Photography by Teri Genovese
Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture in the country, which means the Mitten State grows a lot of food — despite its long winter season. Local farms are thriving with the help of several factors, from increased technology that lets farmers better cultivate their soil to new business models that include on-site wine tastings, farm-to-table dinners and some even serving as event venues.
Grand Rapids Magazine talked with three family-owned farms to see how they are sustaining themselves and modernizing their businesses. The first, Visser Farms, is a century-old farm now on its fourth generation of ownership. The farm is a staple at local farmers markets and offers a Community Supported Agriculture program. It also supplies several farm-to-table restaurants in Grand Rapids. The second, Ed Dunneback and Girls Farm Market, also is a century-old farm that is focused on fruit crops. The farm is female-owned and is operated by the great-granddaughters of the farm’s founder, Ed Dunneback. The third farm, Green Wagon Farm, is one of the youngest farms in the area, with a decade of growing crops under the West Michigan sun. Owned by Chad and Heather Anderson, this farm is focused on serving up culinary experiences and introducing people to vegetables they may be less familiar with.
From our interviews, we’ve discovered that Grand Rapids has a thriving and modernized farm community. The local farms are working to meet Gen X’s, millennials’ and Gen Z’s unique need for experiences and easy, quick access to fresh produce.
Generational farming in the 21st century
With over 100 years of churning up soil, Visser Farms continues to adapt.
By Ann Byle
Phil Visser, a fourth-generation farmer and patriarch of Visser Farms in Zeeland, answers multiple calls on his cell phone as he drives through the dark-dirt fields in a pickup with treated lumber seats and bed and no sides. He talks to two workers separating garlic bulbs and planting individual cloves in long rows.
“Only three rows,” he says as the workers nod in agreement.
He heads over to the covered rows of spinach, lettuce and peas that were started in the greenhouses in February and recently transplanted into the fields and covered in small hoop greenhouses. Soon there will be radishes, broccoli, kale, u-pick strawberries, leeks, squash, pumpkins and shallots.
Greenhouses are filled with red onions, whose bright, light green tops are “mowed” to make sure the bulbs grow bigger. Some 500,000 onion plants soon will be put into fields. Greenhouses also house planters of flowers, leaf lettuce, fennel, celeriac, eggplant, peppers and all kinds of tomatoes.
As diverse as the types of produce are the ways in which Visser Farms sells the crops planted on 100 to 150 acres (it varies year to year). Visser Farms has been a staple at farmers markets for years, including the Holland, Grand Haven, Ada, Fulton Street, Rockford and Metro Health markets. Family members also make the trip to the Shipshewana Flea Market in Indiana to sell flowers in May and June.
Visser Farms offers a market-style Community Supported Agriculture program, in which members purchase points that can be used throughout the season at Visser market locations or the farm to purchase anything for sale including flowers, eggs, honey and u-pick berries. Buyers pick the quantity and kinds of produce, and a share size that fits their family. Points can be shared with friends and family, offering flexibility that traditional CSAs don’t have.
Visser estimates that half of the farm’s income comes from farmers markets, a quarter from selling CSA shares and a quarter from restaurant sales. Visser also participates in pop-up shops around the area. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales avenues and numbers are in flux.
“We have to be versatile and agile, and prepared to do stuff we don’t want to do,” said Visser, who admits that farmers markets aren’t for the introverted. He recalls people thinking his father was a mute because he didn’t talk at the markets.
Dutch immigrants Marinus and Maria Staal settled in Jenison in 1902 and began farming the rich soil. Their daughter Catherine married hired hand Casey Visser, who took over running the newly named Visser Farm. The eldest of their 10 children, Minard, continued the business, purchasing the Zeeland location in 1970. Minard and Anna Visser’s youngest son, Philip, currently owns and manages the farm with his wife Cindy. Four of their six sons work full-time on the farm, with other family members and friends pitching in as needed. Minard continued working on the farm until his death in March 2019.
While much about farming stays the same — dirt, water and sunlight still are necessary — technology has changed everything.
“I used to leave home and never hear from anyone all day,” said Visser, holding up his cell phone. “Now I can answer questions immediately.”
Soil testing technology allows him to know exactly where to fertilize, cutting down on fertilizer use and preventing over-fertilization. Tech also means it’s easier to invoice, price check and order parts, which are shipped in days instead of weeks.
Some things are still hard: paperwork and government regulations, market fluctuations and weather.
“I work every day except Sunday, from 3:30-4 a.m. until about 4 p.m.,” said Phil Visser, heading off to check more fields and answer more phone calls. “Some things you just have to do by hand.”
For information about farmers markets and CSA shares, visit visser-farms.com.
‘U-pick’ at this family farm
Ed Dunneback and Girls Farm Market wants you to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
By Pasha Shipp
Just north of downtown you’ll find Ed Dunneback and Girls Farm Market — a fruit farm that’s been serving the community for nearly 100 years. Today, the farm offers a variety of “u-pick” opportunities and festivals to celebrate the crop of the season. Stephanie Ginsberg, the great-granddaughter of the farm’s original owner, Edwin Dunneback, operates the farm with her mom and sister.
“We offer u-pick asparagus, u-pick strawberries, u-pick sweet and tart cherries, u-pick apples and u-pick pumpkins,” Ginsberg said. “During the fall, we have the corn maze and then we also do our sunflower festival in August. Whatever’s fresh at that time of year, we kind of make it a festival and we’ll have a day of food all focused around whatever we’re picking.”
Picking your own produce may be the big draw for the farm, but guests also can enjoy a meal and a craft beer in the Pink Barrel Cellars taproom.
