Battle Creek

In challenging times, Pennfield family works together to keep dairy farm afloat

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

The future of a dairy farm in Pennfield Township that is now being run by the fifth generation of the Crandall family may rest with the children of brothers, Brad and Mark Crandall who manage the farm.

The brothers co-manage every aspect of their family’s farm, along with their father, Larry, who is semi-retired. Between them, Brad and Mark Crandall have seven children. Each of the children has a role in the operation of the business, especially with the care and feeding of 350 milking cows that produce an average of 3,400 gallons of milk per day.

So far, none of their children have expressed an interest in eventually taking over the farming operations from their parents.

Like his father and his father before him, Brad Crandall says he never felt pressured to take over the farm and he and his wife have made sure that they use that same low-key approach with their son and two daughters.

“We don’t want any of our children to feel pressure to take it on,” Brad Crandall says. “The climate is very uncertain. As long as we’ve been here doing this, it doesn’t guarantee a reasonable opportunity for any of them.”

Such decisions are being made by farmers across the country. In Michigan where dairy makes up the single largest segment of Michigan’s agriculture industry and it represents a $15.7 billion impact on the state’s economy annually, the number of dairy farms is on the decline. Michigan has a total of 1,505 permitted dairy farms, down from 1,627 in 2018 and 1,855 in 2015. Now a new program has been designed to helped farmers facing the stresses of such decisions and the many uncertainties that come with farming. (See related story here.)

Monica Crandall says she asked her husband if he was prepared to be the last generation to farm the land that has been in the family for more than 100 years.

“We’ve gone to these gatherings with other young farmers and we see that these people that are young want to continue the family farm, big or small, and I think this really speaks to farmers in general who are trying to keep this legacy going,” Monica Crandall says.

A one-week old calf at the Crandall Farm,

As his parents sat next to each other at a table in the family’s kitchen on a recent Sunday afternoon, Zach Crandall, the oldest child and only boy out of the brothers’ seven children, said he’s “mostly decided” that he will take a greater role in the farm, but he plans to go to college first. The 18-year-old graduates this year from Pennfield High School and is looking at several schools, including the University of Northwestern Ohio and Michigan State University where his father, grandfather, uncles, and aunts went.

Even though Zach's father Brad Crandall majored in Supply Chain Management, joining the family business was never a sure thing.

“Growing up, I didn’t think I would farm,” Crandall says. “With the way we communicated about it I never really had that feeling of ‘no matter what, this is what the family was going to continue to do.’ I never felt like I was being groomed. Because of that, I lacked direction on what I wanted to do. When I finished college, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted and I came back to the farm in 1994 to see if that’s what I wanted to do.”

The uncertainty was understandable based on the misgivings expressed by his father. “I think my dad thought that it wasn’t likely that the dairy farm part would continue because of the challenges he had during his farming career,” Crandall says. “My dad probably thought it wouldn’t be feasible to continue.”

These doubts were prompted by concerns about the increased development of vacant land during the 1990s. Crandall says his family considers themselves blessed that Battle Creek has grown to the south instead of the north where the 800-acre farm is located.

“If it’s grown at all, it’s grown away from us,” he says.

After mulling over the pros and cons, Crandall and his brother became part- owners of the farm with their father and took over the day-to-day management of the farm in the late 1990s.

Brad Crandall, who turns 49 soon, says, “When you’re younger, your eager and optimistic and you think you can find a better way of making things better.

“When I came back in 1994 the facilities were almost completely shot. Over 20 years we took one piece at a time and fixed up the buildings.”

The last piece of the rehab efforts was a Milking Parlor that had originally been built in 1956 and was the second of its type in Michigan.

“When we finally got that last piece in place we thought it would be less stressful and easier and that’s about exactly the time that the current climate of economic uncertainty for us hit in late 2013,” Brad Crandall says.

Monica Crandall, who works full-time as a secretary for Pennfield North Elementary School and keeps the books for the farm, says they’ve had five years of loss.

“Most dairy farmers got used to a cycle where they could more or less predict that every four or five years they’d have a really down year on milk prices and once in awhile they’d have a great year,” Brad Crandall says. 

In 2008 and 2009 when milk prices crashed, he says the bottom line for most dairy farmers has been below or break-even.

“There’s a huge difference between having a cash flowing business and actually keeping things running the way they should be,” Brad Crandall says. “You can pay the bills, but you can’t update equipment and you’re trying to fall not too far behind.”

Adding to the challenges is an over-production of milk in Michigan over the past five years that has led to surpluses that have driven down milk prices along. So has negative publicity that increasingly questions the health benefits of milk.

Brad Crandall says no matter what he and other farmers try to do to educate the public, there is a growing feeling of being under constant assault from many different sides. He says he thinks people in high places are pushing a vegan agenda and he takes exception with people who believe that most farmers are not good stewards of the land and don't take good care of their animals.

Kellie Wagner, foreground, and Colton Lovell, prepare cows for milking at the Crandall Farm.

“I work in a K-2 (school) building and a lot of our kids can’t have dairy products because they’re allergic to them and it’s hurtful to me when people blame it on dairy,” Monica Crandall says.

Even though the dairy industry has lobbying groups and public relations campaigns focused on highlighting the positives, Brad Crandall says people tend to gravitate towards the stories that decry the industry and its practices. He says there simply aren’t enough resources available to farmers and this is resulting in the loss of dairy farms.

“There’s a lot of reasons that people get to that point,” he says. “They put everything in to build it up and they get to the point where there’s nothing left and they’re not sure what they’re going to be able to do next at their age.

“The time farmers get into their darkest place is when the family isn’t working together. Their family falls apart and one sibling has to buy the other one out and there’s high risk of losing the farm. If you’re not working together, there’s only so many resources to go around and there may not be enough people to run the farm.”

Monica Crandall says she and her husband have had their share of being in a dark place, but they say prayer and support from family and friends keeps them going. She also comes from a farming family. Her father, brother, and sister operate a 500-acre farm in Marshall where they raise beef cattle and sheep and grow crops, but her brother also works at a farm at MSU. Their farm is not their sole source of income.

This is not the case for the Crandalls who say the farm is their livelihood and everything revolves around the schedule on the farm. This includes the couple’s three children and Mark Crandall’s four children who develop a schedule amongst themselves to feed the calves.

“The kids take pride in getting the calve schedule out every month,” Monica Crandall says. “We milk three times a day and feed the calves twice a day. The kids feed them at 5 p.m.”

“It’s truly a family farm because everyone is connected to all aspects of the daily operations of it,” Brad Crandall says. “My brother and I do chores every day. We have two full-time and 12 part-time employees, which includes our kids.” 

Monica says she thinks her children are developing a solid work ethic through their involvement with the farm. They earn college money by showing dairy calves at the Calhoun County Fair and are all very close to their siblings and cousins.

“This is really family farming. We have a lot of really great times and times that are not so great, but you’re in it with your family,” Monica says. 

“We all pull together, especially when there’s a 911 emergency moment when the cows get out,” she says. “One of the disadvantages is everyone being involved and every time you have an added layer of that, it’s harder to get away. We usually have one vacation a year and hardly ever get away on the weekends.”

But, these are minor drawbacks for the family which is determined to keep their farm going. 

“No matter what other struggles we’re dealing with, in the back of your mind, you’re always asking, ‘Is there any future in this?” Brad Crandall says. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.