Farming Organic in Michigan

Because of the pandemic, I had the opportunity of farming organic in Michigan. When COVID caused delays of a lot of weddings last year, my nephew’s was no exception. I had reserved the Himelhoch Bed & Breakfast for the wedding weekend in Caro, Michigan, but had to cancel our reservations, thus carrying over a credit to this year.

My family and I decided to finally redeem our credit and head up to Michigan for a three-day autumn break. It felt like fall—pumpkins sprawled on lawns, crisp cool air, leaves turning colors, and farmers harvesting their crops. Fall is a perfect time to visit Michigan and a perfect time to learn about farming.

Grand Tour of the Farm

My husband’s stepfather, Bob, farms with two of his four sons and promised to give me a ride in their combine. They would be harvesting organic navy beans during my visit. I knew very little about organic farming and was interested in learning more. The day I had hoped to put on my farming boots, Cari, one of Bob’s son, was taxed with fixing a picket beam rod on the combine and wasn’t sure when he’d have it fixed but was hoping by day’s end. Meanwhile, Bob gave my son, daughter-in-law, and me a grand tour of their two farms, consisting of 1,250 acres. Bob’s sons do the farming now, so Bob serves as a runner, as in, he goes here and there running errands. Sometimes he even goes for pizza he said.

Besides organic navy beans, Bob and his sons also grow hemp, wheat, soybeans, great northern beans, about 400 acres of corn, producing around 6,000 bushels, and black beans for Chipotle’s, one of my favorite fast-food restaurants. 

The Great Lakes Region

There are 100 farmers in the “thumb” of Michigan. If you look at a map, Michigan looks like a mitten. Becker Farms sits a couple hours north of Detroit in the thumb. Michigan is called The Great Lakes State as it is surrounded by four of our five Great Lakes—Lake Superior on the Upper Peninsula, Lake Michigan on the west, Lake Huron on the east, and Lake Erie on the southeast. And because of this, Michigan boasts 115 lighthouses, more than any other state, including Florida which only has 30. Who would have thought, right? 

At any rate, this Great Lakes Region has the fertile soil needed to produce all sorts of food. In case you’re curious as to what sorts of food those are, here’s a great site that provides a Top 20 list. To name just a few interesting facts, cucumbers and asparagus rank as number one in the nation, with maple syrup being the oldest agricultural enterprise. My husband has many fond memories with his grandfather tapping trees for maple syrup. 

Wind Turbines

As Bob drove us around, we saw turbine after turbine after turbine. According to Composite World, there are 1,481 in Michigan, producing approximately 5 percent of the state’s energy. We stopped to look at a turbine blade at Crosswinds Energy Park. It’s so big my son stood inside it.

A small 1.5 MW turbine blade weighs 11,500 lbs is 110-124 feet long and costs $100,000. More than double all those numbers for larger turbines. Farmers receive compensation for allowing turbines on their land. (Sources: Our Midland and Wikipedia)

By day’s end Cari had fixed the combine and chose the middle of the night to harvest his beans to avoid the morning dew. Yes, you read right, “the middle of the night.” I got to ride with him the following afternoon for a few hours, just long enough to learn about organic standards and weed management.

Organic Standards

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the organic crop production standards require that:

  • Land must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.
  • Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.
  • Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available.
  • The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.

In addition to the above bullet points, to transition into organic farming, Cari said they have to leave 25 feet between all fields and basically fill out lots of paperwork. Of course there’s much more to it than that, but that in and of itself was enough for me to ponder during my short ride.

Weed Control

The weed control piece fascinated me as it takes a ton of effort. Cari said they use both manual and rotary hoeing and invested in additional equipment like a flame burner, weed zapper, and a Tine weeder. The Tine goes around established plants and pulls out white-thread stage weeds. I asked Bob what would happen if the zapper zapped a human. He said it would warm you up pretty good. I took his word for it.

It seemed that generally speaking farmers were always trying new innovative methods, as one way might work well for one crop, but not so much for another. And sometimes new improved methods could create a different kind of challenge. Nothing was full proof and often quite fluid. Solutions that might seem straightforward to someone like myself who’s not a farmer, I could see by being with farmers, solutions weren’t always so simple.

The Good and Bad of Farming

I asked Cari what he liked about farming. I found the answers to this question to be interesting as I asked so many farmers. They all said basically the same thing regardless of where and what they farmed.

“I’m my own boss,” Cari said. “I pick my own hours, except during harvest time, and I get to work with my brother and be close to home.” Farming mostly accommodates Cari’s love of hunting and fishing too.

The part that Cari doesn’t like is a “bad Mother Nature year.”

“But you can’t control that,” he said. “You have to take the bad with the good.”

And so, we do…need to take the bad with the good. I think this is an important mindset as life offers both. Nobody gets to live free of hardship. Farmers understand this up close as so much of what they do is beyond their control—weather, broken equipment, and the economy for example. Other professions face risk as well, but what I have come to appreciate even more about agriculture is this: the faces behind our food are critically important to the sustainability of our health and the quality of our life. There’s always something more to learn of course, and as this industry shifts through different challenges (more on this in next week’s story), I think for now, I am incredibly grateful for all those who face their daily challenges so I can eat well.

Wishing all my readers the patience and perseverance of a farmer through your bad times, and more than bountiful blessings in the good. 

In case you missed the first two stories of this “Faces Behind Farming” series:
Wrangling Out West in Scobey, Montana
Hearty Healthy Options for Thanksgiving

Next Week

Next week I’ll be in Missouri to wrap up my farming series (at least for this year) as I talk about “A Bumper Crop in The Show Me State.” This story includes, among other things, a trumpet, a deer antler, and a stumped farmer.

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