If you’re a frequent shopper at one of the many Farmers Markets in Leelanau County or the Traverse City Sara Hardy Farmers Market, chances are that you’ve met Noel Weeks of La Casa Verde Produce.
Noel, along with his father Dave and mother Margaret, runs a small family farm in Cedar. They specialize in diversified vegetable production, cut flowers and natural farm-raised pastured pork. Apart from growing great produce, Noel fits into another certain trend we are seeing in agriculture — he didn’t grow up on a farm and neither did his parents.
“I am a first-generation farmer, my great-grandparents farmed and my grandparents grew up on a farm but then moved to the city. My dad grew up in the city, I was raised in a city and we made the move back to the country to start up a farm,” Noel said.
As many of the small, commodity-crop generational farms are having to scale up operation or get out of farming, there is an underswell of small, diversified family farms just getting into agriculture.
A few years ago, the family made the move from Ohio to northern Michigan and hit the ground running. They bought a house in Cedar, installed a large array of solar panels to run the home and farm, and then got right into the soil.
The Weeks are not your typical row-crop farmers. Their operation is quite diversified, meeting high environmental standards and adhering to holistic, ecologically-minded practices. Their whole farm is Certified Organic and is also verified in the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assessment Program (MAEAP). For them, it’s all about caring for the soil first, which results in nutrient-dense food for their customers.
Noel is just 30 years old, many years younger than the national average farmer age of 58. Thankfully, Noel is not alone in the area, and is one of a growing network of young, new and beginning farmers in northwest Michigan.
As Noel puts it, “I love being a young farmer in northern Michigan — there is a lot of support from the community and a good number of young farmers in the area working hard to keep up the agricultural heritage; it is a unique place to farm because of the landscape. We don’t have a lot of open flat land here, so it makes for a good place (Cedar) to grow diverse vegetable crops.”
But being a young, beginning farmer comes with its challenges, especially at the start.
“Some of the biggest obstacles in starting a farm are access to land and equipment and competing with big agriculture,” he said. “I started production on a small plot of family land and have some leased fields I’ve worked, one big goal is to be able to move all production to owned land in the next 3-5 years.
“The right equipment makes a big difference in efficiency and ease of production; a lot of time is spent “fooling around” because we don’t have the right tool for the job. Each year more tractors, implements and tools are acquired to make production easier but this builds up debt and puts more pressure on production causing high levels of stress.
“Local farms also have to compete with big agriculture. Big farms out west will always be able to produce crops cheaper than small, family-owned regional farms and Wal-Mart and Meijer make products from big farms readily available for purchase at prices lower than a small farm’s cost of production. Building up a customer base of people that understand that locally produced food crops are a different product and worth more is a challenge,” he said.
When asked about noticing trends or shifts in the local food culture in recent years, Noel said he’s been seeing “... more of a support for local food producers, in recent years at the farmers markets. I notice less people complain about the higher prices of local food. Support from local shoppers is necessary for a small farm’s success. Lots of agricultural practices have shifted to Integrated Pest Management and no-spray programs due to the rising demand for organic produce. I went through the arduous process of Organic Certification and shoppers definitely responded positively to it, making it feel like it was worth it.”
Noel, like many of us, is concerned with the future of farming and agriculture in our region.
With mounting development pressure, a quickly changing climate, and competition in the global marketplace — there truly isn’t a better time to support your local farmers.
When asked if he could convey one message, or goal, for the future of farming in northwest Michigan, Noel said “For more local products to be consumed. There is an abundance of food produced locally yet people still load up at the grocery store on produce from California and Mexico. If we can create a shift in society to get more people to support local farms we will have a stronger, more resilient local economy.”