Sponsored By Wilbur Ellis Agribusiness

2020 Great Lakes EXPO Award Winners

Gene Kokx - Michigan Vegetable Council Master Farmer Awards.


Gene Kokx of Eugene Kokx and Sons Farms in Hart has been named recipient of the 2020 Master Farmer Award by the Michigan Vegetable Council. This award is presented annually to an individual or farm business actively engaged in vegetable production in Michigan. It recognizes well managed and innovative farming practices, as well as leadership roles in industry and community organizations and support of vegetable crop research.

Gene’s farm is fourth generation. Long ago the farm was dairy and potatoes but has been focused on processed asparagus and zucchini squash in recent years. Gene’s wife Theresa is part of the farm operation along with Gene’s father, Gene Sr.

Gene knows what it takes to be an innovative farmer. The farm practices minimum till as much as possible and includes lots of cover crops. Grain is often mixed in as a rotational crop to keep the fields healthy. Gene has been a leader in sharing his knowledge with others and often allows research to take place on his farm.

Gene has been involved in the asparagus industry his whole career. He has helped make the industry what it is today by serving 9 years on the Michigan Vegetable Council, 10 years on the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, and 25 years on the Michigan Agriculture Cooperative Marketing Association. The Michigan Vegetable Council hopes to find a candidate for our award every year that can be as qualified and dedicated as Gene Kokx.

Ron Goldy - Master Farmer Associate Award


Dr. Ron Goldy has been named recipient of the 2020 Master Farmer Associate Award by the Michigan Vegetable Council. This award is presented annually to an individual or business actively supporting the vegetable production industry in Michigan. It recognizes leadership roles in industry and community organizations and support of vegetable crop research.

Ron is a senior extension educator for Michigan State University Extension. Ron has a unique appointment as he serves 50% extension and 50% research at the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center. Ron had a wide range of agricultural experiences in his youth. This has led Ron to having a vast array while at MSU whether it be working with vegetable producers, fruit producers, or farm marketers.

Besides performing extension work on fresh market vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers, Ron performs research beneficial to these same growers. Ron has provided the industry with research on irrigation that has helped growers keep nutrients in the right place on the sandy southwest soil.

The Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market Expo would not be what it is today without Ron Goldy. Ron leads numerous education sessions on both vegetable and farm market topics. Ron has been a leader of the farm market section of the Expo. Each year Ron takes the farm market guests on a bus tour to numerous west Michigan farm markets. Ron makes sure to get to the places that have the latest innovations in agritourism. The Michigan Vegetable Council would not be the successful organization which it is today without the services of Ron Goldy.

Michigan State Horticultural Society Distinguished Service Award Winners


Paul Friday


Paul was raised on a fruit farm in Southwest Michigan growing cherries, apples, and peaches, but he preferred the peaches. He took that love of the fruit and turned it into a lifetime of records, awards, and contributions to the peach industry. When Paul started breeding peaches, Michigan grew two main varieties, Red Haven and Red Skin. He recognized that there was an opportunity to expand the industry, so he started breeding peaches.

Due to his breeding work, Paul now holds 34 patents and one Guinness Book of World Records entry for heaviest peach! One of his varieties tended toward large peaches and one day he noticed an exceptionally large one. He called Guinness and it turned out he had a record! In addition to good size, Paul’s Flamin’ Fury peaches are known for their color, firm sweet fruit, and high yields.

Paul has not kept his knowledge a secret, though. His is nationally known due to speaking around the country and service on local and national peach boards. He has served on the Michigan Peach Sponsors and the National Peach Council. The National Peach Council even awarded him their Distinguished Service Award in 2010. He has spoken to farm market audiences locally at the Great Lakes Expo, where he had a trade show booth for decades. He has also spoken nationally from Idaho and Colorado to Pennsylvania and Alabama. Remarkably, he has even spoken internationally in Canada and Mexico!

Paul’s sense of humor has served him well in marketing his peaches. He enjoys the attention that humor can bring and he takes the opportunity to talk about his peaches. He has dedicated his life to improving the Michigan peach industry and the peach industry will always bear Paul’s stamp.

The Michigan State Horticultural Society is pleased to present the 2020 Distinguished Service Award to Paul Friday.

Mike Wittenbach


Mike Wittenbach is owner and managing member of Wittenbach Orchards, LLC.

