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Michiana 2027: The future of farming in southwest Michigan

It’s an industry that helped shape Michiana as we know it. And while farming continues to evolve, local farmers are split pretty equally between hope and concern for the future.

“It’s something that most people don’t have anymore – where they can say they’ve been on a piece of ground more than even 20 years, or been able to continue to farm it,” said Lou Ann Robinson, the co-owner of Jake’s Country Meats.

For Lou Ann and her husband, Nate, 20 years is only a chapter in the story of their farm.

The high school sweethearts are the sixth generation of Robinson’s to live and work in the Cassopolis area – a tradition that started in the 1870s.

“There used to be a farmer farming pigs on every corner of this county,” Lou Ann said. “And now it’s done by very few.”

A changing industry

And that’s the story nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wrote in 2013 that there are “growing numbers of very small and very large farms,” but “declining numbers of mid-sized farms.”

In Michigan alone, the number of farms has dropped from 196,000 in 1920 to 51,000 in 2016.

The Robinson’s are unique because they’ve expanded their pork business, Jake’s Country Meats, after downsizing their farm in 2008.

The family now sells to farmers markets, restaurants, and stores throughout Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois.

And now Nate and Lou Ann’s daughter, Renee, and her husband, Nick, are preparing to take over the farm – meaning the seventh generation will be in charge.

“I think we’re both very nervous,” said Renee Robinson-Seelye. “We know we have big shoes to fill and lots of pressure.”

“[It’s] a tough road,” Nick Seelye said.

“Yeah, we’re feeling it,” Renee said.

It’s a tough road in a tough industry.

Small and medium-sized farms like the Robinson’s are constantly needing to adapt. And it doesn’t matter what you’re farming.

“We added an office. Then we added a cold storage. Then we added another room,” said Dave Pagel. “We’ve probably added on five times to this building. And then we built a new storage across the road several years ago. So it’s just been a steady pace of growth over the almost 40 years.”

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, Pagel has been one healthy man for the last 40 years.

“I trace my ancestry, on both sides of my family, as far as I can – they’re all farmers,” he said.

The Republican state representative from Berrien Springs has called Pagel Produce his day job since he was 23.

And since he started, the industry has literally not stopped changing.

“This time of year I sell more honey crisp [apples] than any other variety,” Pagel said. “And when I was younger, that hadn’t even been invented yet.”

Pagel Produce primarily stores, packages, and delivers apples to local supermarkets that are grown by local growers.

The business has grown from about five employees to the 20 that work there today.

Pagel said the industry has changed a lot.

The types of apples grown in Berrien County are different than they used to be.

Technology continues to advance, meaning Pagel’s packing line is now controlled by computers and conveyor belts.

Climate change and southwest Michigan’s extreme seasons are more of a factor.

And Pagel said a bigger emphasis on food safety and how it is traced is costing him.

“Just my small packing shed here, we will probably invest $50,000 this year in additional funds in an effort to be proving ourselves safe for the market,” he said. “It doesn’t get us anymore income. It just keeps us in business.”

But Pagel said the biggest problem the fruit market faces right now, and moving forward, is finding enough workers to pick the fruit.

It’s usually done by migrants. But Pagel said fewer are coming to America each year because of the ongoing political debate about immigration.

“The workers that I’ve experienced and worked alongside all my life who are migrants – they’re very family-oriented; they’re the hardest working people I’ve ever known,” he said. “Our country, our society, our communities have nothing to fear from these folks. They do nothing but contribute.”

Pagel and the Robinson family may farm different fields, but they both think two things will keep their businesses, and others like them in Michiana, going strong in the years ahead: quality and hospitality.

“We know that we’re providing a service to them that they can’t get anywhere else,” Lou Ann said. “And so that’s a good thing.”

Commercialization

The future of farming in southwest Michigan is already happening about 30 minutes east of Cassopolis.

In a section of St. Joseph County, Michigan, corn cobs line the roads and commercialized farms rise higher than most buildings.

Constantine, Michigan is known as the ‘seed corn capitol of the world.’

Pioneer and Monsanto have their largest corn production facilities in the tiny town.

Big agriculture is growing rapidly.

But smaller farmers like the Robinson’s think they can coexist, even though commercialization is sometimes alluring.

“It’s attractive because of the money,” Renee said. “And where [Nick and I are] starting – we’re starting from the bottom. So we might be tempted to see what we can do just to generate more profit. But I have a feeling we’ll always stay to the core of what we’re doing.”

“We’re not in a fight against ‘Big Ag’ [big agriculture],” Lou Ann said. “Personally, I don’t feel that way. We feel that we offer an alternative to people. And if they’re seeking an alternative, then come see us.”

Family first

One thing that hasn’t changed over time is life on the farm.

The Pagel family’s first farm is just up the road from Pagel Produce.

Dave Pagel hopes his son will inherit the family business.

And back in Cassopolis, the eighth generation of Robinson’s is mostly tending to the jungle gym on their grandparents’ property right now.

But Eli Robinson, the oldest grandson, said he’s considering following in his family’s footsteps.

“It’s always kind of been a part of me,” Eli said. “And I kind of really just don’t want it to go away.”

The Robinson and Pagel families both explained they think farms like theirs will stay in business in this area for years to come because people are becoming more interested in what they’re eating, and how and where it’s grown.

They also agreed that when it comes to how the state treats its farmers, they feel respected and like they’re given a fair shot by Michigan’s government.

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