Market Rebound: Consumer demand brings back family farm

Consumer priorities are changing in terms of diet and food consumption, with more focus on natural, healthy, organic and locally grown foods, creating more demand for local family farms.

“We do have a vibrant and growing local food industry…small farms popping up all around the countryside,” said James Isleib, an Michigan State University (MSU) Extension crop production educator based in Munising.

Of the farms in the U.P., Isleib estimates up to 80 percent are small-scale operations that sell locally.

“There’s a lot of interest among consumers, including Upper Peninsula people, in knowing the farmers whose food they eat and how their products are raised, and there’s been a great increase in local farmers markets during the growing season,” Isleib said.

Most of these local farmers can’t support themselves on farming alone and have other jobs or a spouse who works elsewhere. For these farmers, that doesn’t matter. They have other reasons to work the land.

“It’s in their blood. A lot of farmers when you ask them, ‘What are you?’ they say, ‘I’m a farmer,'” Isleib said, even with off-farm jobs and careers.

“In their heart, they’re farmers.”

“Part of it is therapeutic,” said Michael Schira of the Hancock-based MSU Extension. “They don’t mind getting their fingers dirty and digging. They get self-satisfaction from producing and eating their own crops. Part of it is health, and they know what they are or aren’t using, as far as chemicals or chemical inputs and pesticides.”

Other reasons include self-sufficiency and education.

Lynn Gierke of Gierke Blueberry Farms stumbled into farming 13 years ago with the purchase of a you-pick patch.

“We have 3,500 bushes. We can’t eat all of those blueberries,” Gierke said.

People come from the entire western U.P. and northern Wisconsin to pick berries at the farm.

“I think it’s important for people to know where their food comes from,” she said.

For that reason she and her husband focus on education, teaching local kids and working with sustainable systems.

This push for fresh and local fruits and vegetables is great for the community, Schira said. The money is spent and reinvested in the area, and eating fresh foods promotes good local health.

“The fresher they are, the better their nutritional value,” he said.

With local farmers the relationships with the community are a big driver behind success, Isleib said.

Though few of the small farms are certified organic, consumers get to know the farmers and their techniques, which often are natural, Isleib explained.

“It’s very much relationship-based,” he said.