LACHINE - More than 40 farmers toured AJ's Berry Farm Tuesday as part of the 2013 Northeast Michigan Entrepreneurial Farm Tour offered by Michigan State University Extension.
The two-day event was organized by Dan Rossman, MSUE field crops educator and product center counselor for Gratiot County. His goal was to show downstate farmers other ways to make money in agriculture. Key is a growing consumer desire for farm-fresh ingredients and a hands-on understanding of where their food is coming from.
"There's more to farming than growing corn and soybeans," Rossman said. "We want farm families to look at their resources and their passions, and make sure they're doing something that the consumer wants."
News Photo by Betsy Lehndorff
Gerry MacArthur pauses at the wheel of a small tractor Tuesday as his son, A.J., in the back of a wagon, talks to downstate farmers about his successful U-pick berry farm off M-32 in Lachine.
The first day of the tour included stops at a seed potato farm; the Puddingstone Farm, which provides produce and livestock enterprises for farmer's markets; and the Kirkpatrick Farm in Herron. The group also stopped at the Hillman Incubator Kitchen, and Green Acre Farm, where Dan and Waylon Smolinski have tucked a wildlife food plot and deer camp in among the 3,000 acres of cash crops that they grow.
The last stop at 5:30 p.m. was AJ's on M-32 in Lachine. After a dinner of farm-raised beef, area potatoes, homemade bread and jams, A.J. MacArthur stood in the back of a wagon towed by a tractor and told visitors about his 80-acre operation. The 31-year-old started farming when he was 14 and managed to talk his parents, themselves long-time farmers, into letting him get into agriculture. The family also operates a road construction business.
MacArthur said he learned a lesson when he took his first crops to a farmers market and returned with half of them unsold.
"I realized I'd have to do something different," he said. "My parents told me I couldn't make a living on row crops."
Since his family had raised strawberries for several generations, MacArthur decided to plant a quarter acre. Today, that operation has grown to 13 acres, and is flanked by fields of asparagus, saskatoons, cover crops and and farm crops. He also has planted fruit trees and maintains areas for beneficial insects and wildlife.
"I tried to discourage A.J. from getting into farming because the money isn't there," his fatherGerry said. "But it seems he's surviving, and not doing too bad."
Although the family cannot get their strawberries into major grocery stores, their U-pick fields keep them afloat. Their best customers are those who pick hundreds of pounds of the berries every day and sell them out of their cars in parking lots and roadside stands.
"They haul a lot of stuff out of here," Gerry MacArthur said.
His son also has other ways of making the land produce year-round.
AJ's employees make 5,000 to 6,000 Christmas wreaths for the holiday season , when the weather gets colder, providing more income, Gerry MacArthur said. They also grow raspberries, pumpkins and squash and offer hayrides and tours.
"He's into everything to generate a little bit of money," Gerry MacArthur said.
The MSUE tour continues today with stops focusing on commercial fishing, limestone quarrying and saw mill ventures. The farmers will also visit Knaebe's Apple Farm in Rogers City, the Michigan Cranberry Company in Cheboygan and Witts Organic Gardens in Gaylord.
Rossman said he has organized past tours to other parts of Michigan as well as to Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, even Canada.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.