What to do with a college education: Start farming

A young couple from lower Michigan found their ideal life on a farm near Ontonagon, and now are working to help build the local food infrastructure across the Upper Peninsula. 
Scott and Andrea Corpolongo Smith knew from their days together as college students at MSU that they wanted to own a farm. After they honeymooned in the Porcupine Mountains, they knew they wanted to farm in the Ontonagon area.
 
"In college, we thought it would be fun, and then found out we could make money at it," says Scott, who, like Andrea, grew up in lower Michigan. "We ended up in the Western U.P. mostly because we love the area," adds Andrea. "Also, it's very challenging to afford farmland and property; in the U.P. it was in our price range."
 
The two worked on a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm while at MSU, a student-run organic farm that sold produce to people in the East Lansing area. After they graduated college they parted ways with the city life and headed up North, eventually settling in Ontonagon.
 
Here they run Wintergreen Farm, a thriving CSA farm that provides fresh, wholesome, reasonably priced vegetables to nearly 120 families in the surrounding communities of L'Anse, Houghton, Hancock, and Ironwood. They sell 75 "shares" to people who commit to buying fresh produce in season.
 
"Our biggest market is Houghton," says Scott. They drive their produce to Houghton twice a week during the season and meet their CSA customers at the farmers market for pickup. Other places to get Wintergreen Farms' products are the Keweenaw Co-op, the Northwind Natural Foods Co-op, the Superior Farm Market, the Hancock Tori, and the Lake Linden Farmers Market
 
The most popular items, per informal surveys taken by Andrea, are onions, potatoes, carrots, and rutabaga, which coincidentally are the ingredients for pasties, an ethnic delight here in the North Country.
 
The couple farm nearly two acres of crops. They grow 50 different veggies, some of which are started in a 22-foot by 90-foot hoop house to get a jump on our short U.P. growing season. The couple admits growing in the short season zone up here is a challenge; Scott says particularly so with crops like winter squash that require a long season of fairly warm temps.
 
To address that, they will start utilizing "low tunnels" this year. Low tunnels are a cropping system whereby you cover the vegetables grown with poly-plastic to protect the fledgling seedlings from the harsh elements and to heat up the environment within the low tunnels. The poly-plastic can be removed as the weather heats up in mid-summer.                   
 
For all intents and purposes the couple are organic farmers, though they aren't certified--at least not yet. Andrea says they're working with staff from the Marquette Food Co-op, a seller of organic products, to become "certified naturally grown." In the meantime, customers can be assured the couple uses no harmful chemicals like Sevin® (carbaryl,1-naphthyl methylcarbamate, sounds yummy, eh?) on their cherished crops, and they rely heavily on compost to supply the nutrients needed.
 
 Like any business these days, the couple has had to rely on some loans to acquire equipment and particularly land. Andrea says the old timers in the area scoffed at borrowing money for their endeavor, but land is much more expensive these days than it was 20 or 30 years ago. On the upside, the couple has been able to obtain low interest farm loans to finance their labor of love.
 
Another thing that has changed since Eva Gabor reluctantly lived in the country on the hit 60's TV series Green Acres, is marketing. While word of mouth plays an important part in getting the word out about the fine food they have to offer, Andrea also relies on a Facebook page and even paid ads on the site. She says the ads are cost effective because they're targeted ads, i.e., the ads only appear on people's Facebook pages who live within a certain radius of their farm.
 
"I do a lot of Facebook advertising," says Andrea. "It is super cheap." She also says since their customers are so spread out, she relies on an email list she maintains so they can send out coordinated mailings to parties interested in getting in on wholesome fresh food.
 
At this time the farm isn't shrinking the unemployment rate in the area any, but with a young child in tow, the couple realize the need for not only an employee or two, but also to mechanize their operation more. For the former, they're excited about employing an intern this summer; for the latter, they've recently bought a 1959 JI Case 811b, which is more versatile than the 1949 Ford 8N they started out with.
 
Wintergreen Farm is more than a purveyor of wholesome food. They're part of a larger group, the U.P. Food Exchange, which seeks to provide locally-farmed foods to more outlets in the Upper Peninsula. Right now locally grown food is available from area farms, health food stores and farmers markets. Hopefully, in the future we'll see more fresh, wholesome food in restaurants, delis and the like as a result of their work.
 
The couple has recently purchased some land which includes a former restaurant. This will give them room to not only expand their farming operation, but also to use the former restaurant as a facility where they can process and store produce from their farm and other area farms.
 
To follow along in the conversation on wholesome food and obtain some delicious recipes using produce from Wintergreen Farm and other local food producers, check out Andrea's blog.
 
Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter and owner of Haylake Business Communications
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