Things are picking up on Old Mission Peninsula farms, as we head into the busy season of fertilizing, planting, spraying, and, eventually, harvesting.
As in recent years here on the Gazette, I’ll be following along with the goings-on at my family’s farm, Johnson Farms. This farm has been in our family since the 1800s, and is still going strong, thanks to hard work and programs like the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Program.
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Johnson Farms History and the PDR Program
If you’ve been reading the Gazette for a while, you know that my dad, Walter Johnson, along with a group of dedicated residents and township officials, was instrumental in researching and launching the PDR program here on the OMP in the 1990s. He was also the first Peninsula Township farmer to commit to putting his land into the program if the voters passed it. Glen Chown, OMP resident and executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, told me once that without Dad’s support of the program before it actually became a program, it would have been a much tougher sell to voters.
In Dad, township voters could see a lifelong farmer who was willing to sell his development rights for a variety of reasons: to preserve the farmland that had been in his family for generations, to protect the scenic views and rural landscape for all Peninsula residents, and to allow his own family to continue farming that same land and additional land – which my brothers, Dean Johnson and Ward Johnson, continue to this day.
Dad could see the writing on the wall with the Old Mission Peninsula. He was born in 1923, and during his years growing up here, the Peninsula was a sleepy farming community, with a handful of summer residents whose families summered at their cottages on Neahtawanta Resort, Old Mission Resort and the Illinis Cottagers Resort on the west side.
By the 1960s and 70s, people began to see the many benefits of living on this 18-mile strip of land surrounded by water, and thus, more homes began to be built. Today, we have dozens of subdivisions and new housing developments being built every year. Our once sleepy farming community is now a booming mecca of homes.
And yet, farming also continues here, thanks to devoted farmers, kids who want to continue their family’s farming legacy, new and innovative ways to farm and market crops, and the PDR program. Dean has said that without the PDR program, he likely wouldn’t have been able to keep the farm going. Township voters have renewed the program twice now for 20 years each time, once in 2002 and again in 2022. Read more about the PDR program here.
The Johnson Farms “home farm” is just north of Mapleton – you’ve perhaps noticed the big red barn on the crest of the hill as you head north on Center Road (the farm was originally called “Crescent Hill Fruit Farm”). Click here to read more about how my grandma, Stella Smith Johnson, kept the farm going after her first husband, Frank Edgecomb, died during WWI.
Below is a photo of the barn in the early 1900s, and in its present day form. You can see that Center Road wasn’t paved yet in the first photo – that happened later on in the 1940s. My dad grew up in the farmhouse on the right of the photo, which burned down in 1964. The little garage still stands, though.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, that space where the house once sat was used for our “cooling pad” once cherry shakers came along. I ran the pad for several years, and in July of 1981, I remember listening to the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana on a radio in that little garage. (I am still a big fan of all things Royal.)
It was a precarious spot for a cooling pad, though, with semi trucks coming and going, and me trying to maneuver my forklift and load tanks onto trucks in that small space while traffic whizzed by on that blind curve. When a semi was ready to leave with full tanks, someone had to run across the road and give the all-clear for traffic so the truck could safely pull out onto the road.
We’ve since moved the cooling pad down around the corner, where there’s plenty of space for both our family’s cherries, as well as other farmers who bring cherries in to be cooled and hauled away. Read more about how the cooling pad works here.
Now, Dean and Ward also have their own farms, as well as “contract farms” – OMP residents who own small blocks of orchards who perhaps don’t have the necessary equipment, time or know-how to farm it on their own.
Also, it’s not just a matter of caring for your own small orchard and then harvesting or opening it up for a U-Pick operation. Current-day farming involves many more rules and regulations regarding migrant labor, the H2A program, transportation and housing for labor, pesticide management, farm audits and more. Keeping track of all of that is a full-time job in itself, and many farmers, including my brothers, now contract some of that out to organizations with staff who specialize in it.
This Week on the Farm – The Bees Arrive
I always think I’ll carry my farm stories through the winter months, to show you what happens in the off-season. But much of that cold, snowy time is spent trimming trees, repairing equipment, dealing with paperwork and taxes, and attending farm meetings in Grand Rapids and even Washington, D.C. Things start to kick into high gear when April rolls around (although I might continue with the farm stories next winter, if I can get it together).
This week, the bees were delivered to the cooling pad. That means spring is officially here, despite our 30-degree temps. Once the bees are delivered from Sleeping Bear Farms out in Beulah, the farmers then have the task of loading them onto a forklift and placing them into the orchards.
Here are a few pics, including one of Dean in his adorable bee suit among the bees on the cooling pad. I used to wear an adorable bee suit when I tended the farm’s bees, but most farms, including ours, do not have their own bee hives anymore because it’s a lot to care for while you’re doing all that other farm stuff.
Planting Apple Trees
Also this week, they’re planting trees. Between Dean and Ward, they will plant about 8000 trees this year, mostly apples. The trees are placed about four feet apart, and are then outfitted with posts and wires for what they call “high-density” orchards.
Here are photos of the poles and tree grafts. The yellow part, where the tree has been grafted, remains above ground and keeps the trees to a dwarf size.
These are not the giant apple trees we used to pick with peekaboo ladders on “The Forty,” a parcel of land on the corner of Peninsula Drive and Kroupa Road where my grandma lived after Mom and Dad moved into the farmhouse across from the barn.
Today’s rows of close-planted apples supported by poles help to maximize production. In the old days, you might have 100 trees to an acre, but with high-density planting, you can have 1000 trees per acre. Most of the apple orchards you see on the Peninsula these days are high-density orchards.
Here’s a photo of Mom and Dad at The Forty in 1946. Note the large apple trees.
Below are a few photos of the farm crew planting apple trees on Ward’s farm (while it was snowing). Some of these are JonaStar apples, which are bright red, crisp and great for cooking and baking, as well as eating straight off the tree. They also ship and store well.
The other apple trees they planted on this day were the ever-popular HoneyCrisp, known for their sweet taste and crisp texture.
Will the colder weather cause the buds and blossoms to frost? We hope not, but time will tell. We’ll keep you posted.
May is the month when farmers really worry that a cold frost will damage the budding cherries and apples. Our unpredictable northern Michigan weather could signal disaster for this year’s crop.
As you can see, there are a few buds already starting to blossom out. I took these photos by the barn earlier this week.