March 25 2017 08:00 AM

For more than a century, this farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has found potatoes to be a perfect complement to their dairy herd.

Betty and Galen VanDrese own and operate VanDrese Dairy and Potato Farm. Betty began farming when she married her husband more than 60 years ago. Galen grew up on the farm and has been driving the potato delivery route since his high school graduation.

An important part of running any business is finding enterprises that complement each other. For one Michigan dairy farm, potatoes and cows have been the perfect pair.

The VanDrese family of Cornell, Mich., has been milking cows and growing potatoes for more than 100 years. Charles and Emma VanDrese purchased the farm in 1914 when they moved from Wisconsin to the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan.

The matriarch of the family today is Betty VanDrese. Betty did not grow up on a farm, but she quickly became a “farm girl” when she married Charles and Emma’s son, Carl. At the time of their marriage in 1952, the VanDrese family was milking 25 cows and harvesting 10 acres of potatoes. Both enterprises expanded over time. Today, they milk about 100 cows and run 900 acres of cropland, including 100 acres of potatoes.

At 86 years young, Betty still gets up early every morning to go out and clean the barn prior to milking. She also feeds calves, and up until this year, she helped harvest potatoes as well.

Farming alongside Betty are three of her sons: Galen, Wendell, and Doug. Galen’s son Jason also works on the farm.

Making the milk year round

The VanDreses started with a Brown Swiss herd. About 15 years ago, they decided to transition to Holsteins, and today just traces of the Brown Swiss breed remain.

The herd is milked twice daily, at 4:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., in a double-8 parlor. The VanDreses belong to the Michigan Milk Producers Association, and milk from the farm is transported to Marquette.

The cows are housed in a three-row freestall barn with sand-bedded stalls with mats underneath. The barn has curtain sidewalls and alley scrapers. All heifer calves are raised on the farm and fed milk and/or milk replacer.

Michigan is one of the nation’s top milk producing states, but the Upper Peninsula isn’t necessarily known for dairying. There are just 82 dairies in the 15 counties that make up the region. One reason is the challenge that comes with a shorter growing season. Galen explained that their location on the southeastern side of the UP is about as far north as you can be to grow corn for grain.

And like dairies everywhere, the VanDreses must ride the ups and downs of the milk price. For them, potatoes have helped balance the lows. Fortunately, milk price and potato price tend to complement each other.

“Normally one is up when the other is down,” Galen said.

Selling the spuds

They weren’t the only ones who found success with dairy and potatoes. When the VanDrese family started farming in the early 1900s, “everyone grew potatoes,” Galen explained.

As time went on, though, the number of potato growers in the area has declined. But other than for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the VanDrese family has continued potato production. Galen’s father, Carl, used to always say, “You can’t bank on one thing . . . you have to have two.”

The potatoes were once dug and harvested by hand and carried in a cart to the root house. Over time, many changes were made. A potato warehouse was built in 1945 when they were still planting 10 acres. In 1973, they bought their first potato harvester. By 1979, they were up to 50 acres. In 1984, they built a second addition to the warehouse, and in 1993, a third addition doubled total storage and processing space. For the past 15 years, more than 100 acres of potatoes have been grown.

Potatoes are planted in the spring right after corn gets in the ground. They strategically plant some potatoes earlier so they are ready for delivery sooner. The potato fields are rotated with corn, hay, and rye cover crop. Much like corn, potato fields need to be fertilized and sprayed. They are also irrigated.

Harvest begins in mid- to late August, and other family members and friends step in to help. One person drives the harvester, which digs and collects the potatoes. A handful of people ride up on the harvester, sorting out the bad potatoes. Another person pulls the full wagons back to the warehouse.

The potatoes are unloaded using a conveyer belt. Two or three people stand on the line, grading and sorting the potatoes. The saleable spuds are stored by variety in the warehouse, which is kept dark and cool.

Harvest takes two to three weeks. Yield is around 300 to 400 hundredweights of potatoes per acre. Harvest is very efficient, as less than 10 percent of the potatoes are wasted.

When it is time to bag the potatoes, the conveyer can be set to select a certain size of potato, depending what product they are bagging. New machines added in the last few years have made bagging a one-person job.

Potatoes that can’t be sold are not wasted. These cut or broken potatoes are fed to the cows. A couple hundred pounds are incorporated into the TMR daily, and Galen noted that milk production goes up about 1,500 pounds per day when potatoes are in the ration.

Galen runs their delivery route from about August 15 to mid-May. They sell Russets and Whites, and most potatoes are delivered directly to grocery stores in the area. What doesn’t get bought locally goes to a broker to be sold.

Potato farming requires a lot of paperwork and inspections. Everyone who visits the farm or warehouse must check in. Everything must be carefully documented, from planting, spraying and harvesting dates, what kind of seed was used, and so forth.

The breakeven price for potatoes is about $10 per hundredweight, and that’s about where it’s at right now, said Galen. “Some years are better than others,” he explained. “We’re not going to quit potatoes, though. We have too much invested, and we enjoy it.”

All in the family

The VanDrese family has always welcomed visitors and school classes out to their farm. In 2012, they faced a bigger undertaking when they agreed to host one of Michigan’s Breakfast on the Farm events. The family expected 500 visitors, but when it was all said and done, more than 2,300 visited their farm that sunny June day. It was the first time in the state’s Breakfast on the Farm history that an Upper Peninsula farm hosted.

Betty quickly emphasized how helpful the community was in preparing for the event and how grateful they were for how well everything turned out. All 11 of her children live in the area and were in attendance, helping in various capacities. The VanDrese family was happy to open the doors of their farm and share their lifestyle with consumers.

“Growing up on farm made my children who they are today,” said Betty. “They work hard, and they all get along.” After more than six decades living and working on the farm, it’s very clear that Betty appreciates the life she and her late husband built on their dairy.

“I’ve been blessed,” she said.