COVID-19 showed possibilities for smaller operations to succeed, though experts skeptical on major industry shift.
MICHIGAN — Alexander Ball has used his business acumen to own and operate his farm, Old City Acres in Sumpter Township, since 2013.
Ball, 26, of Belleville, who happens to be Black, is one of many small-operation gardeners who have taken a passion for the land and bred it into a successful business venture.
Coming from a family with a police officer father and a hospital-working mother, Ball found solace in farming. As someone who “gets bored easily,” he enjoyed the rigor that comes with rules and consistency as it pertains to maintenance and growth.
“It’s so complex that it’s impossible to master and impossible to get bored doing it,” said Ball, who received his associate’s degree from Rochester University, in Rochester Hills.
He, like other farmers, is at the mercy of weather and market invariability; what consumers want and how much of it they desire; and balancing growth with marketability in a way that they are harmonious.
But it goes beyond the physical action of gardening or farming. It’s about social power and education, he said, and reminding others of the work it takes to grow food and produce items—which, in turn, leads to a better understanding of the environment, human rights and labor issues.
“I go to talks and they’re expecting an old white guy,” he said. “When a black guy shows up, they go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.’
Leaving Chicago for a Different Lifestyle
Life has taken an interesting detour for Lindsay Steele, 36, of Brighton, and his wife, Katie.
The couple lived in a two-flat apartment in Chicago from the mid-to-late-2000s. He utilized his graphic design degree and worked at a large branding firm on products like Kraft foods and other types of grocery store-type packaging.
Their landlord had a small 4-foot-by-8-foot garden they were given permission to use behind the apartment. In their personal lives, they were already supporting community-supported agriculture (CSAs) and growing basil and storing pesto for the winter seasons.
“I was learning more and more about agriculture,” said Steele, originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “I was basically researching these projects I was working on.
After becoming disillusioned with his job and its methodologies—and asking himself the “Where do I want to be in five or 10 years?” question—he volunteered on a farm and felt reborn.
“It just lit me up,” he said. “My DNA was activated. It was the feeling of enjoying doing something. It was something that relaxed me. It was that times 10,000. I said, ‘OK, this is something I need to explore.’”
The pair moved to Wisconsin in 2012 “for a trial run” and lived there for a season, learning the art of farming. Now, they have two daughters.
“It seemed like a lot of the different parts of my life—the different skills I gathered along the way—were intersecting in the farm and the garden,” Steele said. “There was a lot of confidence in there. … I fell in love. From that point on, I couldn’t imagine ever doing anything else.”
Afterwards, they moved to Michigan and moved into the home where his wife grew up. That same year, Garden Fort was born and in business.
‘Working With Nature’ as Part of a Bigger Operation
A cooperative on 65 acres of land called Dawn Farm in Ypsilanti Township gave Jesse Tack, 41, an opportunity to thrive.
About a quarter-acre of the property is his, in what he describes as “market garden-style farming.” Small beds are about 30 inches wide, 50 feet wide. All hand tools are used; tillers tend to be scarce.
Tack has a music therapy degree from Eastern Michigan University. Pursuing his lifelong love of nature, and combining it with a strong interest in permaculture, gave him a newfound “love for the land.”
Now operating as a part-time musician and part-time self-identified market gardener, he defines organic-based principles as “working with nature rather than against it.”
That includes always keeping soil covered and not exposing raw soil; using space in an intensive manner, such as multiple crops in every bed, every season; using low-tech infrastructure; and increasing soil testing to make it as nutrient-dense as possible.
“I think that’s the way of the future for vegetable production and things like herbs and what not,” Tack said, mentioning land rentals with pocket farms and smaller plots that can be accomplished nearly everywhere.
Being Wise With Time and Money
Ball plants lettuce 40 to 50 times annually. Like most gardeners, he has one shot per year at successfully growing tomatoes.
“You’re constantly growing and pushing, pushing, pushing,” he said.
His is also a no-till farm operating for all four seasons. There are five unheated greenhouses, with four to five plantings in the same area. It is systematized, neat and orderly in tight places.
“I’m not gonna lie to you: (I started the farm) with literal blood, sweat and tears,” he said.
He borrowed a backyard to farm at age 18, used it for multiple months, and made himself part of multiple farmer’s markets. He kept expenses low to reduce long-term debt.
In year one, he made money. He realized that being a full-time farmer was sustainable.
“It’s an artform based around understanding national trends and the natural environment,” he said. “It takes dedication and understanding and hands-on field work. I realized I don’t need anything else from here.”
Getting Your Product Out and Trusting it Succeeds
Steele, who admitted he “had no idea and no plan” when he started, worked for a CSA and gained experience. He, too, was originally successful and “cast a wide net” by being interested in seed production, grains and animal agriculture.
