Whether the trend for “buying local” is attributed to the farmer-foodie culture or the farm-to-plate movement, the people who are buying from farmer’s markets and roadside stands are discovering the difference in produce that is raised for consumption rather than engineered for long-distance travel.
Throughout the country, small-acreage farmers growing anything from cherries toflowers are attracting consumers looking for quality, flavor or simply a fun day in the country. Pick-your-own farms, considered direct marketing as well as agri-tourism, actually get the customers to do the harvesting.
While the grower may not depend on a middleman to sell the produce, they do rely on equipment dealers for machinery expertise and support. Pick-your-own farms need tractors, sprayers and other implements to be efficient and ensure there is enough produce to sell during the busy tourist season.
“Raising crops such as cherries is labor-intensive. There are many more steps than corn or soybeans. For example, more spraying is required to protect the trees from diseases and pests — growers may need to spray the orchard once a week,” says Ron Gillison of Gillison’s Variety Fabrication. “Keeping the equipment running is very important.”
With three locations in Northwest Michigan, Gillison’s is a specialty equipment manufacturer with customers worldwide. In addition to selling its own products, it’s northern Michigan’s dealership for Massey Ferguson (it’s an AGCO Master Certified Service dealer) and a number of shortlines. Gillison’s headquarters in Benzonia, Mich., is in cherry country. “Much of the equipment we’ve produced over the years was designed for the cherry industry,” says Gillison. “Growers are working with a fragile product — you can’t run it through a combine.”
Dan and Beth Stowe sell cherries at their road- side stand (pick-your-own or fresh-picked) as well as directly to processors. Beth and the kids work the stand while Dan runs the mechanical harvesting operation in their orchard in Northport, Mich.
Great in Number
There is a trend among small-acreage operations that would interest rural lifestyle equipment dealers. The 2007 Census of Agriculture, conducted every 5 years by the USDA, found that in Michigan between 2002 and 2007 the total number of farms increased 5% to 56,014. The majority of these new farms tend to be small, diversified operations with fewer acres, lower sales and younger operators who have day jobs away from the farm. Nearly 80% of the farms in Michigan are less than 200 acres, and 87% of them are family operated.
Organizations such as the Leelanau Conservancy and the Michigan Land Use Institute work to preserve the state’s farms and the quality of rural life by striving to increase profits. The latter published a white paper in 2009 that showed there were opportunities to increase the sale of fresh produce in northwestern Michigan. An estimated 1.4 million visitors go to the region, which includes the shorelines and sand dunes of Leelanau Peninsula as well as orchards where more than 80% of Michigan’s sweet cherries and 52% of the tart varieties are grown. Agritourism in Michigan brought in $23 million — compared to only $3.3 million in 2002. Agriculture is a significant contributor to the region’s economy — yet only 52% of the farmers listed farming as their primary job, and the average farm size in the region is 137 acres.
A Cherry Opportunity
Dan and Beth Stowe of Northport, Mich., grew up on Leelanau Peninsula — Dan in Northport and Beth in Suttons Bay — and returned to the area as soon as they could after college. Both are teachers in town and also became farmers 15 years ago, when they first rented and later acquired land from Dan’s father. The Stowes have cherry trees on 50 acres and put 20 acres in hay for a few Red Poll or Holstein cattle they raise for beef. Growing fruit such as cherries requires careful planning and patience. This year, 20 acres planted in 2000 will be harvested for the first time.
Hand-picked cherries are sold directly to customers at their stand, located along a main road north of Northport, or customers can pick them from the tree. The Stowes also mechanically harvest fruit for sale to processors, which involves a tree shaker and tractors to load the collected cherries into trucks.
They grow several varieties of cherries “because our challenge is to extend the growing season so all the fruit doesn’t ripen at the same time,” says Dan Stowe. “People want a choice and we have to sell produce for as long as we can. The weekends are the biggest days for sales.”
With demanding full-time jobs and busy summers working with the farm and their customers, Dan and Beth depend on their local equipment dealers to help keep the operation running smoothly. “We do most of our business with Gillison’s and have a good relationship with them, simply because I have yet to find anything they can’t fix,” says Dan. “They build cherry harvesters from scratch, so they know equipment. If I’m in a jam, they can make it happen. And their pricing has been competitive.”
He has purchased tractor attachments, mowers, sprayers and cultivators from Gillison’s store in Traverse City. As a Massey Ferguson dealer, the Stowes also buy hay equipment parts from them, as well.
When he started farming, Dan Stowe’s goal was to buy equipment on a rotation, so every year he would replace something as a way to ensure there would be less downtime. But the reality of business is that profit margins are tight, and there’s little time for equipment failures. Stowe relies on people who can repair the equipment used on his farm.
While he works to get as much life out of the fleet as possible to ensure a strong ROI on his machinery, he keeps the equipment that is critical to the operation updated constantly.
There are certain pieces of equipment that Dan Stowe can’t take a chance on being down. “Probably the most important tools on the farm is our sprayer,” he says. Stowe uses a 400 gallon Pul-Blast pull-type unit made by Rears Mfg.
“The sprayer maintains the quality of the fruit. If our tree-shaking machine works perfectly and we’re dropping poor-quality fruit on the tarp, we’re in trouble. We must have a quality product for direct sales. To me, that is a matter of, ‘is your sprayer hitting the right part of the tree at the right time with enough of the right stuff?’ If it’s not, problems will show up during harvest.”
Vital equipment also includes the tractors that are used to pull the implements between the trees. Stowe has purchased Kubota M8200 Narrow 4-wheel-drive tractors from Ginop Sales in Williamsburg, Mich. outfitted with orchard cabs and carbon filtration systems. He has been pleased with the service they have received from Ginop, as well.
