Green Acres is the place to be: Family puts farm, pigs on the map

If you would have met Mark Baker a decade ago you would have found yourself shaking hands with a life-long military man who's focus was on his career, his family and doing what was right for both of them. If you would have told him that in less than a few years he would be living on a farm in Michigan, elbow deep in dirt, raising pigs and being an example of the growing trend of buying and eating locally-grown food, he would have thought you a bit crazy.

In 2004, however, Baker and his wife, Jill, decided it was best to leave the Air Force behind. They packed up and moved into the country to raise their family, and it wasn't long until they found themselves in Marion, Mich., just outside of Cadillac, working and living off of their own little piece of the world, Bakers Green Acres.

"I've got seven kids right now, some still pretty young, and I wanted to get them into something they could grow with, lean more about and something they weren't being taught at the schools," says Baker. "Some of the people I worked with in the Air Force who were the best problem solvers and the most motivated were farm kids off farms in the Midwest. We thought we'd try this, see how it worked out for us and raising our kids."

And, so far, it's worked out pretty darn well. And they can definitely see the positive impact it has had on their children. The oldest, Kyle, is 25 and is the only one to work off-farm. Joe, 14, and Sam, 12, are no strangers to the sun-up-to-sun-down hours a farm demands, and Dorothy, who is 9, Keith, 7, and Rachel, 5, are all up-and-coming farm hands. Jim, who is just 2 years old, still has some time before firing up the tractor and getting to work.

Without the entire family involved, the type of farming the Bakers do would not be possible.

The Bakers weren't sure, at first, what kind of farming they wanted to do. They considered everything, even the corporate contract-farm route, but after attending a farm conference in Grayling and listening to a discussion about diversity and the benefits of it on a small farm, the Bakers were hooked. Now, they produce a large variety of products, including chickens, Cornish hens, goats and compost and even offer custom meat processing as well as products they've made from their own livestock, such as sausages, smoked meat and occasionally farm-fresh eggs.

But one of their products is getting more attention than one might expect: Their pigs.

These, however, aren't just any pigs. They are Mangalitsa, which is often referred to as "curly-haired pigs," and the Bakers have found themselves knee-deep in the culinary world thanks to them. The pig was the focus of a recent New York Times piece.

Last November, Bakers Green Acres participated in PigStock, an event that was designed as an educational event for professional chefs and was planned and sponsored by Cherry Capital Foods, Earthy Delights and Michigan Mangalitza. The event's purpose was simple: farm-to-table culinary education that included some of the state's top chefs, including Brian Polcyn, who uses Mangalitsa for his charcuterie, or cured meats--his specialty, which he discussed in a recent Crain's Business Journal article.

PigStock, which will take place again in November of this year, allowed the Bakers to showcase not only their farm, but also their processing facilities and the top-quality products they offer.

Of course, some chefs didn't need PigStock to find out what gems the Bakers produce.

"From a chef's point of view, they are exactly what we look for in a farm," says Chef Eric Patterson, co-owner of The Cooks' House, which specializes in sustainable, local cuisine.

The Cooks' House serves up chicken from Green Acres. But why?

"The flavor. The quality. It tastes like chicken," states Patterson. "We know them and how they are raising the chickens. I've been to their farm and to their processing facility. It's spotless. There's no comparison to larger farms and facilities."

And The Cook's House isn't the only local restaurant where their products are being served. Trattoria Stella and its chef, Myles Anton, not only serve chicken from the Bakers, but also Mangalitsa.

"We're really glad to be along with the ride with them," Baker says of the local restaurants that prepare dishes with products from his farm. "We're lucky and fortunate to be in this company."

For those who want to cook up some products from Green Acres in their own kitchens, there are several options. The Baker family sells products right from their farm, but for those who don't want to leave the Traverse City area, they can simply head over to Toski Sands Market or Oleson's Food Stores. Both locations receive the products via Cherry Capital Foods, the Bakers' distributor that picks up the food, delivers it, invoices for it and then, in turn, pays the Bakers for it.

"Cherry Capital Foods is integral to what we're doing here," says Baker, who used to spend up to three days packing, delivering, invoicing and dealing with distribution on his own.

The time the distributor saves for Baker is being turned back into man hours that are applied toward the farm. And that's time they're going to need. The increase in interest in locally-grown produce is likely only going to continue, and the demand for Mangalitsa appears to be prepared to boom. Not to mention the Bakers will be hosting PigStock this year and may try to increase that to two events in the near future.

Be it pigs, goats, chickens or children, Mark and Jill Baker are raising them the way they were meant to be on their Green Acres in Marion.

Sam Eggleston is the interim managing editor of the Northwest Michigan Second Wave and a full-time freelance writer. He was born and raised in Michigan. He can be reached via email.
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