All The Farm That Is Fit To Print

Friday, September 2, 2011

Despite poor economy, small family farms are taking root

Kalamazoo Gazette The Kalamazoo Gazette

ALLEGAN -- Amid the gloomy economic landscape of Southwest Michigan, big agribusiness is blossoming -- one of the few segments of the economy that can claim to be growing.

But tucked in between the sprawl of big farms generating big money are hundreds of little farms that are barely making any money at all.

And that's OK.

The resurrection of Michigan's small family farm, suggested by the recently released 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, is good news in itself, say agriculture officials, land-use planners and farmers.

"For so long, it was 'you get bigger or you're done,'" said Barry Lonik, owner of Treemore Ecology and Land Services. "A lot of people couldn't get bigger."

For 20 years, it seemed that the traditional family farm would get squeezed out, and by 1997 the state had lost more than 14,000 farms, Michigan Department of Agriculture records show.

But not every farmer chose to leave the land. And some people decided to begin farming.

A new type of farming began to emerge, one that factored lifestyle as well as income into the choice to farm.

Kelly Ward caught the edge of the new wave. She and her husband, Mike, moved to their farm in Schoolcraft 20 years ago, after deciding farm life was what they wanted for their four children. "We felt the opportunities to learn, to work together and to accomplish chores successfully were important to growing children," Ward said.

The Wards now raise sheep for meat and wool on 60 acres of pasture.

Dave and Mary Van Antwerp bought 180 acres in Allegan County's Watson Township 10 years ago. On their Wild Rose Meadows, they raise cattle for breeding stock, grow hay to feed them and raise chickens, sheep and alpacas. Both husband and wife have jobs off the farm.

"Farming is a lifestyle, not a business" on a farm the size of theirs, Dave VanAntwerp said. "It's a choice of putting your time and money into the farm instead of going on cruises or playing golf."

Mark Ludwig, owner of Sand Lily Farms near Fennville, uses his 10-acre farm and an additional six leased acres to provide his own premium meat, vegetables and eggs.

At 40, Ludwig is 16 years younger than the average Michigan farm operator, and he works Monday through Friday as a groundwater technician for the Allegan Conservation District. His wife, Kim, works off the farm as well. "We have not made money on the farm yet," he said.

The Ludwig and VanAntwerp farms are both in Allegan County, the state's top-ranked producer of agricultural goods, known for its expansive poultry, swine and dairy farms, huge tracts of field crops, Christmas trees and nursery plants. The county's agriculture yielded products valued at nearly $400 million in 2007.

For years, farm experts have urged owners of smaller farms not to compete based on volume, but to do as Ward, Van Antwerp and Ludwig have done -- use Michigan's unique soils, proximity to big cities, and diverse crops to create business involving specialty products, direct sales to buyers, or agritourism.

That strategy appears to be working.

By 1995, farm numbers in Michigan began to climb again, making a jump from 53,415 to 56,014 farms between 2002 and 2007. In Southwest Michigan, 350 new farms have sprung up in Allegan, Kalamazoo, Van Buren and St. Joseph counties during that time.

The new farms tend to be small operations with diversified production, fewer acres and lower sales, said Bob Boehm, manager of the Commodity and Marketing Department for the Michigan Farm Bureau. They tend to have younger operators who also work off the farm -- three-fifths of all farmers statewide list a primary occupation other than farming.

The growth of small farms is happening alongside "a continuation of the trend toward large, efficient farms utilizing the latest technology, benefiting from economies of scale," Boehm said.

But will small farms continue to hang on as times get tougher?

Statewide, estimates of farm numbers for 2008, released last week, showed a drop of 1,000 farms, especially in the smaller categories, although the amount of land used for farming held steady.

Services to large and small farms alike may shrink, too, with state budget cuts of 50 percent proposed for state agencies that serve farms and farmers -- Michigan State University's Extension and its Agriculture Experiment Station.

The costs of production continue to rise along with the market value of farm products, offsetting the economic gain to both large and smaller farmers, the Farm Bureau's Boehm said.

"The cost of equipment, seed and fertilizer exceeds the capacity of the small farm," Van Antwerp said. "Small, part-time farms like ours are tough to keep going."

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