The Stowes are typical of the rural lifestyle customer in that they’re not concerned with the color of their tractors. “When it comes to working with dealers, I’m not worried about what brand of tractor I drive — I’ve got a John Deere, Kubota, Massey Ferguson and an old International. My big concern before I write the check is how well the dealer will support the tractor, and for how long. This business is a weather game and I’ve got to make sure this equipment is going to run when I need to use it.”
Because he and his wife are both teachers, Dan Stowe (in yellow) says they have been lucky to hire students to help during the busy summer. With hired help keep- ing two operations running at once (mechanical harvesting and hand picking), equipment uptime is vital. Dan places a high value on dealer support.
Decisions to be Made
Gillison has found that when “we offer equipment to growers that will replace hand labor, save money or make a farmer more efficient, it’s been an easy sale. This includes mechanical trimming and better ways to spray. Once they see what they can save, it can be an eye-opener to them.”
Cherry operations changed quickly when mechanical harvesters were perfected in the 1960s, says Gillison. The crop went from being 99% hand-picked to nearly all mechanical in less than 10 years. Today mechanical harvesting still dominates the industry for growers and equipment sellers alike.
The two parts to Stowes’ cherry business — selling to processors and direct to customers — require different strategies in terms of equipment, staffing and sales. At the roadside stand, which is a temporary canopy with tables, “we sell only hand-picked fruit or let the customers pick it themselves,” says Dan Stowe. Four or five varieties are often available at the same time. “Some growers will shake the cherries and put them in quarts and sell them at the road, but that causes the cherries to go bad quickly. The hand-picking is key.”
For 15 years, the Stowes have hired two or three local students to work the stand with Beth, while a dedicated, more experienced crew that Dan is in charge of runs an older FMC tree shaker to drop the cherries onto tarps and load into boxes, a job that involves tractors, front-end loaders and trucks to get the fruit to the buyer.
“We’ve seen many of these fresh fruit farms come and go,” says Dan Stowe. “It’s not always as much fun as everybody thinks it is. It’s hard work. And, like any business, you have to keep going when things don’t go well.
During the busy season we’ll have two operations going at the same time. Sometimes Beth will be busy at the stand and I’ll have equipment that’s broken down among the trees. Then it’s a matter of circling the trucks for their headlights and trying to get the machine fixed before the crew shows up in the morning.”
Dan Stowe worries that he may eventually be faced with replacing two or three machines used for cherries for processing. If it happens at the same time, the Stowes would have to consider not replacing the machinery at all. That “would remove me from harvesting mechanically and put us only in the fresh fruit business.”
Open for Flower Picking
Carolyn Faught’s Omena Cut Flowers business features 40 different varieties in 26 beds. The garden shed at left is the center of the you-pick portion of her business, which represents 40% of her sales. Faught and her husband both have day jobs, so the you-pick operation runs on the honor system.
Just outside of Suttons Bay, a few miles south of Northport but still on Leelanau Peninsula, Carolyn Faught runs a you-pick-farm that features an entirely different product but one that’s just as meaningful: flowers.
Faught once bought several sunflowers to cheer up a coworker. They were so popular with the rest of the staff they left to buy their own, but the market was already sold out. That started an idea that became Omena Cut Flowers, which opened in 1998.
She started with six flowerbeds and sold bouquets on a subscription basis. The next year, the pick-your-own business was born to take advantage of the summer tourist traffic that drove past her gardens daily.
Today, she has 26 flowerbeds on three-quarters of an acre, and 40% of her business comes from customers who want to pick their own flowers. Throughout the season customers can choose from more than 40 varieties of annual and perennials.
The you-pick flower business requires a lot of hand labor to weed between the flowers. She admits that the “machinery isn’t the most exciting part of this business, but it wouldn’t happen without it. Flowers are a unique crop, and they’re very labor-intensive. If you don’t love weeding you could never do it.”
Although much of the work must be done by hand, a walk-behind rotary tiller is one machine she can’t do without. She wore out several consumer-grade tillers before deciding to rent a heavy-duty unit from a local hardware store. She recently purchased a powerful Honda FRC800 rear-tine tiller that she says is “just a dream,” as it allows her to till certain beds as needed, rather than trying to get it all done before the rented tiller needs to be returned. A Honda-powered Snapper riding lawn mower is also used to keep the farm looking presentable.
She bought the tiller at Ferguson’s Lawn Equipment in Traverse City. “We have our equipment serviced there too, and I listen to their recommendations when it comes to equipment. I think because we’ve had such a good experience with Honda engines in the past that we were Honda bound, really. But Ferguson’s has a good reputation, so we went there first.”
Selling on the Honor System
Many customers drive past Omena Cut Flowers, see the sign and stop on impulse.
A walk-behind rotary tiller like this one is essential to Carolyn Faught’s you-pick flower business near Suttons Bay, Mich.
Others live in the area and visit weekly to pick fresh bouquets. “Some people will come to visit their cottages, and every year this is the first place they stop with their kids to pick their bouquet for their table. It’s a tradition for many families.”
Because Faught and her husband have other jobs, the you-pick business is an entirely self-service operation. Open during the daylight hours from May through October, there’s a shed in the center of the garden that holds flower-picking supplies.
The flowers are organized by row and the pricing varies: the popular peonies are $1.25 a stem, while lavender is 5 cents a stem — the average price is 30 cents a stem. Faught has had very little trouble with the honor system: “People who pick flowers are good people. They usually leave more money than the flowers they take.”
For many customers of Omena Cut Flowers, the experience goes beyond picking a bouquet for the table. “A lot of people don’t have their own flower garden and it’s a really spiritual thing for many of them. For me, the big reason I do this is because of what it means to people.”
Because, Faught says, it’s a lot of work. “It might help to be insane to do this, but I really love it.”