Dec 10, 2015
Michigan farm weathers ups and downs of growing fruit

August was an interesting month for Bardenhagen Farms.

The excitement started Aug. 2, when a nasty hailstorm passed through northwest Michigan, leaving a lot of damaged fruit in its wake. Fortunately, the Suttons Bay, Michigan, farm was on the northern fringe of the storm. The orchards were hit lightly in a few spots, but most of the major damage occurred south of Suttons Bay, said owner Jim Bardenhagen.

Later that month, Jim and his son decided to spray their tart cherries with conventional product, thus removing the cherries’ organic certification. Their tarts had been certified for a few years, but the prices they were getting for them weren’t high enough to justify the lower yields. Not to mention problems with the spotted wing drosophila (SWD), which can barely be controlled with conventional products these days.

“It was a tough decision,” Jim said. “My son struggled with that. He was the one motivated to go into organic certification in the first place.”

Rounding out an eventful month, apple harvest started Aug. 27. Harvest wasn’t too intense that day – just spot-picking Ginger Golds – but the start date was a little earlier than normal, he said.

But Bardenhagen, 71, has probably had his share of eventful months. A fifth-generation grower, his farm goes back 150 years or more. He’s also the former director of Leelanau County Extension. He retired from Michigan State University Extension several years ago, after 20 years of service.

Jim’s farm isn’t large. He owns a total of 80 acres, leasing about 45 of them. On the rest, he grows cherries, apples, potatoes and a handful of other crops. His two biggest concerns right now are adequate labor and the lack of reliable materials to deal with pests like SWD, which is starting to hit fruit in northwest Michigan hard.

“We’re what you call small potatoes,” he said with a laugh. “But we’ve got plenty to keep us busy.”

Keeping busy

Jim and his wife Jan have two grown children, son Chris and daughter Ginger, who “trickle back” to the farm when they get a chance. His daughter works for the state agriculture department and his son is finishing his Ph.D. downstate, but Jim expects they’ll take over the farm one day. He’s working on a succession plan now. His farmland is preserved through the local conservancy, and can only be used for farming “forever,” he said.

Jim’s nephew, Steve, owns another farm nearby, called Bardenhagen Berries.

As for future plans for the farm, Jim’s daughter and son-in-law are considering branching into hard apple cider. Sweet cider is another potential opportunity, since no one in the area is making it, but the food safety rules for sweet cider are so strict that they’ve passed on it for the time being. Hard cider rules are nowhere near as fussy, Jim said.

Jim grows 5.5 acres of apples. Most are sold fresh to local grocery stores and schools. Some are sold to stores, schools and restaurants downstate. They pack them fresh and buff them on the farm. They also supply a couple local farmers’ markets, and recently set up a stand in front of his house, where they sell apples, cherries, potatoes and eggs directly to customers.

“(The stand has) been a nice addition,” Jim said. “It allows us to sell retail without people coming to the house all the time.”

He’s been working with local school districts for some time. Schools can now spend more money on local food than they could in the past, which is a big advantage for small, local farms.

“Our real stress is local,” Jim said. “We think it’s a sustainable model for the future of our farm.”

His main apple variety is Honeycrisp, which takes up about 4 acres. Gala is another popular variety. Most of their school sales are Galas – and they try to keep them small, since kids can’t eat big apples. Liberty is a “great variety” too, and he’s really excited about Crimson Crisp, which he first planted in 2011.

“People love that variety,” he said. “It’s crisp and juicy just like Honeycrisp, but has just enough of a different flavor.”

Part of the reason he planted Liberty and Crimson Crisp is that they’re scab-free varieties. He was considering organic certification for his apples at one time, so scab-free was an important attribute.

Jim grows about 20 acres of tart cherries, 4 acres of dark sweet cherries and 2 acres of Balatons. He also grows red currants, grapes and a few plums. Currants are becoming more popular, but his grapes were wiped out by a May frost – the first time that’s happened. He grows just over an acre of creamer potatoes, too, and hopes to boost that to 3 acres next year – which would allow him to supply schools all winter. Potatoes are a lucrative niche market and help extend his cash flow, he said.

Labor has been a struggle lately, as it has for just about every grower. He keeps a handful of year-round workers, and hires up to 35 during Balaton harvest. He gets labor help from his nephew, who has a large worker camp on his farm. Jim said he tries to keep his full-time workers occupied throughout the year, so they can earn a living.

Matt Milkovich

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
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