Looking for Land, Michigan High School Sweethearts Return Home to Launch Small Scale Organic Farm
March 19, 2013 | Nina Ignaczak
When high-school sweethearts Matt and Carissa Visser left Michigan in the mid-nineties to attend college in Oregon, they never dreamed they would eventually return to Michigan to start a small-scale organic farm.
But in 2009, that’s exactly what they did.
“We simultaneously came to a point in our lives where we were looking for a new direction,” says Carissa. “We wanted to find a career in which we could own our own business, work together, and feel good about our jobs.”
Matt, a mycologist, ran his own business identifying molds in indoor air samples, while Carissa, a metal smith, designed jewelry and worked in a natural foods co-op. Life was good, but the Vissers were ready for a change.
Living in Oregon had exposed the couple to organic produce. They were avid cooks and gardeners, frequenting Eugene’s farmer’s market to supplement their large home garden.
“The idea to start a small-scale farm was inspired in large part by Eugene’s amazing local farmer’s market,” Carissa recalls. “We decided that we wanted to become farmers and create some of that beauty ourselves.”
The Vissers looked into purchasing land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but found the price of land out of reach. They decided to return to Michigan, where land was more affordable and where they could be near family.
The Vissers purchased land in Leelanau County, arguably one of the most beautiful places in Michigan. The peninsular County is surrounded on 3 sides by the Great Lakes and features the Sleeping Bear Dunes, cherry orchards, pristine forests and rolling topography. The couple purchased a 22-acre vacant parcel directly from the family who had homesteaded it in the earlier part of the century, and proceeded to build a house, a barn and a root cellar with their own hands.
“Now in our fifth season we’re still expanding, and we’re employing five people to help us out,” says Carissa. “We pride ourselves in growing flavorful, beautiful, high quality, nutritious vegetables and fruits.”
Isadore Farm was named after Isadore, a historic settlement just to the east.
The couple decided to obtain organic certification at the outset, in order to establish trust with customers and differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Because much of the produce grown on the farm is sold directly to consumers at farmers markets, Isadore Farms focuses on variety in order to ensure a beautiful display and to keep customers interested. In 2012, the farm grew over 125 different varieties of fruits and vegetables, with 6 acres in production.
“We pretty much grow every type of commercially viable vegetable that can be grown in our area,” says Carissa.
In addition to farmer’s markets, the Vissers sell wholesale produce to a local food co-op and to several local restaurants.
“We don’t have a formal business model, but our strategy so far has been to work as hard as we can, to grow as much food as we can, and to find ways to market our produce to people who appreciate the quality of what we grow,” Carissa explains.
The Vissers invested their own capital to start up the farm and are now in the process of paying themselves back while covering payroll and continuing to invest in the farm.
“Our biggest challenge right now is maintaining the level of energy we’ve had to have to start our farm,” says Carissa. “For most of the year we work seven days a week, and a lot of those days are 16 hour work days.”
Other challenges include finding the money to purchase equipment, and learning to take the ups and downs of farming in stride. The Vissers are now able to employ several interns, which help reduce their stress levels while educating young people on organic farming techniques.
The 2007 USDA Census reported the average age of principal farm operators at 57.1 years, with only 8% below the age of 34. A quarter of American farmers are expected to retire by 2030.
Yet the Vissers are part of a small community of under-forty northern Michigan farmers who are bucking the demographic trend.
“The joke in Leelanau County is if you see someone under forty, you either know them or will soon,” says Matt. He notes that the major challenge to young farmers is land acquisition. Many of his young farming friends are either farming on family land, or renting.
The Vissers advise budding young farmers to get lots of experience before jumping in by interning at farms whose methods and practices they find admirable. Carissa interned at two different farms before the Vissers established Isadore Farms.
Another piece of advice they offer is to have a second income when starting out. Matt’s mycology consulting service was transferable to Michigan, enabling the couple to grow the business while having a dependable income.
Having supportive parents nearby is also a great help. All four of the Vissers’ parents live in the Grand Rapids area, and Carissa’s mom has volunteered every summer. Matt’s parents grew up on small family farms in Minnesota and Iowa, and his parents see Isadore as a way of carrying on that family history.
“They see their own upbringing reflected in what we are doing,” he says.
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