By Rachel Zegerius
This past Memorial Day marked the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riots. Generally known as the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, the massacre decimated the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma — once the wealthiest Black community in the United States, referred to as “Black Wall Street.”
The father of Philemon Mitchell was shot and left for dead, his lucrative trucking company completely destroyed.
In search of safety and an opportunity to rebuild, young Philemon Mitchell moved from Tulsa to Chicago during the Great Migration along with more than six million African Americans fleeing the rural South for the urban North between 1916 and 1970. In Chicago, he met his wife Jeanne and they began their family, starting with three daughters.
Jim Crow Chicago came with a different kind of racism, and the Mitchells eventually settled in southwest Michigan where, after working at an aluminum factory and planning for 18 years, Philemon realized that the sandy, acidic soils in the region were well-suited for blueberries. And so began Mitchell’s Blueberry Farm, with the first planting of bushes in 1968.
Fifty-two growing seasons later, the Mitchell family is still at it, on the same five acres of the same soil, producing 10,000-12,000 pounds of certified organic blueberries each year. As management of the farm transitions to the third generation, Philemon and Jeanne’s eldest granddaughter (of 38 grandchildren!), Kourtney Ketterhagen, is the matriarch in training. “To be able to farm is an honor and a privilege,” she explains. “It is about the legacy and the connection with nature that we feel is critical to our human experience.”
The Mitchell brand is synonymous with flavor and quality. Each Mitchell organic blueberry is touched five times before it makes it to your cereal bowl. After being picked, berries are placed into a bucket, then into a lug, then taken to a belt for sorting into retail containers while workers meticulously set aside lower quality berries for juice or freezing. It’s a lot of handling for a delicate fruit. And Ketterhagen has her eye on nearly every berry that crosses the belt.
With a background in yoga philosophy, she sees farming as a balance of capitalism and spirituality — honoring people and plants, while still building a successful business. “The entire system challenge is to pay farm workers fair wages, invest in infrastructure, and charge a price that customers can afford, all while keeping true to our ethical farming practices,” she says.
These values take center stage as the Mitchell family continues to strategically build the business. Expansion will consist of the standard infrastructure improvements, but may also include partnerships with other organic farmers growing under the Mitchell brand, as well as the creation of top-quality, value-added products, like cousin James’ newly launched blueberry leaf tea and blueberry pie.
The Mitchell’s organic certification adds value to this system, affording their small farm a competitive edge over the larger conventional farms nearby. Ten years ago, the three-year transition to organic was a struggle— learning to grow in a different way, coupled with the added expenses of growing organically. But the family persisted with the spirit of resilience in their DNA. Ketterhagen explains, “There is a whole energy that comes from doing things well. You don’t even think about what can’t be done because whatever it is, must be done — in a timely manner, with precision and pride.”