“Education gives you the opportunity to do something nobody else can do.”
This advice handed down to Kenneth Der has shaped how he lives his life and how he motivates others. ‘Just-call-me-Ken’ is an honest farmer full of wisdom and wanting to share that knowledge at Big Bear Farms, his certified-organic blueberry farm, and beyond. Ken takes time to help train food safety inspectors by serving as a field site for the final inspector training through the International Organics Inspectors Association. His wife, Judy, is a school teacher at a local elementary school and was critical in installing two greenhouses at the school. Their powers in teaching and agriculture combine through an Agriculture in the Classroom Program, aiding Judy Der to become Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award winner for the State of Florida in 2004.
“I was making money for everyone else, I decided to make money for myself.”
After years working for a big research and development firm, solving problems and providing cost-cutting solutions for a multi-billion dollar company, Ken volunteered to be laid-off when big cuts were made. He started his own farming business, despite being warned not to by his father, a cattle rancher. “I was told to get a good education,” Ken remembers, but after getting that education and working 25 years for a company, Ken wanted to go back into the family business of agriculture. The education is still been instrumental, helping him maintain success despite setbacks in the economy and in the blueberry business. Farming is hard, Ken tells me, but running a business is harder. “If you don’t have a head for numbers and an eye for finances, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You need to know how to do your own taxes, payroll, and to really crunch the numbers.” He then goes into a swirl of input and outputs that make my head spin.
“My life has always been about solving problems.”
From helping his daughter find an apartment in one day after getting a job in Key West, to calling the IRS directly to address a problem on their website, Ken is always a problem-solver. This has helped immensely in the blueberry business. Ken first researched blueberries when he worked for the large research and development firm. He was asked to research the feasibility of blueberry growing and shipping for a trucking company. After years of research, he delivered a binder full of 100 reasons not to grow blueberries in Central Florida. This was enough to deter the company to not go into the business. For Ken, however, it became a thorn in his side, a problem to solve. “I passed by that binder so many times until finally one day I sat down and started solving the problems one by one. You see, when you have a big problem, in farming or in life, you can only solve it by breaking it into bits and pieces and then in the blink of an eye, the big problem is solved.” Soon after leaving the firm, he had solved enough of the problems to go into the blueberry business himself, though “farming is always series of problems to solve.”
“Devote your path to something you enjoy. Do the best you can do, fill a niche, but don’t cut corners.”
Organics may be a niche market, with only 4% of overall sales in the US. However, Ken still tries to excel as much as he can in this small industry. “Every year I sell out. There is never a single berry left on those bushes.” He is adamant about not cutting corners, advocating for organic certification to prove the meeting of rigorous standards. He knows organics are not the answer to everything, however, “I’m not saying eat only organic. I’m not trying to use scare tactics. But for things like berries, it matters.” He is a spokesperson for food safety, creating a mega food safety protocol, combining requirements from four separate food safety regulation guides, by which he runs his farm. He even offered me a copy, showing his transparency at work.
Ken’s final advice to consumers: “Do your homework.”
“What hurts people most is misinformation about organics and food safety,” Ken says, urging consumers to research and find as much information as possible about the food they eat. “People who eat organic are looking for quality food, cleanliness, and improved health for their family.” But it is important, Ken advises, to know what you are getting. The internet has helped give consumers to access to information. At Big Bear Farms, you can truly know your food by picking it fresh off the bush. Big Bear is mostly a you-pick farm, a trend that is growing in popularity in the berry and citrus region of Florida. This food sourcing method allows you to visit the farm, meet the farmer, and pick your produce. You can’t get more fresh or transparent than that.
Ken is there every weekend of the season to answer any and all questions of the community. He’ll even teach you a thing or two about business and food safety if you have the time and the ready and able mind.Think before you eat, Elizabeth Murray Winter 2012 Tampa Food Warrior