A delicious sea of blue

Dennis and Shelly Hartmann, right, are shown with daughter Kara, left, and her husband, Jamie, who now are part of True Blue Farms’ operations. Kara is in charge of overseeing food safety, while Jamie leads the hand-harvesting crews in Grand Junction.

GRAND JUNCTION — When entering True Blue Farms’ main office, visitors can’t help but notice a framed black and white photograph hanging on a wall.

The framed photo shows a large, muscled horse, stretching with all of its might to pull a carload full of coal in an underground mine shaft in 1917. Underneath the striking image are the words, “Pull It One More Mile.”

It’s a phrase that strikes a chord with Shelly Hartmann, who owns True Blue Farms, along with her husband, Dennis.

“Farming is a struggle,” she said. “It’s very emotional, hard work. What makes it emotional is everything is out of your control ... like the weather.”

The Hartmann family, though, has managed over the past 26 years to harness some of those uncontrollable circumstances to create one of the largest blueberry farming operations in Michigan.

True Blue Farms not only grows and harvests the blue fruit, its workers also process, package and ship fresh-pack and frozen berries throughout the United States.

The company deals with approximately 50 local growers, and during peak production employs about 850 people.

“We represent approximately 1,800 acres,” Hartmann said. The acreage is not only on farms that surround the company’s main operations at 09548 County Road 215, but a second True Blue fresh-pack operation in West Olive, as well. If that weren’t enough to keep the Hartmanns and their employees busy, the company also sells blueberry-related products at its retail shop, The Blueberry Store, in South Haven. It also sells products at a second retail shop at County Road 388 and 64th Street in Geneva Township, as well as online.

True Blue, however, wasn’t always such a big operation.

Dennis and Shelly started growing blueberries part-time in 1993 on 10 acres of land in Grand Junction.

“He worked for (the former) BEI International. Then Hilltop (Nurseries), and I had two beauty shops in South Haven,” Hartmann said.

Dennis Hartmann comes from a long line of agriculturists.

“Dennis is a fourth-generation farmer,” Shelly Hartmann said. “His family is originally from Chicago, where they ran a produce business. During the Depression, (Dennis’) grandfather moved the family to Michigan. All of them had their own farming operation.”

Shelly was also familiar with blueberries, but not so much as her husband.

Like many youngsters who grew up in rural South Haven, Shelly Hartmann worked a summer on a blueberry farm, picking berries. “We wanted school clothes. It was my first experience picking blueberries. I wasn’t very good at it,” she said, laughing. “I thought, ‘It was a good experience but I’ll never do it again.’”

When she married Dennis Hartmann, however, she found herself once again surrounded by a sea of blueberries each summer.

“We worked all week and had our children and tended to the blueberries,” Hartmann explained.

Dennis Hartmann’s farming background and Shelly Hartmann’s business acumen slowly led to the growth of their agricultural pursuits.

“Next door there was a very large U-pick operation, but its hours were limited,” Hartmann said. “We, and my three girls, saw an opportunity, so we started a U-pick.”

The U-pick operation proved popular, especially when a petting zoo was added. Then the Hartmanns started selling fresh-picked blueberries for people who didn’t want to take the time to pick their own fruit.

“Our production tripled,” Shelly Hartman said. At that point both Shelly and Dennis began pouring their efforts into the business full-time.

Pretty soon as they built up equity in their growing operation, the Hartmanns decided to develop a partnership with a neighboring farmer, Harold Wright, to start a packing facility.

When Wright retired, he sold his share of the processing plant and his blueberry farm to the Hartmanns, growing True Blue Farms to 160 acres.

The company had just finished building a large, fresh-pack processing and storage facility at its main farm in Grand Junction in 2016 when tragedy struck.

“I’ll never forget the date, Aug. 20, 2016,” Hartmann said.

On that day, a rare F-1 tornado touched down in Bangor and then traveled northeast to Grand Junction, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

True Blue took the biggest hit.

“Everything was going great until the tornado,” Hartmann said. The twister destroyed a portion of the new fresh-pack processing and storage facility. It also caused damage to other facilities and employee vehicles.

But as they did in the past, the Hartmanns refused to let Mother Nature sap their spirits.

“We were proactive, not reactive,” Hartmann said. “Twenty minutes after the tornado, we were still receiving and packing fruit. Dennis and I had much appreciation for our employees pitching in.”

Three years later the Hartmanns have been able to rebuild the buildings and equipment destroyed by the tornado and are looking forward to another harvest, and are keeping their fingers crossed that some of those blueberries will be going overseas.

In February, True Blue welcomed a Vietnam delegation to tour its facilities and discuss the possibility of establishing a market in Vietnam to import fresh blueberries. The tour was arranged by the Michigan Blueberry Commission.

“We’ve established a great relationship with Vietnam,” said Hartmann, who is vice president of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.

And so it goes at True Blue Farms, where hard work and vision continue to open the door to new horizons.