LAKE CITY — Technological progress has made it possible for farmers right here in Northern Michigan to compete for market share on a global scale ... assuming that's what they'd like to do — some choose a different path.
At Maple Leaf Farm and Creamery in Missaukee County's Aetna Township, owners Jeannie and Dan Suggate have found that old fashioned planting, harvesting and milking methods suit their needs just fine.
The 40-acre farm is home to 75 goats, which they milk two at a time with a bucket milker that went out of style decades ago.
Jeannie said most modern farms have a parlor that milks several animals simultaneously, with the milk piped directly into a dairy reservoir; at Maple Leaf Farm, they still have to transport the milk manually in buckets. With all the cleaning and moving around of equipment involved, Jeannie estimated it takes them about twice as long to milk the goats as it would a farm with more state-of-the-art technology.
Their milking operation isn't the only aspect of the farm that has remained old fashioned: they do all their fieldwork with a small John Deere tractor and a couple of attachable implements from a bygone era.
"When we were harvesting our hay last summer, our hay was so tall and thick we couldn't mow it down with our small hay bind so we had a neighbor come with his big tractor and in an hour and a half he had it all mowed down," Jeannie said. "It would have taken Dan eight and a half hours to do the same job."
Jeannie said they have chosen to keep their farm small because the cost of buying new equipment is prohibitive and frankly, they don't need to.
The Suggates have identified a niche market in goat cheese, which they make themselves on the farm and sell to their clients.
Maple Leaf Farm is what is known as a community shared agriculture operation, meaning people can pay an annual fee in order to be supplied with goat cheese and other goods produced on the farm, including vegetables, cut flowers, and honey harvested from bees on site.
While their primary source of revenue comes from the cheese, the Suggates also open the farm to visitors and school kids, who get to learn about various aspects of agriculture and where food comes from. It's these types of programs that Jeannie said she especially enjoys.
"I just love agritourism and educating kids," Jeannie said.
Jodi DeHate, Missaukee Conservation District Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program Technician for Missaukee, Wexford, Kalkaska, and Crawford counties, said agriculture has changed a lot since the 1940s, when small farms dotted the American countryside, with each producing just enough food to feed a family.
Over the years, these farms have gradually disappeared, giving way to larger operations with a much more business-oriented approach to the profession.
In a way, DeHate said technology has created a world where not as many people need to farm; the ones that are still doing it today do it much more efficiently than their predecessors.
It's still a hard job requiring long hours and constant attention but DeHate said technology has automated many of the processes that previously had to be done by hand.
Missaukee County is known for its dairy farms, and few operations have benefited more from automation; in fact, DeHate said it's nearly impossible nowadays for a dairy farm to be successful without technologies such as automatic milking parlors and — increasingly — computer technology installed in tractors that improves planting and harvesting productivity.
While some farmers take the path of technological proliferation and expansion to achieve success, smaller operations such as Maple Leaf Farm have persevered by tapping into an underserved market.
DeHate said there is definitely a limit when it comes to technology use on a farm: for instance, while some farmers might enjoy using a drone over their fields, it's not something that has been shown to drastically improve crop production.
On the other hand, DeHate said even some of the biggest farms with the best technologies still revert to old-school methods and philosophies from time to time.
DeHate said there has been something of a resurgence in regenerative agriculture methods such as relay cropping and no-tilling. She said these methods have been around a long time to preserve soils, including during the 1930s in response to the Dust Bowl storms, which were created through a combination of deep tilling and bad crop rotation.
"We're seeing some of these ideas catching on again," DeHate said.