The Michael Family: Front row, L to R; Kyle, Phyllis, Doug, Megan, and Kathy Michael; Back row, L to R; Josh, Todd, Scott, and Kurt Michael. They are standing in front of what amounts to 750 acres of green beans Ohioans can enjoy.

Largely Local

The phrase “locally grown” is synonymous with farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, roadside stands and in-season produce – picked ripe, sold fresh and connected with the farmer. It’s a way to know something about how the food you buy is grown.

No doubt this provides an effective way for small farms to reach customers who have an appetite for locally grown foods. These farms have nurtured a connection and commitment to fresh, seasonal foods and local agriculture.

But the reality is that these venues feed just a fraction of Ohioans. Most consumers rely on larger farms to grow wholesome, nutritious foods available at supermarkets and grocery stores. Responding to their customers’ desires, grocery stores and other retail outlets have put more effort into sourcing and identifying food that comes from nearby, like the potatoes, corn, snap beans and cabbage found at Meijer, Whole Foods, Kroger, Walmart and IGA that are grown by Michael Farms in Urbana, one of the largest produce growers in the state.

You may think this farm produce is not on your “locally grown” shopping list, but chances are if you’ve shopped at any of these stores, produce from Michael Farms has been in your shopping cart.

“Farmers markets have a social niche and are part of our heritage,” said Todd Michael, one of the four Michael siblings involved in operating this Champaign County family farm that supplies major grocery retailers and foodservice distributors throughout Ohio and neighboring states. “People who buy our produce from the grocery store expect freshness and quality, just like those who shop at farmers markets.”

During snap bean or sweet corn season, Michael’s harvest crew of more than 110 seasonal employees can be in the field as early as 6 a.m. “We get it to the sorting room, chill it quickly and get it loaded on trucks as soon as possible, and it’s to the stores usually within 24 hours,” Todd said. Potatoes and cabbage are harvested, cooled and shipped out just a day or two after harvest. “Ninety-five percent of what we harvest stays within a 200 mile radius of the farm,” he said. “On the average, most travels no more than 100 miles to get to the store.”

Like many family farms, Michael Farms started out small, grew large and stayed committed to the quality of their product, connected to their community and dedicated to the land they farmed.

More than 50 years ago, Doug Michael established the farm with 300 acres: 10 acres in potato production and the remainder in dairy and grain. Less than 10 years into his farming career, he sold the herd, expanded the potato acreage and turned some of the land over to his young sons Todd, Scott and Kurt to use to grow vegetables which they sold to area retailers and through an on-farm market.

Each of the boys went to Ohio State University and earned a degree in agricultural production. They returned to the family farm integrating new technology into what is now 3,000 acres with more than 2,100 acres in vegetable production and the remainder in grain. Todd said everyone in the family is involved in the business, including sister Beth Harrigan and her husband, Jody. Yet no one holds an official title, except maybe “Dad.” Although retired, Doug is still frequently found in the fields and warehouse.

Michael Farms strives to remain good stewards of the land and environment, using many of the same soil management systems as smaller farms. Following harvests, the mineral rich glaciated soil is planted with cover crops of rye, oats or wheat to provide soil cover during the winter, control water and wind erosion, improve the soil tilth, return nutrients to the soil and improve crop yield. To further manage erosion, the farm uses sod waterways and irrigates using low-pressure nozzles.

“We use a combination of tilling practices in a five-year rotation,” Todd said. These include no tilling; strip tillage, which tills only the seed row; a minimum till that leaves most of the plant material on the surface; and conventional tillage that buries crop residue. These less intensive methods of tillage minimize the impact on the land as well as the erosion of the soil. Rotating these systems improves soil structure, runoff and loss, lowers fuel consumption and improves the nutrients in the soil.

An integrated pest management system, an environmentally sensitive approach to pest and disease management in the field, is also implemented. “We plant disease resistant varieties of crops, use insect traps and scout for pests to determine the timing and need for pesticides,” Todd said. “We also have programs that calculate weather factors such as dew point, temperature, day length and time of leaf wetness to determine the timing of fungicides.”

Michael Farms has been a past recipient of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Stewardship Award, a distinction granted to farms that work to make sure that their operations are sustainable with a focus on the environment as well as the consumer. In addition, the American Vegetable Growers awarded Michael Farms an award in 2003 for excellence in food quality and safety procedures, industry leadership and community outreach.

While Michael Farms brings locally grown food in a big way to Ohioans through major grocery retailers, the family still finds ways to stay closely connected to its community through its on-farm market. “People have been coming to this market for years,” Todd said. “For some, it’s very nostalgic.”

Throughout each harvest season, the market fills with customers who know fresh from the field is the best way to enjoy Michael’s produce. The market broadens its selection by bringing in product and produce from other local growers including Harley Farms in Huntsville, Remerowski’s Orchard in Rosewood, Cooper Farms in Bucyrus and Johnson’s Maple in Cable.

“This market makes us a member of our community,” Todd said. “Without it we’re just another employer.”

Marilou Suszko is a freelance writer from Vermilion. Photos by Jodi Miller.

LOCATION:
Michael Farms Inc.
5089 Urbana-Moorefield Rd.
Urbana, OH 43078
www.michaelfarms.com

Watch the Columbus Produce Terminal video on YouTube about a facility that distributes produce from Michael Farms.

FERTILE FIELDS
Out of the 3,000 acres at Michael Farms in Urbana, 2,100 are in vegetable production with the remaining 900 used for grain. What does that mean when it comes to how much produce you’ll find from Michael Farms in grocery stores? Here’s an estimate of the yield from their fields.

500 acres of potatoes = 20 million pounds
100 acres of cabbage = 3.5 million pounds
750 acres in beans, snap and half runner = 250,000 bushels
700 acres in sweet corn = 1.2 million dozen

 

Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermillion, Ohio.