Great Plains farmers visit Great Lakes farmers
LANSING, MI -- Briefly swapping the Great Plains for the Great Lakes, a group of Kansas Farm Bureau (KFB) members recently took a whirlwind tour of agricultural facilities across the southwestern Lower Peninsula. With a little planning assistance from Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) staff, the Kansans in three short days visited almost a dozen farms, processors and other agricultural sites sampling from the crazy quilt that is Michigan agriculture.
Among the group was KFB President Rich Felts.
“I didn’t realize the diversity of production you had,” he said. “We’ve been out to California and that’s what they tout—their diversity—but I had no idea you had that much diversity there in Michigan.”
Felts is part of a four-man partnership raising grain and swine in southeastern Kansas near Liberty. Alongside his brother, son and son-in-law, the foursome finish approximately 4,000 head of swine annually and raise 3,200 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.
Coordinating the tour from the Kansas end was Nancy Brown, KFB’s director of policy development. Her interest in Michigan began when she attended an American Farm Bureau Federation event here several years ago.
“I was so impressed,” Brown said, that Michigan quickly rose to the top of the list of potential destinations when KFB started offering its members regional agriculture tours.
“So this year we decided to go with Michigan. Being so diverse, we thought this could be more of a producer-focused, crop-focused trip,” Brown said. And she was right: “It was a tremendous program.”
Among the stops were farms and facilities that grow, package, process and market blueberries, squash, turnips, parsnips, ornamental plants and flowers, swine, turkeys, cherries, apples, grapes, tomatoes and the gamut of dairy products. Hosts included DeGrandchamp Farms (South Haven), Victory Farms (Hudsonville), Countryside Greenhouse (Allendale), Peterson Farms (Nunica), Foremost Turkey (Ravenna), Fox Farms (Shelby), AgroLiquid(St. Johns), Moo-ville Dairy and Creamery (Nashville), W.K. Kellogg Institute for Food Science and Nutrition (Battle Creek) and Avalon Farms (Climax).
“I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it,” Brown said. “We saw so much—back to back—so many different things… Every place we went we wanted to stay longer and see more.”
“I know lot of our folks came away wowed at the labor that goes into harvesting, packaging and processing fresh fruits and vegetables,” Brown said. “At Fox Farms they explained how asparagus is harvested—hand snapping. It’s one thing to know how it’s done in your garden, but to see how it’s done on a commercial scale is really different and eye-opening.”
Beyond the diversity and the labor issues, what most—and most often—struck Felts throughout the visit were the consumer marketing efforts that so often become vital components to Michigan farms.
From fresh-market fruit and vegetables to on-farm wine- and ice cream-making, the direct link between growers and consumers was relatively foreign territory. One host told the group the only thing that made her relatively small-scale farm viable was the popularity of her direct-to-consumer retail shop, a visible landmark and destination located at a busy intersection.
“I mean you can grow tomatoes, I can grow tomatoes, but how you market them is a completely different story,” Felts said, noting that consumer marketing adds a layer of complexity that some commodity producers don’t often see or deal with. “In Kansas what we primarily raise is bulk commodities. We grow a lot of wheat and soybeans, we raise a lot of corn and feed a lot of cattle—but it’s nothing you’d see marketed on a roadside stand.”
Hospitality & Common Ground
Despite their differences, it wasn’t hard for the mix of Kansas and Michigan farmers to find common ground. Brown said commodity prices and water were topics of discussion at every turn.
“Water is a different issue in Michigan than in Kansas, obviously, but it’s still an issue. For some it’s a lack of supply and for others it’s how to make what we do have useable—a different angle for everyone,” Brown said, but always worth a talk among farmers.
Two of Michigan’s county Farm Bureaus hosted the group for meals.
“That just added so much to the trip,” she said. “That member-to-member contact was amazing.”
Felts echoed Brown’s praise for the hospitality his group enjoyed here.
“The reception you gave us at all of our stops was very rewarding,” he said. “And I was really impressed—and proud, as a Farm Bureau president—to see the activities of some of your counties there.”