A peek at farming

Published 8:19 pm Thursday, February 16, 2012

Off the Water photo/KATHIE HEMPEL In the winter months, Don Villwock of Villwock’s Farm Market on old Highway 31 provides firewood to customers looking to cut down on heating costs the old fashioned way, with their wood burning stoves and fireplaces. Even though it has been a more mild winter, Villwock was pleasantly surprised by the number of people using wood as their primary source of heat.

Winter? What winter, many are asking.

While some may be  grateful there has been little need for shoveling or even boots this year and others mourn the lack of  snow for winter sports, no one has been watching the weather more than the area’s many farmers.

Most, don’t seem to be overly concerned about the effect of the mild winter so far.  It does play a role among the many tasks that need attending to before the planting and growing season.

Long before the first of Terry Holloway’s asparagus hits the farm’s stand on Walton Road, he is planning for the growing season ahead. Seeds are being ordered and repairs are being made to machinery.

While pruning is usually a high priority at this time of year, Holloway says he’s been waiting.

“With this kind of winter, we tend to leave more buds on the trees and vines,” he said. “We know one of two things is going to happen. If the weather stays the way it is, you know you are going to have one of the best growing seasons ever and so you can ripen more fruit. The other, perhaps more probable likelihood, is that we will have a frost and more buds gives you a chance that, if you lose 50 percent, you will still have something left,” Holloway said.

February temperatures can go from 40 to 45 degrees during the day and still plummet to near zero at night, he said.

Without snow,  there is a higher risk of winter injury to trees and vines. Such injury can mean a high cost to the farmer who then has to replace them and wait for the new plantings to mature.

“If we get through February, then usually that really cold weather is gone. By mid-March, it only goes down to 20 degrees at night. Even if a flash frost or freezing rain does come, there hasn’t been bud break as yet, and there is no overwhelming damage,” he said.

Holloway’s wife, Tina, works in real estate with RE/MAX and he works for the National Grape Cooperative. They know it is difficult to make a living off a small family farm these days.

National Grape Cooperative represents many of the grape growers who take their ripened fruit to Welch’s. What I didn’t realize is that they also own Welch’s.

“Welch’s is our marketing part of the co-op. Farmers take their crop to the Welch’s factory, which does the processing and the marketing with the profits returning to the co-op. This results in a more stable market for the grapes, rather than being at the mercy of processors who may want 40,000 tons of grapes one year and only 20,000 tons the next,” said Holloway, who grew up on his father’s farm on Smith Road, about a country mile up the road.

Dreaming of summer

Glen Vite’s farm is another of our favorite summer haunts. There is nothing like running up Red Bud Trail and seeing the familiar smiling faces of the crew at Vite’s as they stand ready to fill us up with green beans, onions, cantaloupes, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, squash and other produce. Then there is the corn.

When my dad was in his late 90s, he would make a meal out of nothing more than three or four cobs of Vite’s cream and sugar corn. I have to admit, Phil and I were not beyond using Dad as an excuse to do exactly the same thing.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t grow as much corn. Couldn’t keep the worms out of it. But I do remember being little and picking the corn with Dad and then carrying it to the truck in my arms,” Richard Vite said.

Now, when the corn is on, they have a corn carrier and eight to 10 men picking corn from the 75 to 80 acres of corn planted each year. The first of the sweet corn makes its appearance mid-July then come the first week of August, and we’ll be eating fine.

Like Holloway, Vite spends the  winter months repairing equipment  and planning for the seed to be  delivered in time for planting. He is also unconcerned over the mild winter.

“It would be nice if the rye  cover had a little snow, but it  is pretty hardy. We spend  time on the nice days with  tree trimming and repairing fence lines, jobs there is little time for during the growing season,” he said.

Traveling home from the Berrien Springs or St. Joseph direction, we often stop off at our friend’s Villwock’s Farm Market. Vite is one of the many area farmers, who supply the market with produce, fruit and plants.

Splitting wood

During the winter months, Don Villwock and family can be found behind the market  splitting timber into firewood. I appreciate being able to cut heating costs by burning

Villwock’s seasoned wood in our wood-burning stove.

“We have been pleasantly surprised that we have sold as much wood as we have this year,” Villwock said. “More and more people are turning to burning wood again, in their fireplace, woodstove or supplemental wood furnace to cut down on ever-increasing heating bills.”

No check in on my favorite farms would be complete without a call to Linda Kaminski in Three Oaks.  Kaminski’s Farm raises pigs and breeds and raises crossbred Angus beef. The livestock does present some winter challenges.

“When the ground doesn’t freeze, we have mud. Mud means it is more difficult to spread the manure, and you don’t want a calf born out in the mud. It’s also pneumonia weather, and it can be especially hard on babies and growing animals. We already have 30 babies,” she said.

This time of year, Linda is preparing the farm’s paperwork for tax season. She has been slowly exposing her son, Aaron, and daughter-in-law, Leslie, to the bookkeeping. Expenses need to be locked in for the year in order to buy seed and fertilizer at the off-season prices.

“It is a big expense time as we have to pay ahead to get the best possible price. Otherwise, you can pay hundreds and thousands of dollars more. There is also the cost of bedding for the animals. So while the men are off at equipment shows looking at the newest and the best and busy repairing the equipment they do have, I work at how we pay for it all,” she said.

That work includes taking orders for halves and quarters of beef for spring butchering and attending to the farm’s meat shop, where most of the retail cuts of meat are on hand giving customers the opportunity to try “farm raised”  and see the difference.  Beef, pork and lamb are available.

Looking ahead

Holloway’s Concord Ridge Farm Stand on Walton Road will be opening with fresh asparagus in May.  Vite’s will be at the South Bend Market with peas and potatoes starting in June and at their farm stand, just south of Buchanan on Red Bud Trail, when the first of the sweet corn ripens in mid- July.

Pick up meat from Kaminski’s meat shop at 16682 Schwark Rd., Three Oaks or place an order by calling (269) 756-7457. Villwock’s starts to bring in the wealth of the farm in May, but pick up wood at market, corner of Fairland and old Highway 31, now or order and have it delivered locally by calling (269) 362-0253.