A Farm Trip / by Brian Surguine

A sugar beet field. Michigan's Thumb is one of the few areas in the world that grows this significant crop.

A sugar beet field. Michigan's Thumb is one of the few areas in the world that grows this significant crop.

Ever since I read Dan Barber's "The Third Plate," I have been obsessed with food. Where does my food come from? How is it grown? Is it feasible to grow the majority of my food intake in a modest garden plot, or does that require more land? These are just a few of the questions floating around my mind. While I have taken small steps with planting my own vegetables and milling my own grain, I realize I still have so much to learn about sustaining myself from the land while remaining ecologically sensitive.

Jess (left) and Rita, sitting in a combine harvester (a machine that combines reaping, threshing, and winnowing into one process). These vehicles are BIG - you have to climb a ladder to get to the driver's seat.

Jess (left) and Rita, sitting in a combine harvester (a machine that combines reaping, threshing, and winnowing into one process). These vehicles are BIG - you have to climb a ladder to get to the driver's seat.

Recently, my friend Jess Letaw became connected with Rita Herford, a farmer at Gentner-Bischer Farms in Michigan's Thumb. Rita invited us to visit her farm; Jess and I were curious about what large-scale farming looked like, and we wanted to know how some of the most important parts of our food economy are grown. It was also a great opportunity to learn directly from a farmer. We eagerly accepted Rita's offer.

Sweet corn in the foreground, with taller field corn in the background.

Sweet corn in the foreground, with taller field corn in the background.

Gentner-Bischer Farms primarily grows four crops: wheat, dry beans, sugar beets, and corn. We had arrived just after the wheat harvest, but we could see the well-established corn, beans, and sugar beets in sprawling, verdant fields.

A brief tour of some of the farm equipment. Left: Combines. Right: A German-made Maus, designed for sugar beet harvesting.

A brief tour of some of the farm equipment. Left: Combines. Right: A German-made Maus, designed for sugar beet harvesting.

Rita is passionate about educating others about farming, and was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to teach us how a modern, large-scale farm operates. I was taken aback by how sophisticated some of the equipment was. One relatively new purchase was the Maus, a German-made vehicle specially designed for harvesting sugar beets very efficiently.

Left: the front end of the Maus. Right: A sugar beet, which will eventually face some serious German efficiency.

Left: the front end of the Maus. Right: A sugar beet, which will eventually face some serious German efficiency.

The front of the Maus featured a plow and no less than seven rotating conveyors to clean and channel the beets through the machine and into a waiting truck. Because sugar beets increase in value the longer they stay in the ground, but need to be harvested at the first sign of frost, the Maus allows Rita to delay the sugar beet harvest until the last possible moment, maximizing the farm's return.

Michigan grows some of the best dry beans in the world. Apparently, Michigan beans are highly desirable in Mexico.

Michigan grows some of the best dry beans in the world. Apparently, Michigan beans are highly desirable in Mexico.

Another surprising revelation was how technology was being integrated into the farming process. Gentner-Bischer tracks fuel use per acre to save money and cut down on emissions, and carefully calculates the amount of fertilizer needed for each crop. The farm has also installed programmable drain tile caps to limit the amount of waterborne fertilizer runoff. The drain tile caps improve both groundwater maintenance and the effectiveness of applied fertilizer.

An ear of sweet corn, exposed.

An ear of sweet corn, exposed.

As fascinating as the machinery and technology was, I was most impressed with Rita's deep knowledge of the land and her crops. It wasn't just how she talked about her work, but also in the way she did her work: the quick but caring flick of a wrist as a weed was pulled away from a bean bush; the skilled tear of a corn husk to reveal the kernels underneath.

Left: Rita in a sugar beet field. Right: Clover planted as a cover crop.

Left: Rita in a sugar beet field. Right: Clover planted as a cover crop.

Sometimes, farmers get a bad reputation for things like contributing to algae blooms and neglecting to care for soil. From what I could see, Rita not only actively tries to improve her farm's processes where she can, but also cares deeply about the land she farms.

The conservationist Aldo Leopold once cautioned against becoming so disconnected from the land that we might assume obtaining food comes at little effort or cost. After meeting Rita and seeing the kind of work she puts into her farm, I have a much better appreciation of what it takes to grow food for our heavily populated world, while caring for the land at the same time. The entire system is more complicated than I anticipated: Farming is a complex operation, involving deep local knowledge and advanced logistical skills. Balancing large-scale production while being sensitive to the effects farming has on the land is a challenging undertaking for any farmer.