieties and updating orchards more frequently is necessary these days, says Harold. He remembers when you could farm 50-year-old trees, but you can’t do that today and be competitive.

Dwarf orchards are essential to get into production quickly. And when you go to pull out a block, Harold points out that smaller trees are much easier to remove.

The farm has storage facilities for 10,000 bushels of fruit. The Thomes are stockholders in Jack Brown Produce and West Central Produce, which handle packing and selling their fruit.