Beginning farmers provide local products

If satisfaction were dollar bills, the young people who are picking up the plow in northern Michigan these days would be richer than the wealthiest CEO. At least, that's the consensus of a recent study coordinated by MSU Extension and conversations I've had with newbie farmers across northern Michigan.

From eating healthy, locally grown food, to spending more time with family, new recruits to the farms and fields are finding a variety of reasons to take on a job that requires long hours, few vacations and considerably less pay than a CEO.

"We could have done a lot of different things with our lives," admits Mary Brower, who with her husband Aaron is a first generation farmer; the Browers own Blue Stem Farm in northern Antrim County in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. "It's endlessly interesting, a worthy occupation and we want to be outside with our growing family," she adds.

There are a number of small farms sprinkled throughout the U.P. They vary in size and provide local people with a variety of fresh food including eggs, poultry, beef, vegetables, honey, mushrooms, and maple syrup.

"On a basic level it is kind of insane not to get food grown around here, I don't like relying on Argentina for something so important as food," says Brower. Farmers like Brower do their best to offer locals fresh vegetables, meats, and other food products throughout the winter.

A recent study, funded by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), North Central Region, provides us with a snapshot of the challenges beginning farmers face and what they cherish most about their farms, family, and community- three things that appear to be intertwined for most of these farmers.

Respondents rated family time together as one of the most important benefits of farming, and also reported a stepped-up presence in the community. The most obvious example of this community involvement can be witnessed at local farmers markets and also the CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture), which have popped up in Northern Michigan like mushrooms after a warm rain.

People like Mark and Deanna Jones, who work Beaver Meadow Creek Farms in Sault Ste. Marie, say they enjoy the interaction at the Wednesday night farmers market in the Soo and also the exchanges they've had with CSA members. Mark says they include a newsletter with recipes in the containers of produce they deliver to their 42 members which elicits some healthy feedback on healthy eating. Mark also offers his garden expertise when he gives talks in the community.

"We really enjoy the interaction with the customers," he says.

Of course, farming isn't just about setting up at the markets and chatting with the locals. It's hard work. Respondents in the MSU survey say it's a challenge to balance work, family and community.

"The biggest challenge for us is balancing work, sleep and fun, with work taking up the most time," says Scott Corpolongo of Wintergreen Farm in Ontonagon.

Other challenges include northern Michigan's erratic and often harsh weather. The elusive goal is being able to provide locals with fresh food products year round. While this can be achieved with meat products and to some extent by eating preserved foods, farmers have yet to provide fresh produce like tomatoes and the like to local consumers during the winter months. It's also difficult to provide fresh produce to retailers on a consistent basis, as Jones can attest to.

Brower, of Blue Stem Farm, says there are many crops that lend themselves to hoop house production, whereby veggies are grown into the late fall and in very limited cases, over the winter. Consumers can look for kale, various lettuces, Asian greens and various root crops well into October.

"In northern Russia they do a good job of providing local fresh produce," says Brower who spent time there. "If they can do it there, we can do it here, so we're on fire to be the change we want to see," she adds.

The other challenge that typically pops up in conversations with farmers and is also noted in the study is marketing and finance. Most beginning farmers underestimate the capital outlays involved for equipment and don't always know where exactly to market their wares. They may be good gardeners and livestock farmers, but not be schooled in the business side of things. Organizations like the Marquette Food Co-op, U.P. Food Exchange, and regional food hubs are a place to turn for assistance in this area.

Hiring workers is another concern for growers, according to Jones. He says at some point it's kind of like "go big or stay home." The Jones', who are starting to move their product into local retail markets, including a pizza parlor and a local hospital, took the plunge and hired help the past couple summers. Although he was able to get workers this past summer he says it can be difficult, in the absence of migrant workers, to find someone willing to commit themselves to seasonal work. Another option open to farmers is to call on CSA participants to pitch in on some of the aspects of gardening and farming. Student interns are also an option and usually live on site.

CSAs appear to be the bread and butter or perhaps backbone of a successful farming operation for these beginning farmers.  It provides some upfront capital to operate the farm and they always know they have a customer, unlike the outside farmer's markets, which can be slow during inclement weather. Still, it takes careful planning to commit oneself to a CSA, says Jones. He says that you have to plan your planting so you have a good variety of product over the course of the season.

"Farming successfully requires a huge amount of knowledge and experience," says Andrea Corpolongo, who, along with husband Scott, interned at Trillium Haven, a large CSA near Grand Rapids. Scott had also worked the Student Organic Farm at MSU.

The weather, the market, work and family. It's all part of the challenge for these beginning farmers, one they seem to be taking on with energy and enthusiasm.

"For me personally, the learning is neverending," says Jones. "If you run out of challenges you're not doing something right. I love the challenge of it, the learning drives me to keep doing it."

Neil Moran is a copywriter living in Sault Ste. Marie.
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