The foundation for Wittenbach Orchards was built when Mike’s great grandpa moved from Switzerland to Michigan, married, and purchased the original farmstead in 1899. Mike’s grandpa continued to milk cows and grow grain crops, but he also planted the first apple trees. In 1962, Mike’s dad, Ed, took over the farm management. With his wife, Linda, Ed sold the dairy herd, switched more acreage to row crops, and focused on expanding the orchard. As the fourth generation, Mike has continued the orchard expansion and advancement.

Mike spent two years away from the farm to earn a technological degree from Michigan State University and gain experience in Washington State working for the late Doyle Fleming.

He married his high school sweetheart, Marnie, in 1989, and they have three children. The oldest, Elizabeth, farms with her dad and grandpa. Son Tye is also embracing his agricultural roots as he finishes his Masters degree in Horticulture at Michigan State University. The youngest, Victoria, is studying special education a Grand Valley State University.

Mike has served as president of the Michigan State Horticulture Society and Michigan Pomesters and as chairman of the Michigan State Horticulture Trust Fund. Mike is a member of Belding Fruit Storage and Next Big Thing cooperatives and he serves on the board of directors for both organizations.

Mike enjoys traveling the world for horticulture related activities through the International Fruit Tree Association and beyond. For leisure, he and Marnie also enjoy traveling God’s creation, hiking and skiing from Africa to New Zeeland.

Scholarship Sponsors


  • Bernie Swindeman Memorial Scholarship Fund
  • Breckenridge Insurance Agency of Michigan
  • Gerber Products Company
  • Michigan Processing Apple Growers
  • Michigan State Horticultural Society
  • Michigan Vegetable Council
  • Nutrien Ag Solutions
  • Syngenta
  • Valent
  • Great American Media Services

Fruit Industry Scholarships


Daniel Dick

Michigan State University

Daniel is planning to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture in the spring of 2022. Since being in college, he has volunteered with the Student Horticulture Association, participating in plant giveaways, parades and plant sales. Recently, he has worked with Dr. Gregory Lang on his cherry research projects. Prior to that, Daniel had an internship in New Zealand working on a robotic apple harvester for three months. He hopes to continue his education, ultimately becoming an extension educator.

Philip Engelgau

Michigan State University

Phillip is scheduled to graduate with a PhD in Horticulture in the spring of 2021. He has volunteered his time in several horticultural organizations while on campus. He has worked in the Beaudry lab charting apple maturity as well as conducting controlled atmosphere experiments on apples. Phillip hopes to work as a professor studying the molecular basis for fruit characteristics such as color, taste and aroma.

Fletcher Robbins

Michigan State University

Fletcher is currently planning to graduate in the spring of 2022 with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and Plant Biology. He has worked with the Bug Club of MSU and helped during aquatic insect sampling days, which determines the water quality of streams. He has worked in the Isaacs lab on both blueberry and grape insect pests. Fletcher is focused on the needs of Michigan fruit growers as he looks to pursue a career after first furthering his education.

Ariana Hernandez

Michigan State University

Ariana is planning to graduate with a master’s degree in Entomology in the spring of 2021. She has loved her time in the Entomology Student Society over the last several years, interacting with growers while focusing on management of pests detrimental to agriculture. She has spent much time working on various fruit in the Tree Fruit Entomology lab and has focused on SWD, currently studying their overwintering habits. After graduation, Ariana hopes to work in Extension helping improve public education of agriculture.

Hannah Gaither

Michigan State University IAT and Northwestern Michigan College

Hannah is looking to graduate in the summer of 2022 with a Bachelor’s degree in Viticulture and Fruit Crop Management. She is currently working at a winery on Old Mission Peninsula and is enjoying putting what she’s learning in her courses to practice. Upon graduation, she plans to look for a viticulture industry job in northwest Michigan.

Tye Wittenbach

Michigan State University

Tye is very close to graduating with a Master’s degree in Horticulture, specializing in apple production. He has participated in several different campus organizations during his several years at MSU and spent most of his semesters on the Dean’s List. After completing his Master’s program, he hopes to find a job as a researcher in West Michigan specializing in fruit production. Eventually, Tye hopes to return to the family farm and also serve on the fruit boards that support the Michigan industry.

