GTPulse: 21-Year-Old Runs Williamsburg Farm With Old School Skill
In Neil Young’s iconic 1971 Massey Hall performance he debuted Old Man to an intent and adoring crowd. He told the audience that he had moved to a ranch at 24 years old, and I always wondered what would possess a young man to be drawn to the upkeep and seclusion that living on a farm or ranch brings. Traverse City native Devon Ehlers is the embodiment of a young man that is going against the grain of what is expected of the modern man. At 21 years old he runs his own farm.
Varken Vallei Farm sits on a 47 acre plot of land in Williamsburg, Michigan. I met Devon this past Saturday afternoon to walk around the impressive farm that he and his father John Ehlers have started from the ground up.
Devon’s sun bleached hair and tan skin are indicators of a summer spent working outside. He greeted me with a large white Great Pyrenees dog in tow. Tufts of fur stuck to him like white dandelion fluff.
“His fur gets all over the place every time I groom him” Devon said brushing his shirt off.
The dog, Quinn, is one of two dogs that watch over the farm. Quinn works with Gretel, an older and slightly smaller Great Pyrenees dog.
“Gretel’s all business,” Devon said. “Quinn likes to be around people, he loves attention.”
The dogs are responsible for protecting the many animals contained inside Varken Vallei. Ducks, chickens, sheep, rams, horses, turkeys and pigs can all be found on the farm. Quinn and Greta prevent foxes and coyotes from killing his ducks and chickens.
“In the spring I had a fox jump that fence and kill 95 chickens,” Devon said. He pointed to Greta and Quinn, “they were slacking on the job.”
He and his father began leasing the land they use for their farm in 2016, and it’s Devon’s main stream of income. The father and son duo started the farm out of their love for bbq.
“I was a line cook and I didn’t like most of the meat I came across. Me and my dad have always been bbq snobs and thought that we could do something better.”
Before Devon had the land in Williamsburg he began with three pigs in Traverse City.
“I had this neighbor by the observatory, old Vietnam War vet, and I split all his firewood for a summer in trade for a pig pen for the fall. I bought three pigs, put em in there and by the end of the year I had six pigs. Then we stumbled across this place.”
There are vegetables grown on the farm as well, but they’re used solely for feeding the pigs so Devon doesn’t have to feed them grain.
I noticed that none of the pigs on the farm are the typical, Charlotte’s Web pink pig. All of the pigs roaming around were different shades of brown, black and calico.
“A commercial pink hog only lives six months before it’s butchered, that’s how fast they grow in confinement with lots of feed. Pink pigs are a lot of muscle, not as much fat. My guys grow slower, there’s more flavor.”
The fat content is important to Devon because the pigs are sold for meat. Because they are pasture raised and not commercially raised, they live a more humane and happy life before they go to butcher than the pigs that are barely allotted room to move in commercial farms.
Devon has the USDA process his pigs for commercial sales for legal reasons. However, for private and personal use he butchers the pigs himself, and sometimes allows his customers to come to see the process.
“They’ll come see the whole thing and drink a glass of wine. I’ll put them to work, too. If they pick up a knife I’ll make them help out. Most people are out of their element.”
With the farm to table craze only gaining momentum, Devon looks forward to growing the farm even bigger. He is studying entrepreneurship and accounting at Northwood University so he can make educated decisions on what the best path for the farm will be. He splits time between the campus in Midland and the farm in Williamsburg. Devon and his father John lease the land at the moment, but Devon hopes to buy the whole plot one day and build a home of his own on it.
Devon works the farm almost all year, except for the 10 days he spends fur trapping for Perdue and Tyson farms in Maryland. He’s going back for his second year to trap foxes.
“I drive out to the eastern shore and I trap Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware all ocean side, not on the Appalachian side.”
Devon began fur trapping at 16 years old. He was motivated to learn because of his interest in having a farm and knowing how to keep foxes and coyotes away from his stock.
“You can’t sit out with a rifle all night and wait for them so I got good at fur trapping and then liked it. Fur prices were up when I was in high school I was getting around $100 a coyote pelt, $40 for a raccoon. First year of college I paid for with fur checks and pigs.”
Devon is industrious and ambitious, and it’s refreshing to see someone so young with such old school skills, especially in something like farming. The name of the farm, Varken Vallei, is dutch for Swine Valley and the pigs are Devon’s favorite part of being a farmer.
“This is how they’re supposed to live. Out in the open, free to roam.”
He’s not scared of taking on any of the challenges that farm life brings him. The challenges are apart of learning and he finds the work rewarding. He just was asked to participate in a pit-masters competition in South Carolina and to be a guest professional butcher at an upcoming farm to table event in Traverse City.
He said it feels incredible to be making such huge strides in a business he built from the ground up.
Younger generations get a bad rap for being unskilled and unmotivated. Devon Ehlers breaks those stereotypes with his farming skills, passion for his work and endless ambition.