Eating seasonally: An insider’s view of carrot production in Northwest Lower Michigan
Cultivate Michigan tour participants experience the importance of purchasing locally through a recent featured food tour.
Picture this: a summer sky, smattered with clouds draped over a historic barn, adorned with hanging garlic heads, waiting to be bunched for the next CSA distribution. This was the ‘still life’ scene that greeted visitors at Providence Organic Farm and CSA, in Central Lake, to attend the Cultivate Michigan tour that focused on one of this summer’s featured foods: carrots. As the group quickly learned, however, this small, but scaling-up farm was a buzz of activity and innovation.
Cultivate Michigan, a campaign of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network, assists institutional food providers to source 20 percent of their food purchases from within the state of Michigan. The campaign and network assist food providers to work towards this goal by hosting a data purchase tracking platform, offering seasonal food marketing materials and hosting educational experiences to connect food providers to food producers throughout the state.
Providence Farm was recommended as a tour site by Cherry Capital Foods, a local food hub and distributor who purchases and sells many of the farm’s carrots. As tour participants learned throughout the course of the few hours spent at the mid-size, diversified farm, carrots are an important staple of the farm’s crop plan.
In one year, Providence produces about 30,000 pounds of carrots, a number which has progressively increased over the years. The majority of that quantity is planted for late fall harvest and storage carrots; however, the tour participants were lucky enough to witness a row of the smaller summer crop being harvested.
Up until a few years ago, harvesting was bottle neck for the carrot crop. This was prior to acquiring the 1975 retro-fitted carrot harvester, which makes quick work of what used to be a tedious, primarily hand labor harvest. Now, a crew of three staff can harvest between 800 – 1,000 pounds of carrots in an hour, into bins (pictured above) with a capacity of about 800 pounds. A video of the harvester at work can be viewed at the farm’s YouTube channel here.
Now that the harvesting process has been streamlined, post-harvest handling can also be the bottleneck for the carrot crop. The owners of the operation, Andrea and Ryan Romeyn, decided to build a new wash and pack barn in 2016 to address the issue. Now operational, the barn touts an industrial washer, plenty of roller pathways for produce-filled boxes, and a larger walk-in cooler for storage. The new facility is Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified and has assisted the farm in expanding their wholesale operation.
While success stories of marketing and scaling up seemed to abound on the tour of the farm, participants also learned that farming on this scale, with notable crop diversity, is not without challenges. The owners of the farm shared that weed pressure has been unusually high this year, which has been a common theme for other producers in the area. Additionally, finding enough labor has been very difficult. Consistent with other farming operations around the state, the number of migrant laborers has been significantly less compared to past years. In previous years, Providence has had the assistance of twice as many migrant laborers working with them after they harvested at some of the larger orchard operations in the area. This year, only a handful of workers returned.
And yet, the farm business perseveres. Last winter, they attempted a first time winter CSA, which was wildly successful. It contained storage crops, including carrots, along with many products grown in hoophouses with season extension practices.
A recurring theme on the tour was how beneficial local customers were to the business. The owners emphasized and re-emphasized that their customers’ purchases helped to finance the new barn, various pieces of equipment, and the homestead in general. “Customers are critical to our survival…we want to be transparent to those people who support us,” said Andrea Romeyn. Overall, the tour reinforced the impact of purchasing produce locally, and truly made the case for why institutions with large purchasing power should commit to incorporating more Michigan products into their menus.