Jordan Tatter Scholarships

In December 2003, the Michigan State Horticultural Society and the Michigan Vegetable Council announced their intention to initiate a scholarship fund in Jordan Tatter’s memory.  Each organization committed $5,000 to start this fund.  This fund has the support of the Tatter family, as well as many of Michigan’s agricultural leaders.  This is endowed at Michigan State University.  The earnings are used to provide scholarships for deserving students pursuing careers in the Fruit & Vegetable Industry.  Including this year, a total of $63,000 in scholarships has been awarded.


John Gove


John Gove grew up on his family’s fruit, flower and vegetable farm in Massachusetts. Starting in fourth grade, he ran his own part of the farm, specializing in cherry tomatoes and popcorn. He paid for the inputs and saved the profits for college and a car. His work on the farm led him to a Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture at Michigan State University, where he expects to graduate in the spring of 2021. While at MSU, he has worked in the plant physiology lab, working with Stevia and in the floriculture lab, working with succulents. Upon graduation, he hopes to work for a company for a few years where he will be able to make a difference in the world of agriculture. Eventually, he plans to make his way back to the family farm, becoming the 7th generation to run it.

Doug Higgins


Doug Higgins is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University. He has been working on developing hop downy mildew management strategies for Michigan as well as investigating a new disease of hop plants called halo blight. Doug’s thesis has generated Michigan’s first hop-specific fungicide efficacy results. These results were then published in the journal Plant Disease and were the subject of a number of extension articles and presentations. Upon completion of his PhD, Doug is planning a career as an Extension Specialist or Professor. He plans to apply what he’s learned through a methodical approach to research based in a full understanding of the cropping system, field observations and a strong relationship with growers wherever he ends up working.

Vegetable Industry Scholarships

Audrey Kruse

Purdue University

Audrey is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Plant Genetics, Breeding, and Biotechnology. Audrey’s area of interest is plant breeding in vegetable crops. Audrey’s campus advisor is Dr. Wiercioch. In the summer of 2018, Audrey was an intern at Mastronardi Produce in Coldwater. In the summer of 2019, Audrey was a Seed Production Intern for Syngenta. Audrey hopes to bring more vegetable breeding to the Midwest, to establish more “Midwest friendly” varieties.

Gayathri Guanthilaka

Michigan State University

Gayathri currently has a 4.0 while working on a doctoral degree in food science specializing in vegetable processing safety. Gayathri’s campus advisor is Dr. Ryser. Gayathri has already spent time working in the industry at the likes of National Beverages and Pellerito Foods. Upon completion of a PhD, Gayathri wants to become an extension worker with research responsibilities at a government agency or a university.

Grace Kenny

Michigan State University

Grace is working on a master’s degree in Plant Pathology, specializing in cucumbers. Grace’s campus advisor is Dr. Hausbeck. Grace has plenty of experience working in the family cucumber production business. Grace has spent a summer working for Nunhems Vegetable Seed. Grace’s long term goals are to develop a company in her hometown that includes a focus on agronomy, crop scouting, and research. Her enthusiasm for the cucumber industry is unmatched.

Jacob Pecenka

Purdue University

Jacob is working on a doctoral degree in Entomology, specializing in Integrated Pest Management. Jacob’s campus advisor is Dr. Kaplan. Jacob has been involved with bug tours at Purdue University. Jacob has been part of posters which have been presented at the Great Lakes Expo. After graduation, Jacob would like to find a role in extension to communicate research with growers and stakeholders.

Kyle Thies

University of Wisconsin River Falls

Kyle is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Business. Kyle’s area of interest is the Agriculture Chemical Industry. Kyle’s campus advisor is Dr. White. Kyle has played some football while at college and has done various volunteering around campus. Kyle has worked for Central Produce Sales, Berry Brook Enterprises, and TH Agrichemicals. When Kyle finishes school he wants to work in sales and chemical applications.

Luisa Parrado

Michigan State University

Luisa is working on a master’s degree in Entomology, specializing in Nematology and potato pest management. Luisa’s campus advisor is Dr. Quintanilla. Once done with school Luisa wants to work at the agricultural research and development department of pesticide companies. Along with this, Luisa would like to work at a compost production company, get an MBA, and run a personal company.

Osten Eschedor

Michigan State University

Osten is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Entomology, focusing on agricultural entomology in public policy. Osten’s campus advisor is Dr. Lorenz. Osten is a teaching assistant for an Entomology course and has given tours at the MSU Bug House. Osten has a talent and passion for policy and leadership. In the future, Osten plans to use these skills to bridge the communication gaps between science and policy.

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