Unafraid to adapt to modern ways of working, Michael Farms Inc is a family company that uses sustainable methods to grow, pack and distribute fresh local produce
Located in Urbana, Ohio, the farming operation has been passed down through generations. Starting there with various traditional crops and livestock, in 1958, Doug Michael made the decision to specialise in growing potatoes. Branded ‘Buckeye potatoes’, they were first sold locally, then regionally, before finally being picked up by national retailers. Doug’s success was the beginning of what, today, is known as Michael Farms Inc.
Over 60 years later, Michael Farms still produces potatoes, but after gauging local demand, the company has also added sweet corn, green beans and cabbage to its crop. The farm, which sits on almost 3000 acres of land, making it one of the largest vegetable farms in the state, is now run by Doug’s sons, Kurt and Scott. Despite the company’s sustained and continuing growth, it’s clear that Michael Farms has not lost touch with its roots.
“We’re a family operation,” the company’s CEO Scott asserts. “My brother, Kurt, is our COO, and my son, Josh, helps with today’s extra demands like communication, information, and logistics. We have a number of special connections with other family members too.”
In keeping with this approach, the company’s in-built family ethos extends beyond blood relatives. During the harvest season, Michael Farms’ staff grows to around 100 employees, many of whom return to the company year after year. “The 90 people that come to us, they’re seasonal, but they’re not irregular. These are long-term relationships we have built,” Scott says. “It’s the same people every year. Some of them have been coming for three decades. They range from general labourers to supervisors with significant responsibility. They are part of our family business and that means treating them like family, whether they are related to us or not.”
Michael Farms’ ability to stay true to its core values, while adapting to contemporary demands, is a balancing act that continues to drive the company’s longevity and growth. “I don’t know that we’re driving what’s preferred in the market, but we’re reacting to it,” Scott explains. “Every time we’ve seen a new trend, we’ve embraced it, and sure enough, we’ve got more business than we used to as a result.”
Reacting to recent trends, Michael Farms has started growing sweet corn specifically for tray pack, selling green beans in open-top bags stamped with the company logo, and producing smaller, more manageable heads of cabbage. We’ve found that people don’t want to buy cabbage as big as a basketball,” Scott adds. “Not anymore.”
Perhaps the trend that has most benefited Michael Farms in the last few years is the surge in public demand for local produce. “It started to pick up about ten years ago and now it’s got to the point that even national retailers are sourcing and selling items that people can relate to. Honey from a local area is a lot more popular than honey shipped in from somewhere else,” Scott reports. “People want to know where a product comes from and they want to associate it with somebody – particularly a family or a company or a person. It’s not entirely different from somebody saying, well I’d rather have Heinz Ketchup or Hunt’s Ketchup. Produce wasn’t like this in the past, but now people have started to feel like there’s a difference.”
The seismic shift in the market means that, along with selling its produce in a farm store onsite, Michael Farms’ products are now stocked regionally by large retailers such as Kroger, Meijer and Marc’s, as well as distributed to smaller stores by Caito Foods, Crosset Company and Indianapolis Fruit. “We also have long-standing partnerships with a lot of urban farm markets in cities,” Scott points out. “People might try our food because it’s local, but we know that if we put a really good product out there, they’ll think they’ve got to have it again because they had a good experience with it. There’s always somebody else that will produce something if you don’t do your very best.”
The family’s determination to make Michael Farms a leader in its field is reflected in the public recognition earned by the company in recent years. Presented with the National Grower Achievement Award in 2004, Michael Farms has also received an Environmental Stewardship Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The distinction is granted to farms that work to make sure their operations are sustainable, with a focus on the
“Our mission statement has always been to produce healthy, fresh, products, grown using methods that preserve the quality of the soil and the environment while doing so,” Scott insists. “We pay serious attention to long-term soil health and the impact of our practices on the land. Crops are rotated into a different field every year, we plant rye and oats in the winter to protect our soil against the weather, and we package and deliver our products 41in reusable containers known as RPC’s. It’s all about resource management for efficiency and sustainability. Most of our employees live onsite too, so they are not driving to work. Wasting energy has always bothered me.”
As the company carries these modern farming methods into the future, Scott is positive about the outlook for Michael Farms in the years ahead. Ready as always to adjust to the next market trends, Scott suggests that further demand for local produce could help to lower prices and improve the variety of vegetables on offer to consumers. “We don’t want to break what seems to be working, but we know things are not always going to stay the same,” Scott states. “I think the interest in fresh produce will continue to be strong, and the more people want it, the more retailers will respond with better stocked, more competitive, produce departments.”