Retired Soldiers Take on a Blueberry Farm

Kelsea Forward

Communications Assistant

photo credit: AFBF photo, Mike Tomko

By: Kelsea Forward

In 1988, Carl and Emily Russell started a U-pick blueberry farm in Freeland, Michigan. Thirty years later, their daughter, Laura, and her husband, Chris Varhola, took over the family farm after retiring from their careers in the Army. The Varholas recently sat down with American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall to share about their experience in the military and transition to agriculture.

Laura and Chris each served over 30 years and have five combat tours combined. Laura explained that living overseas showed her and her husband how important agriculture is to the livelihood and sustainability of a community. When they were faced with the decision of what to do after retirement, they saw an opportunity to take over the family farm and be part of a community they had been missing.

“We wanted to come back and grow some roots both figuratively and literally because we had been moving around every two to three years for 30 years,” Laura said.

The Varholas have now lived in Michigan longer than anywhere else, and they are happy about their choice. Going from combat to a blueberry farm may seem like big transition, but Chris explained that the Army prepared him well for life on the farm.

“The transition from the Army to a farm sounds radical, but in the Army, we have always glamorized going back to the land … to me there’s always been a natural transition between being a soldier and being a farmer. It’s the hard work, the outdoor lifestyle and the self-reliance,” Chris said, noting historical figures like George Washington who famously returned to the farm after military service.

The Varholas told President Duvall about blueberry farming and some of the challenges that come with it, including other countries “dumping” their blueberries into the U.S. market.

President Duvall sympathized, saying, “They grow crops in conditions different than ours with less regulation, cheap labor and then we have to compete with them, and it makes it very difficult.” Duvall went on to explain how AFBF is working to find a solution.

Russell’s Blueberry Farm grows 11 different varieties of blueberries on 80 acres. They sell blueberries by the pound as well as a variety of blueberry products like honey, jam and ice cream. They offer U-pick during harvest and welcome school field trips and visits from other groups during which they share how blueberries grow. Laura explained that connecting with the public is one of the most rewarding parts of the job.

“We have people come to the farm who didn’t know blueberries come from bushes; they had no idea where blueberries come from,” she said.

Chris and Laura are proud to provide a hands-on experience for their community.

Learn more about Russell’s Blueberry Farm.

Kelsea Forward is the Communications assistant at AFBF.