It takes serious sisu to grow food in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Sisu is a Finnish word—the peninsula has more people of Finnish descent than any place outside Finland—that translates roughly as fortitude or stoic persistence. It appears on bumper stickers and souvenirs around the U.P., as the region is known. A deep reserve of sisu is a requirement just to get through a U.P. winter, let alone to make a living by farming.
If you’re picturing the fertile flatlands of Lower Michigan, forget it. The U.P. is to southern Michigan as a mountain lion is to a housecat. It’s a ruggedly beautiful land of vast forests and wild Great Lakes shores that includes a third of the state’s land mass but just 3 percent of its people. The region’s soils are generally poor and its snows are epic. Last winter the two snowiest cities in the country were both in the U.P. Two years ago, more than 28 feet of snow fell in some parts of the area.
And the growing seasons are fleeting—as short as 60 days in some spots, while some Lower Peninsula farms enjoy a season three times as long. Greenhouses or hoophouses—their relatively inexpensive, plastic-covered, low-tech cousins—are all but essential to extend the season and fend off killing frosts that aren’t out of the question in mid-July.
The region’s remoteness is precisely what many Yoopers—as its inhabitants are known—love about living in the U.P. But its isolation contributes to unemployment rates above the state average and limited access to fresh food. While small general stores are found at many crossroads in the area, it’s not uncommon to drive 50 miles or more to the nearest fully stocked grocery store.
Improving food security is one of the top goals of the North Farm, a Michigan State University incubator farm launched last year to give beginning growers the tools they need to overcome the punishing U.P. climate and develop profitable enterprises. It’s part of a broader push to strengthen the economy through local food systems in a region that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is largely a “food desert.”
Using a $500,000 USDA grant, MSU researchers have breathed new life into the 160-acre, long-fallow farm. It’s part of the larger Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center, established in 1899 in Chatham, a village of just over 200 people in the central U.P. about seven miles south of Lake Superior.
“The ultimate goal here is to get more farmers with boots on the ground in the U.P.,” says farm manager Collin Thompson. The North Farm offers internships and weekend workshops for gardeners and small growers. Plans are also in the works for a program to begin in 2017 that will introduce novice farmers to agriculture.
The incubator program is a two-year apprenticeship for growers who have some experience with agriculture and are ready to launch a business. They get access to tools, equipment and a small plot of land, “so they can focus on other things in those two years, put a little money in their pocket and step out with some experience” in running a farm, Thompson says. The plan is to eventually have six businesses—three first-year and three second-year farmers—incubating on the North Farm each season.
Landen Tetil, the lone member of the incubator’s inaugural 2015 class, grew a whopping 147 varieties of crops on a half-acre plot in her first year, and marketed her produce through a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription, farmers’ markets, and restaurants. She used a hoop house to grow tomatoes and basil but grew the rest of her produce outside, covering some sensitive crops with protective fabric early and late in the season.
Choosing the cold-adapted Blacktail Mountain variety, she grew a bumper crop of watermelons without the help of plastic or fabric. And even though many dry beans take more than 100 days to mature, Tetil stayed true to her business name—Bean Pole Farm—and grew them successfully by keeping them in a greenhouse until June.
“I like to tell people that I was born to be a farmer,” she says. “It just took me a while to figure out. I like to know people are well-fed because of me. And when it’s vegetables—something really good and nutritious for their bodies—that’s the thing that motivates me the most.”
Along with supporting apprentice farmers, Thompson is growing food on about six acres as a way to provide some income for the North Farm and try out new tricks he can pass along to others. And he’s finding success. He said he was surprised that he can grow salad greens in hoop houses over the winter and harvest them early in spring.
Thanks to an old root cellar, the North Farm was still selling potatoes and carrots in January. And by covering rows with low tunnels—4-foot wide metal hoops covered in plastic—he was able to grow onions (a crop that requires a notoriously long growing window) over the winter and get them to market last July, a good two months ahead of most area growers.
That timing is important, Thompson said, because it means the North Farm can provide Yoopers with access to fresh food for more of the year, while also ducking out of the market when other growers are hitting their peak harvest.
“We’re being pretty intentional with our marketing, realizing we’re a university-affiliated farm and we don’t want to be in competition with other farmers,” he says. “We want to grow the market for everyone and make mistakes so others don’t have to.”
One way Thompson hopes to grow the market for local food is by selling more of it through a food hub called the U.P. Food Exchange. Launched in 2012 by the Marquette Food Co-op, MSU Extension, and the Western U.P. Health Department, the exchange provides an online marketplace where the North Farm and about 15 other growers sell directly to a handful of institutional buyers.
“We consider the exchange a resource portal for anyone looking to connect with local food in the Upper Peninsula,” says Natasha Lantz, outreach director for the Marquette Food Co-op, one of three “sub hubs” that will serve as aggregation and distribution sites for the exchange.
So far, Marquette is the only sub hub to begin aggregation and distribution. “We are just now—as in this month—starting to distribute food from here,” Lantz said in January. “We are right on the cusp of all of this.”
This is not the only way Marquette is at the vanguard of U.P. food culture. In 2013, Marquette County devoted an entire chapter of its comprehensive plan to building food security. Nearby Chocolay Township recently established a permaculture park to get the community involved in sustainable agriculture. And, along with the food co-op and other partners, the county also just hired a consultant to study the prospects of bringing a new meat processing facility to the region. Area institutions are interested in buying local meat and farmers are eager to provide it, but the U.P. now has only one USDA-licensed processor.
The community’s thriving local food scene exists in large part because of the co-op, which boasts 4,000 members in a city of about 21,000. It recently moved into a new, environmentally friendly building three times the size of its former space, and has become downtown Marquette’s biggest employer. The store did $8 million in sales last year, up from $3 million five years ago. It’s the largest purchaser of food through the U.P. Food Exchange, including produce from the incubator farm.
“North Farm is doing a fabulous service in training new farmers in organic food production,” says Matt Gougeon, manager of the co-op. “They’re at a point right now where they’re ready to produce what’s needed and move product.”
Gougeon says the U.P. food system has a lot of growing to do, but Yoopers have the right stuff to make agriculture succeed.
“It’s just kind of an attribute of living in the U.P., that sense of resiliency,” he says. “People in general up here are fiercely independent. But that only works if you realize you have to rely on one another.”