Clark Cook wakes before the dawn every day and heads to the barn at his north Oakland County farm to milk more than four dozen cows. By 9 a.m., he collects more than 400 gallons for processing. It’s a long, labor-intensive process, and one that he and his family has done for three generations.
“Twice a day, every day. There are no days off. If you’re sick, someone has to be here to milk the cows,” Cook said about the inherent challenges of dairy farming. “It’s a pretty old-fashioned system. We have machines, but we still have to kneel down underneath the cow. It’s about as close to using a bucket as you can get. It’s a hard occupation to be involved in, unless you enjoy it.”
Started in 1933 by Cook’s grandfather, the Ortonville farm was once among more than 30 dairy farms in Oakland County. Today, Cook’s Farm Dairy, 2950 E. Seymour Lake Rad, is the last remaining dairy in the county. Like most of the large farms remaining in the county, Cook has had to adapt to urbanization and other influences over the years to keep the operation going. For dairy farmers like Cook, the cost of sending their milk out for processing became too much.
“We got to the point that we had to get more cows,” Cook said. “If you do that, you need more land, and all the land was going into subdivisions, so we decided to put in the processing plant.”
While Cook was attending Michigan State University in the 1980s, a class project required him create a business plan, which he subsequently adopted at the family’s farm. In 1982, the dairy installed its own milk processing plant and started selling milk directly to retailers and customers. At the time, many dairy farmers may have questioned the decision to process their own milk. As it turned out, the plant was the thing that saved the farm and allows it to be successful today.
“We would milk the cows, and the semi would come and take it to a processing plant. They would process it and send it out to stores, so we pretty much cut out the middle man,” Cook said. “Now we are moo-to-you.”
Cook sold his first gallon of milk processed at the plant in 1982. Two years later, the farm added ice cream to its offerings. Today the dairy produces about 35,000 gallons of ice cream each year, available in nearly 30 different flavors available at Spartan retailers in the area, as well as at the farm directly. The farm also produces a variety of cheeses during the winter.
In addition to dairy products, the farm owns about 200 acres of crop land, and rents another 200 acres which allows the farm to be self-sustaining by producing all of its own feed. In the fall, the farm offers pumpkins and hay rides, with tours available throughout the year.
The dairy is one of just a handful of large Oakland County farms that are operating today, as cropland is scarce and increasing in value. In nearly all cases, the family farms in Oakland County remain today because they have been handed down through generations.
“There are houses all the way around the farm,” Cook said. “We are kind of the last ones hanging on.
“You wouldn’t be able to go out and start it. You don’t make as much as people think. It’s a modest income, and more of a tradition and family value. The ice cream has been good to us and that’s what keeps us going. If we didn’t have the processing plant, we would have been out of business a long time ago.”
In 2012, Oakland County was home to a total 537 farms, making up 31,722 acres of farmland with an average size of 59 acres, according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture. By comparison, the USDA’s 1969 census recorded 863 farms in the county, totaling 101,820 acres of farmland or about 18.4 percent of the total land in the county. The average size of a farm in 1969 in Oakland County was 118 acres.
Of the more than 500 farms in Oakland County in 2012, four were made up of 1,000 or more acres; seven have between 500 and 999 acres; and 21 are between 499 and 180 acres.
Matt Scramlin, who serves as president of the Oakland County Farm Bureau, said while the size of the average farm in the county is getting smaller, farmers are adapting and learning to do more with less.
“Some of our greenhouse growers can work on much smaller acres than I can do, and still make almost the same,” Scramlin, a fourth generation farmer in Holly. “It’s changing, but we have to adapt for that. Many of us who have had stand-alone farms have had to open it up to the public, but many farmers may not be that open to that many people strolling on the farm every day. Many farmers feel like they are on an island, and don’t always interact with others, but here in Oakland County, we have to.
“I remember when (the Cooks) put in the processing plant at the dairy, and everyone thought he was crazy, and that it wouldn’t work. Now he’s the only one left because of that.”
Scramlin said the ground quality in Oakland County also presents its own challenges.
“We are sitting on some of the largest gravel stream here, while Monroe has been able to hold off (selling farmland) because they have really good farm ground. Here in Oakland County where the ground quality isn’t as high, it was easier to sell out and move to other places.”
Michigan really had three great tracts for farming, he said. Those include the thumb area in Saginaw, the west side of the state for the state’s fruit belt, and Detroit and Monroe.
“Now Detroit is under concrete,” he said. “That’s how Garden City got its name. Urban farmers in Detroit probably aren’t using the same ground anymore.”
Scramlin worked for the Michigan Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau in Washington, D.C., before returning to the Holly area and the family business, which includes Scramlin Southdowns, where the family produce sheep. He also works with his cousin to grow hay and straw at Scramlin Feeds, also in Holly. His uncle, Marvin Scramlin, also operates Centennial Farms, which has been in the family for more than 100 years.