“We started the process a couple of years ago, applying for our small winemakers and our microbrewery license, and now we’re making our own beer, wine and hard cider,” Ginsberg said. “We have the tasting room in the back of the barn, and I brought my cousin Kim back, and she’s taken over the kitchen and really ramped up our menus, so you can come out and eat homemade food and drink beer, wine and hard cider.”
If you’re looking for a more curated farm experience, Ed Dunneback and Girls also hosts dinners and theme parties.
“We had an islands on the farm party, we had a Valentine’s Day party, and we had live music back in the barn,” Ginsberg said. “We’re going to try to have a dinner at least once a month and offer it in conjunction with a local chef here, like chef Jenna (Arcidiacono). There are a couple of other chefs from Terra, and the (former) chef from Grove might come out and do a dinner, too.”
The farm is situated in Fruit Ridge — a stretch of land in West Michigan known for the quality of its soil.
“It pretty much starts right where our farm is,” Ginsberg said. “It’s a portion of Michigan that has the right elevation — really good growing soil. It’s really just a prime growing location for tree fruit.”
Of course, things are a lot different from when Ginsberg’s great-grandfather started the farm in the 1920s. Today, the farmers leverage science in addition to learned experience to inform their growing practices.
“A lot of things have been passed down generation to generation,” Ginsberg said. “There are a lot of things like knowing what can be planted where on your farm, but we can do soil samples and maybe we can add something to our ground — a mineral or a fertilizer or something that would make our ground a little bit healthier or stronger for growing particular crops.”
Preventing insect damage also has changed considerably. The farm works with Michigan State University Extension on integrated pest management practices to prevent as much insect damage as possible.
“When we have a pest or an insect that is infiltrating our orchard that could damage the apples, we have these traps that are out on our trees,” Ginsberg said. “We have scouts that come out and they check our traps once a week and then they tell us what’s going on and what they’re seeing. We’re using different pheromones — so it’s a smell that would deter specific bugs from coming in our orchard.”
Though “u-pick” experiences are a staple of summer and autumn in Grand Rapids, Ginsberg wants folks to savor their time on the farm as opposed to simply checking it off their seasonal to-do list.
“My whole goal is to have people come out with their friends or family and just relax and enjoy and not rush through it,” she said. “Don’t just come out and get your donuts and pick your apples. Come spend the day and just relax,” she continued. “Sit and just enjoy time with your family and friends, maybe eat something, have a beer, have a glass of wine, maybe listen to some music, maybe just hang out and enjoy it and enjoy the fresh air.”
Modern farm plans culinary experiences
With 10 years under its belt, Green Wagon Farm is looking to bring its customers to the table.
By Roni Devlin
Author-activist-farmer Wendell Barry once asked why, when faced with economic adversities on top of the many other frustrations and difficulties inherent to working the land, do farmers farm? His answer, “Love. They must do it for love.”
Chad and Heather Anderson, owners of Green Wagon Farm, seem to understand this sentiment perfectly. They operate their certified organic farm with a fierce commitment to their working family, a deep fondness for the region and its natural resources, and a desire to be an active, influential part of their community.
Chad grew up on a small hobby farm in West Michigan, studied business in college and served in the Peace Corp in Uganda prior to starting Green Wagon Farm in 2010. Heather, who also was raised in the area, holds a degree in culinary excellence and acts as the resident chef and market master while also influencing the appealing aesthetic of their business.
Green Wagon Farm is a year-round endeavor for the Andersons, their three children and about a half dozen employees (though this number doubles in the busy season). Heather makes breakfast and lunch every day for the Green Wagon crew, and these meals serve as both a necessary connection for the work family, as well as a testing ground for recipes involving harvested crops (particularly underappreciated vegetables) that can then be shared with the community at markets, online and via the farm’s newsletter.
The team at Green Wagon Farm is acutely aware of the unique seasonal influences in Michigan, but also fully committed to farming practices that preserve healthy water, soil and air. The growing season at Green Wagon Farm is extended on both ends by planting not only in fields, but also in a greenhouse, numerous hoop houses and caterpillar and low tunnels. These measures, along with storage of fall crops in insulated coolers through the winter, have allowed Green Wagon Farm to offer a unique community-supported agriculture (CSA) membership that gives customers complete control over their choice and quantity of produce all year long, a model which few other farms in Michigan are able to sustain.
Chad’s background in business and his penchant for data collection has translated into ongoing improvements in soil conditions, systems processing and farm efficiency. Pest-damage at Green Wagon Farm is reduced by careful seasonal rotation and exclusion by row covers, as well as use of organic certified plant, fungal or bacterial-based sprays when needed. Overhead irrigation is used to assist in the germination of some crops while reducing manual labor and plastic waste. The soil is tested at least once a season so that mineral supplements, manures and the farm’s own compost can be used to return nutrition to the land.
The Green Wagon Farm crew always is looking for ways to better meet the needs of its customers, especially given the ever-evolving local food culture.
In part influenced by the social distancing strategies made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, Green Wagon Farm now offers online sales of its produce in addition to its ongoing market stalls in Holland and Grand Rapids, and it has a robust website and social media presence that keeps the farm connected to the community.
Green Wagon Farm has fostered close partnerships with chefs at a number of local farm-to-table restaurants and grocery stores, and its produce can be found in menu items at Reserve Wine & Food, The Sovengard and Harmony Brewing Company, while Harvest Health Foods stocks its pea shoots and microgreen mixes.
Chad and Heather are active in the West Michigan Growers Group, a functional collective of regional farmers that helps link those who grow food with those who eat it. Another major project in the works is a collaboration with Cascade Township, Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan Agritourism Association to update ordinances, which would allow classes, meals, small gatherings and tours at Green Wagon Farm.
Goals for the future include plated five- to six-course farm meals prepared by one of its employees (a former executive chef), intimate weekly farm-to-table meals with groups from the community and the addition of a commercial kitchen that could lead to further food products and culinary courses.