Up north the daytime temperatures are starting to get above freezing while the nights are still below. You know what that means - maple season is upon us!
In honor of one of the sweetest times of the year, we're featuring the aptly named Maple Achers run by Russel and Linda Hepler-Beaty in Maple City, Michigan.
How did you get into farming? What made you want to become a farmer? Both of us have been involved in farming since we were children; Russ grew up on a farm and Linda was employed by a farm operation during teen years. Both of us love working outdoors in the fields, planting, weeding, harvesting. And problem solving: What worked this year, what didn't work? What do we want to change?
Do you farm full-time? Russ is a retired firefighter and disabled Coast Guard veteran, Linda a retired nurse and is currently a consumer health writer.
How did you choose your farm name? We quickly recognized that as retired people, farming is harder on the body than it was when we were younger, therefore Maple Achers.
Have you ever wished you hadn’t become a farmer? When we stop to think that this is our retirement project and it is a lot of work and leaves us with no time for anything else -- we know that we will not be farming forever. But for now, it is very fulfilling.
What do you produce? Do you have a specialty? We make syrup from our ashleaf maple trees (also called boxelder). Syrup from these maples is known as "Prairie Syrup" and in Europe it's called "Löve & Löve." We have about two acres in vegetables, everything from arugula to zucchini. We also have strawberries, currents, gooseberries and flowers, and raise laying hens. Our specialty is heirloom or little known veggies, such as the black Spanish radish.
What are your markets? We sell primarily to local farmers markets, but also sell surplus to area restaurants.
Why did you get involved with CNG? We wanted an affordable means of certification to assure our clients that our food is grown without herbicides or pesticides and in a sustainable way.
Talk about the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a farmer. Pricing our product is probably the biggest. We both feel strongly that healthy, naturally grown food should be accessible and affordable for all people. Yet it costs a lot to grow the food and a lot of labor to harvest and bring to market. We spend a lot of time deciding on fair prices -- fair for both the consumer and us.
What was your most positive farming experience? The farmers markets we go to every week. We love teaching people about veggies. We have signage explaining the nutritional value of the food, recipes for preparation. And as much as we teach, we learn from our customers!
What unexpected customer interactions have been especially rewarding? One thing that stands out in our minds is a local artist who did a sketch of our market stand. We take great pains to display our produce attractively, and this person saw the aesthetic appeal in what we do. She sent us a copy of the sketch and we have it on the back of our business cards!
How do you include customers in your farming operation? Some of our customers have become more than just a business deal, even friends. We have established a regular clientele through a weekly newsletter that says what we will be bringing to market, has a "featured" veggie, and recipes. As we've come to know regular customers, we've exchanged recipes, given canning advice, and had some of them visit our farm. One of our customers initially sought advice about chickens, and we've become each other's chicken "sitters" when one of us is gone.
How do you further your farm learning? The CNG process of peer review has taught us a lot. We learn from other farmers, both when they are inspecting our farm and when we are inspecting theirs. We like to think we've helped others to learn, too! We also take advantage of workshops in our area; we have an active Michigan State University extension, where we can attend seminars and workshops and take advantage of those who are knowledgeable about farming.
Favorite vegetable We have learned to love all veggies, but turnips and radishes, which are in the same family, are definitely one of our favorites. The lowly turnip is under-rated; it's very healthy, low in calories, high in vitamins -- and can be cooked in a variety of ways. And radishes!! There are so many different types and flavors of radishes, from hot and spicy to mild and sweet. And they are not just a garnish for potato salad; they can be eaten plain with a little salt, put on buttered French bread, made into coleslaw, grilled, roasted...
What’s your favorite dish to cook at home? Definitely Linda's homemade pasta with any veggie we have in season, from asparagus to butternut squash. Linda was looking for a way to enhance our stand and take advantage of the Cottage Food Law, and ended up launching a pasta line. We now sell whole wheat, spinach, tomato basil, and many more varieties of pasta.
What advice would you give to a farmer just starting out? Farming is a lot of work, and you have to be doing it because you love it, not because you expect to make a lot of money doing it.
Who is your mentor or hero? Our hero is Oran B. Hesterman, an international leader in sustainable agriculture and food systems. He is the author of Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, in which he provides an inspiring guide to changing what we eat and how food is grown, packaged, delivered and sold.
Most useful piece of clothing for working on the farm? A bandana, worn as a sweat band.
Any guilty pleasures? As much as we like to teach about healthy foods and eat in a healthy way most of the time, we enjoy the occasional evening at a local pub, eating the “bad” stuff.
What would you be if you weren’t a farmer? Nothing. Both of us retired from well-paying jobs to do something that nets us far less in money but far more in fulfillment.
What hopes do you have for your farm in the future? Our greatest hope is that one of our grandchildren (we have 7 thus far) will want to run the farm after we're done with it!
You can find more info about Maple Achers on the CNG website.