Heading home: For many who grew up on the farm, roots run deep

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.  Read the rest of the series here.

Many young people, some of them recent graduates, are lured away from home by big city lights and jobs. But sometimes roots are too deep to let a person stay away for long. 

A number of younger farmers in the state who grew up working on their family farms left for college and the prospect of 9 to 5 jobs in a corporate setting only to return to the land they left behind.

Drawn back by different reasons, they share a desire to be closer to their roots, their families and the land that feeds the state, the nation, and the world.
Seventh generation living off the land

Paul Pridgeon remembers graduating from Central Michigan University and asking himself the question that swirls in the minds of so many recent graduates: now what?

Raised on a multi-generational farm first homesteaded in Montgomery in Hillsdale County in 1836, Pridgeon’s father, Bill, told him to seek out opportunities off the farm if he felt called to do so.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do (after CMU),” says Pridgeon, 30. “My brother is a doctor in Grand Rapids, and I have a sister in nursing school. My dad never pressured us into returning, but I knew I could always go back.”

Pridgeon, who also holds an MBA from Michigan State University, took his business degree to an internship at the Whirlpool Corp. in St. Joseph, and other professional jobs in Mt. Pleasant and East Lansing, before making the decision to return to the family farm, becoming the seventh generation of Pridgeon’s to make a living off the land. Currently, the farm raises hogs, and plants corn, soybeans, and wheat on 4,500 acres.

“We know that most Americans are just two to three generations removed from the farm,” Pridgeon says. “There’s a romanticism now of farm life with the whole lifestyle of it, the green pastures, the focus on family, the wholesome lifestyle. But it’s hard work. It’s a 24-hour job.

“I could have done the 9 to 5 thing, the cubicle things, but I wanted to raise a family in the culture of this industry, being Christian and community focused, surrounded by others who know that we are all in this thing together, who have an emotional tie with the land.”

That connection started at a young age. Pridgeon began work on the farm at 12-years-old, working in the summer sometimes up to 50 hours a week, alongside his father, uncles, and others who made a living on his family’s farm for decades.

“I was treated like a man,” he says. “All of us working together, we were a family, regardless if we were related or not. It was a community of people. I came back to re-create that life for me and my family.”

Even though the work is hard, and the hours long, farm life affords Pridgeon a kind of flexibility he would not enjoy in a corporate setting, he says.

“My wife and I might have had fun in a larger city, doing what a lot of our friends did, but now, I get to see my kids all the time. I don’t miss their activities. I get more touches with my family.”

Right now, his home is about five miles from the farm’s main operations. But now he’s looking to build operations just 300 yards from his home, he said.

“I thought, ‘five miles is too far,’” he says. “This way, my kids can find me whenever they need to. And maybe one day, they’ll choose to plant their roots here, too.”

Scott Ferry'It's in my blood'
While in his mid and late teens, Scott Ferry says he “couldn’t have imagined” owning his family’s dairy farm in Litchfield. Then, after he has what he calls his “awakening of life,” that all changed.

 A recent graduate from MSU in 2008, his father passed away in October of that year, a man who’d had discussions with Ferry about taking the reins and becoming the fourth generation of dairy farmers in the family.

“I was scheduled to marry the following month (November), and started thinking about family and where I’d like to raise them,” says Ferry, 32. “And man, there’s just no better place than the values of a farm and the community that surrounds it, the work ethic, the family ties. It’s in my blood and I can’t get it out.”

Ferry took over in June 2009, with this year marking the 111th anniversary of Harold Ferry Farms, named after his father, where 350 cows are milked three times daily.

“There was never pressure to take over,” he says. “'When?’ was never even really asked. In a lot of ways, I am blazing my own path, on my own. There are no previous generations here anymore to consult, so I use the community and resources around me to stay on right track.”

He’s using his finance degree, too.

Ferry admits it was hard to find many people entering into the world of agriculture when he did – in the midst of the Great Recession. But his business acumen and his talent for seeing trends in finance have helped him weather economic swings that have hit his industry harder than most, using contracting as a means to lock-in predictable revenue and build his business’s margin.

“There has been an advantage to having an understanding of the modern economy,” he says. Ferry also has a drive to help people in the way he does business.

“I wanted to feel like I was helping people,” he says. “I never thought about how what I was doing was actually helping people, though. But it is. Milk is a necessary resource, so I’m accomplishing that – the betterment of others – with the work I do to provide a product to nourish them.”

His foresight has led to successes, including the purchasing of an additional 75 cows and 500 acres of land to push his total acreage to 1,500. A dozen people work at his farm, about an hour southeast of Kalamazoo.

The Ferry family is growing, too, with a six-week-old child just joining a 3- and 5-year-old.

“They’re not just my kids,” he says, laughing. “They’re my future employees.”

Chris Killian has been a writer and journalist in the Kalamazoo area for over 10 years. You can find more about Killian, his work, and projects he’s working on by visiting chriskillian.net.