“The biggest difference for our family is that until 1986, my dad and uncle Marvin milked cows full time, and did a lot of cash crop farming, like corn, soybean and wheat,” he said. “Some was sold in 1986, and then we started the feed, which is primarily horse feed.”
Matt Scramlin’s father, LC Scramlin, said he and his brother took over their parent’s dairy and worked on the Centennial Farm growing up.
“My brother (Marvin) lives on the family farm, where we were all raised,” he said. “I started a second building about a mile-and-a-half away. We took over in 1970 when I got out of Michigan State University, and for the next 16 years we milked cows. Dairy farming was good to our family and had been for years. In the 1980s, the milk market became saturated, and we started the feed store. We got rid of the dairy farms in 1986, and farmed about 1,700 acres. My nephew and son make a living farming. There’s not too many anymore. There are a lot of horticulture and greenhouse people.”
LC Scramlin said it’s exciting to have another generation continue the family’s farming tradition.
“The farmers here have adapted,” he said. “Cook’s is probably the only dairy left. A lot have taken on niche things. The Mitchell’s do a greenhouse and tours in the fall for children, and things like that. Glenn (Mitchell) does taxes at this time of year. You’ll find a good share of people that do agriculture in this county have adapted to the amount of land available, but they still find a way to be relevant.”
For example, Scramlin said, there are new farmers such as Katie Flickinger, who owns and operates Garden Hoard, which propagates heirloom seeds for fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs on small acreages of land in the Commerce and Walled Lake area.
“It’s like a whole different world to me,” Scramlin said. “I didn’t even realize something like that was available, and I have pretty good roots in agriculture.”
Catherine Genovese, who operates Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm with her husband, Frank, started their 30-acre Oxford farm in 1977. The farm grows about 18 acres of various evergreen trees, and was the first tree farm in the state to install a drip-irrigation system. In 2003, they started offering living Christmas trees, which are potted trees standing just under 6-feet tall.
“The farmer we bought it from had an egg operation and grew his own corn to feed the chickens. He sold the eggs locally and had been there since the 1930s,” Catherine Genovese said. “Working in the city, we had a keen interest in not living in a subdivision. We wanted to live on some land, and eventually, for it to be productive and do something good with the land. Tree farming, for us, was a good fit. We’ve been at it now for a long time, and have a very popular farm now and are very proud.”
Both Frank and Catherine Genovese are board members with the Oakland County Farm Bureau, as is their son, Michael, who serves as the bureau’s Young Farmer Chair.
“Even when we started, Oakland County had already changed quite a bit from the large farming operations,” Catherine Genovese said. “Farming in Oakland County is a little different than other counties. I think you’re going to see a lot of young people that are very interested in starting a new farming endeavor, but because of the cost of land and limited supply of parcels of land, I think you’re going to find a smaller, more concentrated growing operation. Not large crops, but niche crops, like certain vegetables or organic vegetables for certain plants. They might do farmers markets, rather than selling far and wide. But sometimes it takes more work for the small guy who does a lot by hand, rather than the large guy who uses a tractor for 100 acres of crops.”
Matt Scramlin also said that the acreage of a farm doesn’t necessarily represent the amount of revenue a farm will produce. Many of the people working in agriculture in Oakland County aren’t doing what many people would consider traditional farming, but they are making a living off the land, regardless.
“Most don’t think of a greenhouse grower as a farmer, but we do,” he said. “They are still growing things. You can’t tell how big a farm is by it’s acreage. I’ve seen 5-acres of tomatoes that do as much as 100 acres of corn. So, here, we do some things that aren’t as much land based, but still have profitability.”
Glenn Mitchell, vice president of the Oakland County Farm Bureau, is the owner and operator of Mitchell Farm in Holly. In addition to working the the family farm that was established in 1837, Mitchell and his wife, Candy, utilize eight greenhouses on the farm for plants, flowers and vegetables sold directly to the public.
“The greenhouse was to adapt to the urban environment,” Mitchell said.
Because much of the land in the area was already taken, expanding on the 340-acre farm would have been difficult. Today, about 200 acres of the land is farmed for corn, soybean and wheat, with about five acres dedicated to pumpkins in the fall.
“The greenhouses aren’t something the family had done before,” he said. “We introduced them about 25 years ago.”
However, even the greenhouses may be impacted by the economy, as many people cut back on purchasing special items, or don’t want to drive far from home, opting to purchase flowers and plants from local big box stores. Yet the urbanization of the county has been the biggest motivator of change over the years.
