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Fresh Faces on the Farm
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Travis Bratschi can relate to the farmers who sit across his desk at GreenStone Farm Credit Services.



Fresh Faces on the Farm

TRAVERSE CITY — Travis Bratschi can relate to the farmers who sit across his desk at GreenStone Farm Credit Services.

They want help financing fields, equipment and plants in an industry where weather and crop values sway their return on a season’s work.

Bratschi understands. He has 18 acres of apple and cherry trees in Williamsburg and juggles his jobs as a financial services officer and farmer with his roles as a father and husband.

“My wife and I both have off-farm employment,” he said. “Without that I don’t know how you could start up a farm. (With) the cost of land, especially in this area, it’s just highly capital intensive.”

It’s especially difficult when bad weather hits. Bratschi lost 1,200 trees this year because of mice and winter damage, about 20 percent of the trees he planted in 2013.
“You have to borrow the money, stay the course and keep planting,” he said. “You can’t have empty spots in a place like this.”

Nikki Rothwell is Michigan State University Extension’s coordinator for the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station. She said the high price of land makes it difficult for new farmers to launch a commodity farm, growing crops such as apples, cherries or corn.

“In order to make a living farming you have to have lots and lots of acres,” Rothwell said. “At $6,000 to $10,000 an acre it’s really hard to get into fruit farming.”
Inheriting a family farm eases that burden, but that sort of transition is rare. The Michigan Farm Succession Study, released in 2012 by Michigan State University, found that 35 percent of Michigan farmers anticipate retiring by 2022. Only 38 percent of those farmers intend to pass farms to an heir as one piece.

Bratschi grew up farming — his grandparents’ cherry orchard is next door to his apples — but he financed his own fields instead.

Sometimes he laughs about his day job as a financial services officer for a rural lender.
“Would I loan myself money?” he said.

It’s not just land. Equipment, seeds and labor costs can stack up, too.
“Whether it’s a cherry farmer needing to buy a shaker or a CSA or small-scale farmer trying to buy seeds or a hoop house, capital is always a challenge for young farmers,” Rothwell said.

Rothwell said business planning is an important part of running a farm. Bratschi attended a 3.5-year class on business planning for young farmers that the research station hosted.
“Everyone likes to be out on the tractors,” Rothwell said. “They like to be outside, but you have to make the numbers work and you have to pencil it out to make sure you’ll be around next year.”

Rothwell said it helps to think outside the farm, like 9 Bean Rows owners Jen and Nic Welty, who started a restaurant to support their Community Supported Agriculture farm, or CSA.

“The key for success to me is making sure I get the top dollar for everything I grow,” Welty said. “If you’re only thinking about going out and growing things, you stand a pretty good chance of not having the complete business plan you need and not getting the revenue you need to support a small business like this.”
Nic said his model is safer than the old-fashioned farming plan — to grow a lot of food and hope somebody buys it.

But Nic doesn’t consider starting a farm any more challenging than starting a business in other industries. Common necessities are cash, guts and a serious work ethic.

“You have to be willing to put the hours in, and if something needs done you have to do it no matter if it’s raining or the middle of the night,” he said. “You have to really be dedicated to making it happen, and that’s something that’s really difficult.”

Nic is starting a cooperative for small farmers to help them build markets for their products and share resources.

Rothwell said farming in a community with a long history of agriculture and enthusiastic embrace of local food helps new farmers become seasoned growers.

“It’s nice to see young farmers from that sector of agriculture growing and I think we have a population that’s very supportive of that,” Rothwell said.