91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Poor soil and a short growing season': How U.P. farmers are building a new ag. industry

With its rocky soil, thick forests and painfully short growing season, the Upper Peninsula is never going to look like Iowa or Kansas – and that's okay. For more than a century, a hardy batch of growers and livestock farmers have managed to survive and prosper in these less-than-ideal conditions. Thanks to new technologies and some decidedly low-tech solutions, the U.P.'s latest generation of ag workers are more productive than ever. Ultimately, the fruits of their labor may be felt – and tasted – far beyond the region's borders.

Age-Old Limitations
If you're a U.P. native, you don't need an advanced degree to understand why agriculture is challenging here. But Alger County MSU Extension Director Jim Isleib has one, so people tend to listen to his thoughts on this issue. "Poor soils and a short growing season – that about sums it up," he says. 

The central U.P.'s soils tend to be more pH-neutral and better-drained than elsewhere, but "pretty much all soils are low fertility for agriculture purposes," says Isleib. Peninsula-wide, careful management of soil fertility and pH is crucial. As for the growing season, it is what it is. Soybeans and mature corn simply can't be grown commercially outside sheltered pockets of the Delta-Menominee "banana belt," and the region's most successful crops – hay, clover, potatoes, and barley – aren't as lucrative or in-demand.

The U.P.'s latest generation of agriculture workers are more productive than ever.

Finding Cost-Effective Solutions

If we can't turn the U.P. into a northern spur of the Corn Belt, what can we do? The answer probably won't be found in resource-intensive breeding or genetic modification programs. 

"I doubt it would be cost-effective to develop crops specifically for cold, poor-soil regions, since... such areas will always have low volume demand for seed," says Isleib. But continuing to test commercially available strains of short-season corn and soybeans on U.P. farms could pay off.

Other technological solutions may be even more effective. Isleib cites increased local usage of no-till and reduced-till equipment, which actually harkens back to pre-modern practices that flourished in the absence of efficient plows. This has several benefits: reduced carbon emissions from gas-powered equipment, increased water penetration, reduced nutrient loss, and natural fertilization from crop residue, to name but a few. Where fertility is at a premium, these advantages are crucial.

Hoop Houses: Extending the Season
Folks who spend time on NMU's campus may already be aware of another relatively low-tech solution to the U.P.'s suboptimal growing conditions: the hoop house. The NMU Hoop House Project, on the north side of Hawley Street in Marquette, is the successful result of a partnership between NMU, Northern Initiatives and the Marquette Food Co-Op. It isn't the only U.P. site that employs hoop house technology in crop research and farmer education; the MSU Extension Research Center, near Chatham, specializes in connecting novice farmers with the season-extending technology. Private farms across the peninsula use these structures as well.

What's a hoop house? In a word, an unheated greenhouse. The basic design features sturdy, hoop-shaped bows of metal or plastic arranged at regular intervals to support a thick but flexible plastic skin. Vents control airflow into and out of the structure, magnifying the sun's natural heating power. According to Michelle Walk, educator and community food systems supervisor for MSU Extension in Sault Ste. Marie, well-maintained hoop houses can lengthen the U.P.'s growing season to nine months. As long as they store everything properly, farmers who use these structures can supply local farmers' markets and institutional buyers well into the fall and may have fresh produce ready as early as April. The result: a larger, more varied supply of local fruits, veggies, and grains.

Buy-Local Takes Off
As more farmers take advantage of an extended growing season, demand for their wares is taking off at local farmers' markets, institutions, and restaurants. At the former, a new Fair Food Network program called Double Up Food Bucks – which will officially debut June 1 – effectively doubles Bridge Card users' buying power on qualifying purchases, subject to a $20-per-day maximum. For low-income families, that extra cash encourages purchases of wholesome, U.P.-grown fruits and veggies over unhealthy, over-processed foods; for local farmers, it contributes to fatter bottom lines. Another program, the Michigan Farmers' Market Association's Hoophouses for Health, offers free hoop houses to farmers who accept food vouchers from low-income farmers' market customers.

Meanwhile, U.P. institutions – schools, hospitals and even prisons – are coming around to the idea that local produce has a place on their menus. Marquette Food Co-Op community liaison Natasha Lantz, who runs the U.P. Food Exchange along with Walk, is quick to stress that big institutions can't currently curate "100 percent U.P." menus. They can, however, use "featured" ingredients or dishes that come from the region. For instance, Sault Ste. Marie's War Memorial Hospital was able to source all of its lettuce from one area farm for a period of three weeks last summer. Area restaurants have begun to feature the U.P.'s bounty – and not just the ubiquitous whitefish – in specials and regular dishes as well. Many local institutions and restaurants have adopted aggressive "local sourcing" goals of 20 to 30 percent during the growing season.

