Archived Story

Cass County farmers care

Published 9:06pm Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sarah Peterson grew up in the Upper Peninsula, met her husband at Michigan State and they farm together outside Niles. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Sarah Peterson grew up in the Upper Peninsula, met her husband at Michigan State and they farm together outside Niles. (The Daily News/John Eby)

By JOHN EBY

Dowagiac Daily News

CASSOPOLS — Banners fluttering from the Cass County Fair grandstand and crop boxes from which grow soybeans, green beans, corn and wheat originated with Sarah Peterson of Farm Bureau board’s promotion and education committee in March 2009.

Peterson, 28, an Upper Peninsula native and daughter-in-law of Fair Association President Gail Peterson, wanted farmers’ voices to be heard in agricultural debate.

“I wanted to put a positive face to agriculture in our county,” she explained Wednesday afternoon while pulling her toddler daughter, Anna, across the midway in a wagon from the grandstand to Cass County Farm Bureau’s booth in the commercial building at the opposite end from the fair office.

She also stopped by the Darlene B. Lowe Exhibit Complex, which features one of her “crop boxes” — towering corn — out front and wheat inside. Green beans grow in the booth and another tub outside the show arena contains soybeans, which became a backdrop Monday afternoon for dog show photos.

Five banners lining the boulevard behind the grandstand contains a farmer on each side — 10 scenes in all. Look closely. You probably know them all if you’ve spent any time around the fair.

Gail Peterson, looking out at his beef herd near Niles. Sarah’s husband, Alan. Former Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Guse and his wife, Barb. Dave Grabemeyer of Dowagiac. The Sparks brothers, Carl and Dan,  Jordan (Fedore) Hughey of Bergman Veterinary Clinic in Cassopolis, who not so many years ago was dominating the draft horse ring. Riley Wyant of Dowagiac. LaTrell Pratt of Community Mills, Dowagiac. Brian and Keith McKenzie of Cassopolis. The Burger family of Niles. Dennis Wooden of Cassopolis.

Images are interlaced with factoids about the U.S. having the safest food and the most efficient agriculture in the world thanks to innovation, technology and farmers who care.

Agriculture and food processing employ more than a million Michiganians.

Global positioning systems, biotechnology and conservation tillage allow Michigan growers to produce more food on fewer acres while reducing use of chemicals and fertilizer.

With more than 200 commodities grown in Michigan soil, this state ranks second only to California in its diversity of crops.

More than 90 percent of Michigan’s 53,315 farms are individually or family-owned — and they drink the same water as everyone else.

Caring for animals is what raising livestock is all about. Farmers have to make sure they have the very best food and care to keep them healthy and performing well.

In a year, Michigan farmers use conservation practices which prevent soil erosion and runoff of sediment into streams on more than 3.2 million acres of farmland — almost  55 percent of the total acres planted in the state. Michigan farmers in a year save more than $25 million purchasing and applying chemical fertilizers by recycling nutrients from livestock back into the soil.

Agriculture, traditionally regarded as Michigan’s second-largest industry, might have eclipsed cars, contributing more than $63.7 billion to the economy.

Peterson wants to dispel “any false views” which may exist about agriculture in Cass County, since the general public is three generations removed from farming — what Sarah calls the “disconnect.”

Peterson’s farm grows corn and soybeans and has a herd of 320 head of cattle.

Alan and Sarah met at MSU, where she studied animal science. They worked at the cattle research feedlot.

“I grew up in town,” Sarah said, “but my grandparents each had a farm. My dad’s side had a small dairy, 30 cows, 250 acres, and my mom’s side had beef cows, where I spent most of my time. When I was 14 I was lucky enough to win a Hereford heifer. I had my own herd at 14. I sold my cattle when I moved down here six years ago and bought a draft horse. That’s how I got started in livestock.”

“In branding images of people out doing what they do,” whether it’s a meat market or crops, “they’re prominent faces in our community. They’re people who are involved in the community in a lot of different ways. If a news story comes out, they know where to go for more information without going online and finding who knows what?”

Cliff Poehlman of M-60 graces one banner. “They have fee fishing because of their marl pits,” she says of the longtime county road commissioner.

Carl Sparks, besides appearing with his brother, Dan, at night with his wife Dawn for story time. “I believe Dan had a 4.0 at Michigan State in mechanical engineering and graduated after  2 1/2 years. He’s a smart cookie. They came home and started a dairy program. Agriculture is still very much alive and, as it always has, the elder generation helps the younger generation get into the business because with the way the economy is, it’s very hard to get started in the business,” Peterson said.

Varner’s greenhouse in the Niles area “tries to show that agriculture in Michigan is more than a farmer in the field. We’re trying to show the many faces and different aspects of agriculture,” Peterson said. “It’s still very family-based,” for which crop boxes highlight how many generations a family has farmed in the county.

“Agriculure’s always been here,” Peterson said, “but with the motor industry going downhill … There have been times when the general age of the farmer has changed. When years are good, the older generation stays in because they’re making money. It’s not uncommon, then, for the generation under the older generation to get left out. My father-in-law’s dad (Kenny Peterson) ran the show until he was almost 90. Cass County has as many pigs as it ever did, but for our environment, for our water and for our pigs, they’re all housed inside.”

Crop boxes combine the real crop as it looks growing, coupled with a photo of its appearance when it reaches consumers.

“Learning a little bit now” might remind someone later, “I know about that.”

There are questions for each crop box and a drawing that will give away a bike, a greenhouse gift certificate and a Community Mills gift certificate at the end of the fair.

“When I talk to young kids at schools,” she says, “I always tell them, ‘If an animal doesn’t make itself a shelter, an animal doesn’t need a shelter made for it.’ A cow needs a windbreak if it’s icy, rainy and windy, but they don’t have to have a barn over them. What the average person believes is good for an animal is not what a veterinarian would tell you. People think farmers have all kinds of money. Our farm has 1,500 acres. You’d think we’re rich, but my husband and I bring home less than $25,000 a year. That’s what we live on. The average farmer doesn’t bring home a large paycheck, they do it because of the passion and love for what they do. I’d like to see people educate themselves and feel in their heart, ‘I have a friend who farms. I’m going to care about this subject.’ I feel like if I don’t get the word out, by the time my (two) kids are ready to farm, legislation could have come through that makes it impossible.”

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