“At one time, before I was born, my family was really into raising sheep,” he said. “With the railroad in Holly, they would herd the sheep right through the middle of town. However, urbanization also impacted the way that happened.”
As herding sheep through the middle of town became impractical, another threat to the sheep began to spring up: dogs were getting into the field and killing the sheep. At the time, the farmers weren’t aware that dogs would chase the sheep until they finally expired. The result was a bit of a mystery at first, he said, as they would come across the dead animals in the field and not know what had killed them.
“Apparently, dogs enjoy chasing sheep, and they would basically run them to death,” he said. “That was the final straw.”
Many years later, the family began offering tomatoes and sweet corn for sale at the farm, without taking the crops to farmers markets throughout the area, the endeavor didn’t prove to be fruitful.
“It’s still a good idea for a lot of people, but you have to take it to farmer’s markets, not just selling it on the farm,” he said.
While farmers in more rural areas may rely on farmers markets to sell some crops, urbanization has helped to bring customers to them, such as Long’s Family Farm, in Commerce Township.
Long’s, which sits on about 120 acres of land inside Commerce Township, has an apple orchard that is about 40 acres in size, as well as an additional 80 acres across the street from the cider mill, on E. Commerce Road. The cider mill is a popular attraction throughout the fall each year. In recent years, Rob Long added family attractions to the property, such as a children’s bounce house, corn maze, hay rides and other actives. The farm also allows customers to pick their own pumpkins.
The farm produces asparagus that’s sold by the pound on site at a small red shed adjacent to the asparagus field near Bogie Lake Road. Sweet corn is sold pre-bagged by the half or full dozen, which they say is picked fresh each morning, along with tomatoes and garden vegetables, apples and pumpkins.
For other farmers, urbanization of Oakland County has made some operations difficult or may even draw complaints from neighboring residents moving into the area.
“People don’t like the smell of the farm, or having tractors on the road,” Mitchell said.
With so much traffic in some places, he said it would be nearly impossible or extremely dangerous to operate farm equipment. As the economy improves, people typically start buying more land, and farms are one of the places that developers turn. For some farmers, he said, it may be difficult for them to pass on the high prices being offered for farmland.
Genovese said many of the farmers working smaller farms in Oakland County must work second jobs in order to make ends meet, or often have one person working full time and a spouse who works a different, full-time job.
“There are just a few that aren’t working a full-time job,” she said. “We work full-time on the farm now that we are retired. For 20 years we were putting into the farm before we got a penny out of it.”
Matt Scramlin, who’s mother was a school teacher in Holly, said having a farming family with one of the spouses working in a different field is a common theme for farmers.
“That’s a common thing throughout agriculture,” he said. “Most farmers that are actually farming — one of the spouses has a full-time job. My mother was a teacher in Holly. There are a lot of farmers’ wives who are teachers. It behooves them to work off the farm for health insurance. Farmers and school teachers pretty much go together.”
Scott Ruggles, a fourth generation farmer who operates Ruggles Farm Market in White Lake Township, said the farm has diversified its offerings over the years to adapt to the changing environment of the county. Like several other remaining farms in the area, Ruggles’ family had roots in dairy farming. However, the family later transitioned to beef cattle and eventually cash crops. A farm stand was opened two decades ago, and the farm has since expanded from about 300 acres to more than 1,000 today.
“I’ve been involved in farming my whole life,” he said. “After high school, I went to Michigan State University and got a degree in Agriculture and Business Management in 2007. Shortly after that, we started boarding horses. We removed that and added a second farm market to kind of try to diversify ourselves.”
The farm now has over 1,000 acres of corn, soybean, wheat, as well as about 75 acres of specialty crops, including several types of fruits and vegetables that are sold at farm stands. Ruggles farm also sells mulch and landscaping materials. Expanding the farm, he said, was a unique opportunity for the area, which was made available in part due to the recession and economic downturn.
“Most of the land here is spoken for, but there was a good amount of vacant land that was sitting, and the recession kind of helped with that, so it was available to us,” he said.
Ruggles is also a bit unique, as he is one of the younger farmers to own large acreage in the county.
“There’s not too many (young farmers),” he said. “It’s a hard way of life, or a lot harder than a lot of other options. You have to love it, or have an advantage to stay in it. It’s rare that (a farm) is handed down, and they stay in it. And it’s almost impossible to get into it from scratch. The majority of farmers are up in age.”
Back on the dairy farm, Clark Cook echoed Ruggle’s sentiment.
“I’m 54 years old, but I also have a lot of miles on me,” Cook said, who has two children in college and one in high school. “I don’t know if anyone will come back and take over the farm. We are always looking for young people that want to work in livestock to come and partner with us here. Right now, (my children) all have different interests. We are going to go as long as we can, and as hard as we can until we see what’s going on.”