On Their Own
This big, happy west Michigan family raises livestock, organic vegetables and children—lots of them—on a homestead they’ve carved out for themselves.
By DAVE WEINSTOCK | Photos By MICHAEL KENT & BROOK ALLEN
Michelangelo once wrote that there was a statue in every block of stone, and that it was a sculptor’s task to reveal it. Similarly, Pete Wilson of Free Soil, Michigan, sees a productive farm he’s carving out of 20 acres of northwestern Michigan forestland he and his wife, Jill, own.
Having named it Kid Ranch CSA Farm, Pete and Jill share the tasks of working the 10-year-old operation with their 11 children (one more is on the way). The Wilsons use organic farming methods on their vegetable farm and raise grass-fed livestock without GMOs. The Mason County farm, located in a heavily forested area just 15 miles east of Lake Michigan, features a community supported agriculture (CSA) operation that sells vegetables, eggs and flowers, pork and grass-fed beef, cow- and goat-milk shares, free-range chicken and homemade baked goods.
Eight of the Wilson children work on the farm—weeding, harvesting and caring for the livestock. Phillip, 22, works full time as a taxidermist, and the two youngest, Thaddeus, 2, and Katiana, 4, keep Jill busy back at the house. As of this writing, the newest Wilson is expected to arrive in November.
To date, Pete has cleared 5 acres—3 acres of gardens, plus the area that now houses the Kid Ranch CSA farmstead, including a split-log house, barn and equipment shed constructed of wood harvested from the farm.
With 100 acres surrounding Pete’s 20 acres, Pete’s father, Herman, has given his son access to a 4-acre pasture near his home. It too required no small amount of labor to make it productive.
The soil the Wilson family works there is so sandy it might more accurately be characterized as dust. Results from the pasture’s first soil test were grim. “We fenced it in and took a soil sample, and the soil test lab said, ‘You have nothing,’” Pete says.
Forced to fertilize the ground to make it productive, Pete says he can’t, therefore, claim his beef is organic. Yet, since that initial application of commercial fertilizer, he’s responded with regular manure applications and a white clover pasture seeding. Today, Pete’s pastures feature seven paddocks organized in a rotational grazing scheme, acting as both home and feeding source for his beef cattle, goats and free-range chickens.
A Tough Market
The Wilsons, like so many other market-savvy growers, decided direct-to-consumer sales were the best way to approach their local market in west Michigan, a largely agricultural region dotted with rural towns that border Lake Michigan, the world’s fifth-largest lake.
Locals call it “The Big Lake,” while west Michigan entrepreneurs, such as the Wilsons, think of it as the headwaters for much of their income stream. With summer’s hot weather, the lake attracts a flood of tourists.
Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings find the Wilsons selling their organic and non-GMO farm products to locals and tourists alike at the Ludington and Manistee farmers markets. It’s a genuine family activity. Daughter JoyEllen, 20, and son Levi, 14, run the stand at the Ludington market from May through September, with Bethanie, 16, occasionally standing in for Levi. Pete handles the Manistee market—from May through October—along with his other children in a weekly rotation.
All booms eventually bust, and this one comes to a halt at summer’s end. “Our market income drops by 30% after Labor Day,” says Pete. Yet, despite the loss of tourists at the end of the farmers market season, the Wilsons extend their direct-to-consumer sales throughout the growing season with their CSA offerings to the area’s permanent residents.
The 10-year-old Kid Ranch CSA has 22 members who choose from two weekly, hand-delivered packages: the regular, organic vegetable package for $475 per season or the $600 premium “Taste of the Farm” bundle. In addition to the regular weekly offering, Taste of the Farm customers find various extras in their boxes each week.
“The Taste of the Farm is the vegetable share, plus some extras,” Wilson says. “Like they get some floral bouquets, they get some chicken, they get some baked goodies that some of my daughters make, and they get a little container of honeycomb and a little bit of maple syrup, if we had a good year.”
Another reason why direct-to-consumer sales make sense for the Wilsons is the limited number of livestock marketing venues in west Michigan. The nearest livestock auction sales are in Ravenna—91 miles to the south—and Clare, 89 miles to the east.
For his beef cattle, Wilson prefers Angus because the dairy animals that are available in such large numbers in Michigan don’t finish well on the grass-heavy regimen he uses. “I give them a little bit of grain through the winter along with their hay, then come spring, grass only to the end,” he says.
His cattle finish on the light side, at hanging weights of 400 to 600 pounds. He sells the grass-fed beef in halves and quarters at the region’s going rate, $3.50 per pound.
In 2001, the Michigan Legislature passed a law making it illegal to sell raw milk. However, Michigan is one of eight states to grant an exception if customers enter into cow-share agreements with farmers. Wilson has three Jersey cows for which he sells up to 10 milk shares each. In summer, when the cows are in peak lactations, he likes to have some pigs around to take care of the excess milk production. “When there’s lots of milk, we skim off the cream for making butter, and the skim milk goes to the pigs,” he says.
Daughter Miriam, 18, raises one hog for the fair and a second consumed later by the family. Wilson raises eight crossbreds purchased from farm neighbors and, in addition to the milk, feeds them a mix of non-GMO grain mash, weeds from his gardens and “produce from the garden that doesn’t cut the mustard.”
Wilson sells six of the eight pigs he raises to customers as quarters, halves or whole carcasses.
Their Own World
Home-schooled and hard at work on the farm, the Wilson children live in a world centered on farm and family. Summer mornings are given over to fieldwork, with all hands on deck weeding the vegetables—right down to 6-year-old Louisa.
In a world untouched by the clamor of neighbors and surrounded by nature’s bounty, these kids find and define their own fun. One Thursday afternoon, a few of the younger Wilsons rode out on a four-wheeler to meet Pete in their garden in the woods to gather vegetables for the Ludington market.
The rutted gravel and dirt road bounced the riders around a bit, especially Bethanie, who looked a little, let’s say, shook up by the end of the ride. Her brother Levi, 14, took one look at her and wisecracked, “If Bethanie finished a glass of milk before we left, it’d be butter by now.”
The joke wasn’t lost on the rest of the Wilson kids. It was as if the sky split with peals of laughter as they walked out into the field.