Starting in year two, he did a couple farmer’s markets weekly in South Lyon and Milford. He developed relationships with local business owners and gained credible feedback. The market gardener scene became more viable, in terms of shared content online and fast-tracking information.
He calls his method “moreganic,” which involves tilling but minimizing soil impact for efficiency, maintaining social structures and microbial life.
Using his design expertise, he created a retail brand and started packaging greens to as many as nine stores across metro Detroit.
“I haven’t had to knock on any doors,” he said. “I established a good brand and good product and the customers just find us. … I do feel like the local food movement is big enough now to support more local farmers. I feel there’s more demand out there than demand being met by small local farmers or market gardeners, whatever you want to call them.”
A ‘Mixed Bag’ of Results Due to the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a “mixed bag” for Steele, with two full-time and two part-time employees. While losing restaurant business due to closures, his sales actually doubled the first couple months.
Tack lost 80% of restaurant clients, half of his clientele went out of business. Along with about a 10-member rotating CSA, he sells to an Ann Arbor restaurant and a grocery store.
“We’re bringing in more than we’re sending out,” he said. “It sounds weird to say, but it’s been a good year just with that piece of the puzzle.”
Ball said his gross sales have been “fantastic” during the pandemic. However, his expenses are 40% higher. The majority of his product is sold to his CSA membership of around 50, with a waiting list including 15 guaranteed members heading into next year due to the fear of not enough product.
A casual user, he said,
“We have sold so many shares this year, it has been insane,” Ball said.
The Agriculture Industry is All-Encompassing
Philip Howard, an associate professor in the department of community sustainability within Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources the past 14 years, studies food systems and steps involved between production, reaching plates and disposal.
He said small and medium-sized operations are more specialized, in terms of crop and customer diversity and not having to rely on commodity producers. On the flip side, they don’t receive subsidies from the federal government and he believes CSA’s are somewhat declining in popularity, due to the customer burden.
Trey Malone is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, also within MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
His job involves teaching, conducting research for stakeholders, and outreach. His department invokes the study of applied issues in the economy and looks at specific marketplaces, such as food supply chains, grocery stores, processing and the relevance of COVID-19—anything in the agriculture or environmental resource space.
“It’s impossible to just talk about the agriculture or food industry because they’re all intertwined food chains. … Every single one of these supply chains was designed for a different role,” Malone said. “A lot of it is based on the fundamental issues of biology.”
The experience between larger producers, like those in the pork industry, and smaller operations are dissimilar as smaller producers lean heavily into direct marketing for institutional sales. Due to their strategies and own relationships with consumers, small and medium-sized producers either feel the brunt from the pandemic or not as much.
Is a Paradigm Shift Occurring in Agriculture?
Malone said ease, simplicity and the fact that humans are “creatures of convenience” is a sign that people will continue to purchase produce from grocery stores into the future.
The pandemic has shined a structural light on the U.S. agriculture industry, which Malone said is viewed as the nation’s most positive industry. The silver lining for the small and medium producers “is that consumers have become extremely interested in where their food comes from.”
That is supported by a recent University of South Carolina study that found that residents purchased over $176 million more in 2018 from state farmers than they did in 2010. A USDA Economic Research Service study from 2018 found that households that buy directly from farmers tend to possess more health-conscious attitudes.
Howard said there is an “awareness” that U.S. citizens eat less fruits and vegetables than they should, which provides local producers to meet an increase in demand. Joining CSA’s is a way of acknowledging healthy living, and relishing in better tasting and more nutritious foods.
The future is cloudy: Will large farming operations stagnate and get smaller, or will bigger and more economically viable business people buy them out? Also, will more farmers enter the industry as the years continue?
The trend in dairy farming has provided somewhat of a glimpse.
“The challenge is, will we have enough farmers—or can we have the knowledge and skills that we need if this large-scale model is less and less viable?” Howard said. “Who will produce the food?”
Challenges Exist But Hope, Dedication Remain
Steele enjoys the “intimacy of being a gardener, where your feet are on the soil and you’re closer to the plants.” Whatever the future holds, he’s on board.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “It was this realization that you have this energy and, especially when you’re in your 20’s and 30’s, you’re in your peak productive period. I just wanted to be the change and move my energy into something that was going to be more beneficial.
“Farming was where I saw solutions to a lot of things I was concerned about in the world: pollution, soil, water, food quality, illnesses—doing good for the planet.”
Tack said future challenges include tenure and land ownership—such as if Dawn Farm wasn’t financially solvent or had to shut down. Access to capital is another aspect.
Ball said people want to be healthier and that “if we can be as convenient as a grocery store, more people will be buying local food.”
“I think COVID forced, in two weeks, all these institutions to develop these systems,” Ball said. “I think COVID advanced local agriculture by at least 10 years. I think that will help with agriculture in the long term.”