GTPulse: Young, First-Generation Farmer Thrives Throughout The Pandemic

To date one of my favorite past story subjects is my pal Devon Ehlers. When I wrote about his farm in 2019 he was still studying business at Northwoods University in Midland, Michigan. His time was split between campus and his 47-acre farm in Williamsburg. The farm wasn’t just a means to make ends meet during college, it’s the reason he went to college to begin with. Unlike other young farmers, Devon hasn’t had years of family farming knowledge passed down to him. At 22 years old, he’s a full-time, first-generation farmer.

Like all businesses, Devon’s farm Varken Vallei was impacted by the pandemic, but not in the way you might think.

Fear-induced panic led to people overstocking and causing all kinds of food and supply shortages throughout the pandemic. It brought to light how much we rely on stores to sustain ourselves. In an attempt to become more self-sustaining and put less pressure on a stressed food system, many folks began taking steps towards homesteading. 

“It was busier here. Everyone wants to be self-sufficient. It was a wake up when people realized that they couldn’t just go out and buy meat. So everybody’s getting into homesteading now and looking to buy some lambs, pigs and chickens to raise for themselves.”

The extra business didn’t put a big stress on Devon’s schedule because he was home for virtual schooling. He plans on having just as fruitful of a spring and summer this year. 

He just finished up with a few weeks of making enough sausage to keep him and his family stocked for the foreseeable future. He’ll process that meat himself, the meat sent out to a USDA-approved facility will be used for commercial purposes.

“We make all kinds of sausages here. If it’s being sold for retail in any way it goes somewhere like Ebels where it’s all inspected and processed by them.”

For nonretail meats, though, Devon will offer a customer as much or as little interaction with the whole process as they’d like. From butchering to deciding on seasoning variations, there’s truly an education to be had.

For now, he’ll be busy with all of the new life springing up on the farm. Right now the farm is filled with piglets, little sheep and baby chicks. He’s also waiting to see whether the resident horse on the farm Secret is expecting and if Gretel, the mother Farmdog is too.

If she is, this will be Gretel’s second litter. She and her partner Quinn are Great Pyrenees dogs that live on Varken Vallei full-time. It’s in their genetic heritage to run farms. The dynamic duo is now a family of four. Initially, only one pup, Peaches, was planned to be kept. But the runt of the litter Peanut was too hard to get rid of.

“Three different people backed out on her for various reasons so we kept Peanut and now she’s our baby. She can’t go away because she’s special. She’s sacred. If someone wanted to take her now they couldn’t. She’s a good girl,” he grinned.

Devon is now a proud business school graduate. Though many of his peers didn’t attend school to run a farm, he’s using what he’s learned to optimize the farm in the best ways possible.

“You realize that everything is a business decision,” he explained. “You factor your time into everything you do to decide if it’s worthwhile. That’s the reason we don’t do eggs. The amount of time you take for what people are willing to spend on eggs, it doesn’t weigh out for me. Too much time spent with the chickens or meeting with customers. It’ll drain an extra 20 minutes out of your day. So we just keep a few for ourselves. They’re good. Way better than what you’d get at the store.”

What started as a couple of pigs in a Traverse City backyard has grown into a thriving farm and lifelong dream. Two years ago Devon told me that the plan was to eventually buy the farm and live on it. When I asked him if that’s still the plan the answer hadn’t changed.

“Yeah, I think that’s what we’ll do.”

 

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Categories: GTPulse