Henry DeBlouw is just 30 years old, and already he is the president of the company he grew up with.
But it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
Back in April 2012, Joe Pirrone sold his shares in Capac, Mich.-based Mike Pirrone Produce Inc., to DeBlouw and his father, longtime Pirrone co-owner Butch DeBlouw.
Butch DeBlouw had planned to serve as president, while his son would be the company’s secretary and treasurer. That arrangement ended after just six months when the elder DeBlouw died in an electrical accident at work.
“I used to get to focus on just customers,” Henry DeBlouw said.
“Now, I have a lot more responsibility. We have 1,300 acres in Michigan, so now I’m juggling customers, farms and growers. There are a lot of pieces to our puzzle. Keeping track of all of it is a challenge.”
DeBlouw said he has recruited some family members to help with the business, and he also hired sales veteran Tim Duncan of Boynton Beach, Fla.-based Whitworth Farms to help out during Michigan’s summer season.
DeBlouw also can turn to Joe Pirrone when he needs help. The industry veteran has stayed on as a salesman.
“Joe is still big part of the business,” DeBlouw said. “He’s here every morning, and that’s big. He was trying to retire or scale back. Joe and I have a good relationship. I’ve been working with him since I was 15. He’s going to look out for me.”
DeBlouw said his father always “made sure we had something coming out of the ground somewhere.” Now that responsibility falls to him.
He’s also adding new products to the company’s line. This year’s additions include miniature sweet peppers packed in 1- and 2-pound bags under the Mike Pirrone label, which features the shape of the state.
“It shouts local,” DeBlouw said. “People know it’s from Michigan.”
DeBlouw has added growers in Michigan and Indiana this year, hedging against bad weather risks and increasing volume of crops like squash and cucumbers.
Pirrone also is testing organic produce, including cucumbers, green beans, green peppers, squash and zucchini.
“Everyone is looking for organic and local programs,” DeBlouw said.
“That’s my big thing — to have more consistent supply of what people are looking for. Local and organic are both selling points. We’re excited to try some stuff different this year.”
Green onions are another new item for the company this year.
“People are getting out of it because it’s labor intensive,” DeBlouw said. “Anything that’s hard to do, people are getting out of it.”
And if other growers are getting out, DeBlouw wants in.
When seed company representatives told DeBlouw that some other growers had cut back on acreage of green peppers and sweet corn this spring in the wake of last year’s drought, DeBlouw increased his own acreage by 20% and 15%, respectively.
“That excites me,” he said. “Our window is so short. We see a situation where we can move our product very well.”
Another goal on DeBlouw’s to-do list is extending Pirrone’s season deep into the fall.
DeBlouw said the company expects to ship about 150 loads — up from 100 last year — of green, red and blue heirloom pumpkins. The company also offers miniature pumpkins and gourds. This year it added knucklehead pumpkins and lunch lady gourds to the mix.
“We keep finding more items people are excited about,” he said.
“It’s pretty cool stuff. We do an entire program. We do a lot of hard squash as well. It goes really well with pumpkins. Having more items makes it easier to get to market.”