Nothing gets lost in translation when Young Farmer Award winner speaks

Category: People

by Brian VanOchten

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Sparta apple grower Nick Schweitzer, honored as Young Farmer Agriculture Employee award winner, has degrees from Grand Valley State University in international business, economics and Spanish.

SPARTA – Upon graduating from Grand Valley State University with triplet undergraduate degrees in international business, economics and Spanish, Nick Schweitzer had to make a difficult choice—accept a job offer from the largest chocolate manufacturer in North America or return to the farm to start digging in the dirt.

Simple, huh?

It truly was for Schweitzer, 30, who, despite thinking he might be destined for a career in business, ended up deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps—since farm life had been permanently embedded into his DNA.

“I had an opportunity at Hershey’s in Pennsylvania in the international department right after I graduated. I wanted to go off and get a (non-farm) job for a few years, but the economy still wasn’t in the best shape,” Schweitzer recalled. “I thought about it and just decided I wanted to get into farming instead.

“Of course, that was in 2012, the same year we lost practically our entire apple crop (due to a hard freeze in late spring),” the fifth-generation farmer added with a slight shrug of his shoulders. “We harvested about 100 bins of apples that year. We would normally harvest anywhere from 4,000 to 5,500 bins. So, that was my welcome back to the farm.”

In the past five years, Schweitzer has readjusted to the farming life while putting all three college degrees to full use. He and his father, William, run a highly efficient 215-acre operation in the Fruit Ridge region, featuring 211 acres devoted to 18 varieties and 10 sub-strains of apples and four acres of pears, which are sold to a co-op.

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Nick Schweitzer, a fifth-generation farmer, is serving as vice president of Kent County Farm Bureau this year.  

It’s why Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) chose to honor him as its 2016 Young Farmer Agriculture Employee Award winner. He takes a lot of personal pride in nurturing relationships that extend beyond the farm and uses his bilingual communication skills to help make guest workers feel like part of his farm family. One of Nick’s greatest strengths is his unique ability to relate to the seasonal employees at Schweitzer Orchards.

“I think being able to speak Spanish with our workers helps,” Nick said. “It allows me to connect with some of our other employees because some of them can’t speak English fluently. We can communicate a lot better that way and have a better understanding about what’s going on and what everybody’s role is.”

It isn’t just lip service. He has an open dialogue with all of his employees.

Nick, vice president of Kent County Farm Bureau, also is a member of MFB’s State Policy Development and State Grant committees, as well as a graduate of the ProFILE leadership development program. He and his father have three full-time employees and 25-40 seasonal guest workers, including a 20-year-old college student Nick has helped mentor while the student pursues a business degree at Nick’s alma mater.

“He’s a nice guy,” said Jose Meza, who attended Grand Valley State during the first semester of the 2014 school year. “He cares a lot about how I’m doing in college. He even offered to order a couple of textbooks that I needed.”

Jose, who was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, came to the U.S. at age 5. He is currently attending Grand Rapids Community College and hopes to return to Grand Valley State to complete his business degree. He said he and Nick talk about college, and he considers Nick a trusted “friend” whom he seeks advice from.

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Jose Meza, left, works at Schweitzer Orchards while attending college and has been mentored by Nick Schweitzer.

Jose and his father, who doesn’t speak English, are seasonal employees at Schweitzer Orchards. It is Nick’s ability to speak fluent Spanish, Jose added, which helps foster a much friendlier atmosphere for everyone.

“It’s really important because my dad doesn’t speak any English,” Jose said. “(Nick) can communicate with all of the employees. It helps make everyone feel comfortable. He’s a friend and he treats everyone well.”

The mild-mannered Nick, who always seems to be smiling, takes a special interest in the welfare of his employees. He jokes around with them in Spanish to lighten the mood at times and expresses heartfelt concern for them when challenges arise. To him, it’s like planting apple trees in the spring—if properly nurtured, his seasonal guest workers will happily continue to be part of a fruitful harvest year after year.

“I’ve gotten to know them more on a personal level, being able to joke around with them and really have a different type of relationship,” Nick explained. “If you can’t speak the language, you can’t have that straightforward communication with them. You don’t really get to know them on that personal level. It’s just a lot of hand motions and hand signals, and figure it out that way (if not speaking the same language).

“You always find a new way to apply something you learned,” he added. “If you can talk to them and have an actual conversation, you get to grow those relationships. (It’s great) when you can joke around with them in Spanish, too.”

His interpersonal communication skills even helped Nick find his future bride.

He met Newaygo County Farm Bureau member Renee Wangler, who serves as the county communications chair and volunteer newsletter editor, while attending the 2013 MFB State Annual Meeting in Grand Rapids.

She also works as an agriscience educator at Newaygo County Career Tech Center and, after meeting Nick, accepted his offer to speak to the high school juniors and seniors in her program who manage a small orchard of approximately 50 trees.

“He is very good at connecting with people—young or old,” Renee said. “He had offered to come speak to my class, which was taking care of a small orchard at the Newaygo County Fairgrounds. He just talked to them about the apple industry and the different varieties, how to trim the trees and just general care.

“That’s how it all started.”

The couple has set a Dec. 9, 2017, wedding date—making sure to schedule it following the end of apple harvest.

Nick is proud to be an advocate for the Michigan agriculture industry.

He posts frequent pictures and messages to social media about Schweitzer Orchards and enjoys educating consumers about where their food comes from. He credits MFB’s Institute for Leadership Education, better known as ProFILE, for sharpening his skills when it comes to promoting the $101.4 billion food and farm sector in Michigan, which is second only to the auto industry in terms of statewide economic impact.

“It’s an excellent program, something I really enjoyed, getting to meet a lot of other young farmers from across the state and learning and growing with them throughout the 15-month program. It’s definitely a worthwhile program,” Nick said. “If you have the opportunity to apply and get accepted to the program, it’s worth every minute of it.”

Upon further reflection, Nick insists returning to the farming life has been better than a Hershey’s kiss.

“I enjoy it. I get to play with a bunch of farm equipment all day,” he said with a huge smile. “It’s a constant challenge. I basically do whatever is necessary—repair equipment, plant trees, pick apples, manage the harvest crews. Anything and everything. There’s really not anything I don’t know how to do on a farm.”