U.P. institutions – schools, hospitals and even prisons – are coming around to the idea that local produce has a place on their menus.

The U.P. Food Exchange is responsible for much of the movement on this front. This winter, the organization hosted networking meet-and-greets for farmers, suppliers and end-users in Houghton, Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie, and Ontonagon. The sessions offered opportunities for local business owners and administrators to meet suppliers face-to-face and figure out how to leverage the U.P.'s increasingly robust agricultural infrastructure.

Changing the Culture: Farmers by Choice
Another exciting development in U.P. agriculture: the enthusiastic adoption of farming or livestock raising among first-generation farmers. Lantz identifies two basic groups of first-gen ag professionals: "back-to-the-land" types, who are often recent high school or college graduates and who see farming as a noble profession; and retirees or empty-nesters who see farming as a money-making hobby or second career. 

Both groups tend to operate smaller plots that include "large market gardens" and may raise goats, sheep, and poultry, which require less space and energy than cattle or hogs. (Although, contrary to popular belief, goats are picky eaters – "They pick through hay to find the best stalks," says Lantz.) 

MSU Extension's Chatham Research Center runs an "incubator farm" that introduces novices to basic farming techniques, hoop house operation and other vital techniques. It even rents plots of ½ to 1 acre for those who wish to complete a "residency program" and subsequently qualify for farm loans, which typically require three to five years of active farming experience.

Other initiatives may be even more promising. The USDA's Farm to School program complements local-sourcing drives at public schools with grants that fund classroom education – " the integration of food-related education into the regular, standards-based classroom curriculum," according to its website – and hands-on experiences for kids who lack day-to-day ag experience. With luck, the program will demystify the farming experience and create a generation of kids who know not only where their food comes from, but how to produce it themselves.

Not There Yet: Challenges and Trials
Despite a clear cultural shift and robust support for new and established farmers, logistical challenges remain. Given the area's isolation and inability to support "industrial" farming operations, it has always been difficult for U.P. farmers to reach major markets. An ongoing dustup with Wisconsin over whether the U.P.'s cattle herd can be certified as TB-free – it is, but the Badger State's powers-that-be point to an isolated downstate outbreak as evidence to the contrary – doesn't help.

According to Walk, the region's distribution infrastructure is slowly improving. A Traverse City-based firm, Cherry Capital Foods, recently began selling its downstate-grown tree fruits in Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette. Although nothing has been finalized, it's possible that the company will be able to help with "backhaul"– using its empty trucks to transport produce from the central and eastern U.P. to stores within the region, and perhaps all the way down to its home base. A few U.P.-based entrepreneurs have expressed interest in working with the U.P. Food Exchange, but it's too early to talk about specifics.

Processing and storage present similar problems. To eliminate dangerous "field heat," says Walk, farmers need to cool harvested greens as quickly as possible. On-site cold storage is critical, as is ample storage at the smaller stores and co-ops that often buy local produce (Harmony Health Foods of Sault Ste. Marie, for example, recently invested in a much larger cold storage facility.) MSU Extension currently offers food safety training for about five dozen small farmers; for larger farmers, Marquette Food Co-Op supervises the USDA's Good Agricultural Practices safety-certification program at harvest time. 

GAP is expensive, though – $92 per hour, per inspector, plus mileage, to be exact – so it's not realistic for small-timers. To compensate, MSU Extension is one of five "pioneer" groups working with the USDA to facilitate "Group GAP" certification, which allows smaller farmers to pool their resources at harvest time. A separate program, Marquette Food Co-Op's "Farm Safe," is designed to help even smaller farmers clear the food safety threshold.

One final issue: a meat-processing bottleneck across the U.P. There's just one USDA-approved processing facility in the region; since farmers can't sell certain cuts of non-USDA meat to restaurants, supermarkets and institutions, this is highly inconvenient. At the moment, locals can legally buy "shares" of livestock animals, but this is largely restricted to the private market. The good news: A custom processing facility in Rudyard may soon upgrade to full USDA certification.

The U.P.'s long, proud agricultural tradition has given birth to a decidedly modern farming industry. Here's to hoping that local farmers can overcome their challenges and bring us more of the tasty, homegrown treats to which we've become accustomed – and bring those products to an even wider customer base.

This article was originally posted in UP Second Wave.

Related Content