Eighty years of history is certainly something to brag about – especially since the VanSingel Farms business has been in the same area of Grant, Michigan since its inception. This third-generation, family-run leader in fresh produce has been a staple of quality for decades. This year has been exciting and full of healthy-looking crops, and we spoke with Cal VanSingel, one of the three brothers who own and run the company, to find out more.
“My father Pete began farming in 1935, and my parents were married in 1937. We have always been based in Grant, Michigan and never anywhere else. In the beginning, there was only twenty acres to farm on, but through hard work, determination, and desire, he became more successful and purchased more land. My mother Grace came on board at that time,” says Cal, the youngest of the brothers.
The area that the VanSingels farm was a three-thousand-acre shallow lake, only twelve to fourteen feet at its deepest point, in the early 1900s. A man bought the area and drained it over a period of years because he recognized that underneath was fertile muck soil. Cal’s dad then purchased one field after another through the 1930s and 1940s.
“My oldest brother was born in 1941, and at one point, there were five boys and my sister. As land became more available, he had us all helping on the farm, and success soon followed. That is when expansion became more pronounced, and he was buying up more and more land,” says Cal.
At one point, there were many small farm operations working on only ten to twenty acres of the land. As more property became available for sale on the old lake, Cal’s father took full advantage to expand productions.
It was a slow growth every few years, buying twenty to thirty acres, and there were some lean years. but today the company occupies 1,200 acres and owns significantly more than that. In 1995, the brothers were able to buy their neighbours out, which was a significant land boost. VanSingel Farms is now in its second generation and a third generation has helped as Cal’s nieces and nephews have done some work in the past.
Managing the growing process from start to finish is something of which VanSingel is proud. The farm currently raises four crops but once grew celery, cabbage, and, for over fifty years, peppermint.
“Now, we have settled on four crops: carrots, onions, parsnips and corn. Onions comprise most of our business, and it is what we are known for, it is our specialty. We do all the planting, cultivating, spraying, and weeding,” says Cal.
That start-to-finish process extends itself to the carrots, parsnips, and corn as well. Very little is no sub-contracted. The carrots, when harvested, go to the processing centre, called the packing shed. From there they are washed and run through a hydro-cooler, sized, and placed in appropriate bags, which could be anywhere from a one-pound bag to a jumbo fifty-pound bag.
The carrots and onions go to large companies such as Meijer and Kroeger. Bulk, loose carrots can also be sold at grocery stores. The onions go to dry storage in large buildings with a controlled atmosphere and stay there until they are ready to be pulled to be packaged.
“Let’s say you get a really nice, cool fall day at fifty- to fifty-five Fahrenheit, with the sun shining. That’s what we call drying weather. We open all the buildings up and turn on all our fans in the hope to dry these onions and get some moisture out. This produces a golden onion, and they are delicious!” says Cal.
VanSingel’s parsnips are harvested and put into twenty-bushel cribs in cold storage before going to two companies for packaging. The farm has tried to package them in the past but found it easier to sell the parsnips to other companies. They are loaded onto a flat semi-trailer and taken to be packaged.
The corn is field corn and most of what is produced by VanSingel is taken to Michigan Agricultural Commodities Inc. (MAC) to be made into methanol.
In 2015, VanSingel received the Michigan Vegetable Council’s Master Farmer Award. The council picks a vegetable farmer once a year from Michigan and the surrounding states. “My father won it back in the 1970s. We were fortunate and blessed to hit it in 2015,” says Cal.
Every December, the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo, a big agricultural convention is held from a Tuesday to Thursday in Grand Rapids. Everything from fertilizer and seed companies to tractor companies display their wares. The event encompasses anything to do with the vegetable or fruit world.
“On Wednesday, they have a big banquet, which is highly attended. That is when they hand out awards as well as scholarships to young students from Michigan State U. It was here that we received the Master Farmer Award for farmer of the year,” says Cal.
VanSingel has close to thirty-five full-time employees at the packaging plant or processing shed as well as an irrigation crew and fifteen field workers, running equipment in the spring, planting, cultivating, and spraying in the summer.
In the fall, it works with the same crew, but in the summer months, an additional forty to fifty people are hired to do the weeding. Carrots are packaged in the fall at the plant, and the company tries to hire another fifty to sixty people.
“We have been really fortunate because our Spanish employees have been with us for thirty-plus years. The only issue there is that we are all getting old. The crew guys I have worked with for thirty-plus years stay because we treat them like family, and the way they want to be treated,” says Cal.
Cal’s brother Keith, who runs the plant, has numerous cookouts every year for all the employees. Cookouts are also held on the farm, and at the end of the year there is a luncheon at a local restaurant. “He is really good to his people and also has employees that have been there for thirty-plus years,” says Cal.
Cal views his workers as family, and on Fridays, he treats them to ice cream. If there is a busy morning, during a break, Cal will take them to a local restaurant for coffee and toast, and it is a gesture that is appreciated by the workers. “If you treat your employees well, they will fall on a sword for you,” says Cal.
In the spring, if you had told Cal that the crops would look as good as they do now, he would not have believed it because Michigan did not have a beneficial spring at all. But, weather in the summer started to turn around but luckily did not reach the blistering heat of last year. Vegetables do not like that kind of heat; they enjoy a lot of sunshine, but no vegetable likes the extreme heat.
“We didn’t experience the levels of heat that were pervasive last summer. We had rain early and rain late, so we had to irrigate a lot in July. We were able to do that, and my guys worked like crazy for me to get the plants watered and keep them growing,” says Cal.
On this land, even in a hot, dry summer, like that of 2018, plants have access to the moisture they need. This year, VanSingel is sitting on some amazing looking crops, and the parsnips and onions appear very robust and healthy.
Cal believes another key to the success of VanSingel lies in the hands of a higher power. “God has been really good to us. We have been here for eighty years, and some have been tough and lean, but we have always been able to pay our bills. The biggest thing for us is faith,” he says.