2018-03-15 / Front Page

MSU honors Nugent and his many hats

Receives Distinguished Service Award
By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

JIM NUGENT and his wife, Toddy Rieger, shortly after receiving the MSU Distinguished Service Award. JIM NUGENT and his wife, Toddy Rieger, shortly after receiving the MSU Distinguished Service Award. “I’m sorry I called you back after five,” said cherry farmer Jim Nugent, who had dialed the Leelanau Enterprise office directly after leaving a growers meeting in Benzie County.

“I should have waited until tomorrow morning.”

It’s that level of caring that people across the state have found endearing about Nugent, and one reason that last week he and his wife, Toddy Rieger, traveled to Michigan State University so he could accept the Distinguished Service Award.

But there were many reasons why the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources bestowed its highest award upon Nugent, whose professional career spanned 44 years that were all spent in Leelanau County.

“Jim has been an outstanding leader in Michigan’s fruit industry,” said Brian Altonen, chairman of the Michigan Cherry Committee. “He has been a good farmer, researcher, Extension agent, industry leader, partner and, most of all, a good friend to many.

NUGENT NUGENT “He is a wonderful man who has done so much to help Michigan farmers compete in a global market.”

Nugent said he stuck to his script in addressing about 250 people after receiving the award at the Huntington Club at Spartan Stadium. He thanked just one person by name — Toddy — because to name any others would leave still more off the list.

“I kept it short and thanked the people I’ve met along the way,” Nugent recalled. “When you get recognized for a service, it doesn’t happen if you don’t have a lot of very good people that you’ve had a chance to work with — the faculty members and Extension folks at MSU, researchers, and so many great growers.

“It’s about the people you get to work with and the partnerships you build.”

His brother, Don Nugent, who recently passed away, was a previous award recipient. Don, who was also a cherry farmer, was founder of Graceland Fruit based in Frankfort. Jim Nugent is chair of Graceland’s Board of Directors.

The Nugents were born with green roots, having grown up on the family fruit farm in Benzie County. Jim Nugent studied at MSU, leaving with a master’s degree. He and Toddy, who was from Jackson, married soon after, and the two moved to Leelanau County in 1976 as he became Extension director.

“They took a big risk hiring me at the time because I’d been out of grad school just over a year, and I was working at the family farm back then. I was very green under the ears, very green indeed,” Nugent said.

In 1987 he became Integrated Pest Management coordinator for the state and was stationed at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station. He became the Hort Station coordinator in 1992, and retired in 2010 when present coordinator Nikki Rothwell took over.

“He wrote the playbook as he successfully brought apple, cherry, peach and plum growers together to provide a mechanism for funding key positions, stations and outreach programming efforts for Michigan fruit industries,” Rothwell said. “Under Jim’s leadership, these funds have supported MSU in their endeavors to help Michigan growers remain competitive, and we cannot thank him enough for all he has done.”

Nugent wishes there were more young people getting into farming, but that will require higher profit margins for growers.

“If I could do one thing for the cherry industry, it would be to see us get a better price to our growers. That’s fundamentally our biggest problem,” he said.

Nugent and Rieger, who kept her maiden name, bought Sunblossom Orchards in 1985. They continue to run and live on the farm, which is located off Revold Road in Bingham Township. They have three grown children who live out of state and three grandsons.

Nugent credits Rieger for keeping the farm in operation while he was working full-time for the state.

“She took that degree in social work and German literature and went to work successfully running our farm for many years until I retired,” he said.

Whether “retired” or not, Nugent runs a busy schedule as chair of the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission, which he helped found; running the orchard operation; and singing in the Suttons Bay Congregational Church Choir. He formerly held board positions with the Leelanau Conservancy and Cherry Industry Administrative Board. And he was named one of the most influential fruit extension agents in the 20th century by American Fruit Grower magazine.

Nugent has received no less than seven distinguished service awards from various agricultural groups.

With so much of their lives spent in agriculture, are Nugent and Rieger ready to step away and take it easy?

“We enjoy farming. We have no plans to go South for winter. We enjoy Leelanau County very much, and I have always had a passion for farming.

“They’ll probably carry me off the farm in a box.”

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