Harvest swoon

If Dan Lutz were not harvesting organic radishes and winter squash on this perfect fall day, he would probably be managing a bar in Detroit. That’s what he did before he and his wife, Michelle, moved 70 miles northeast of the Motor City to the 80-acre farm they purchased in Yale.

For years Dan, 45, fantasized about owning an organic vegetable farm. In 1994, he could defer his dream no longer.

The Lutzes, who are finishing their eighth season, are now Michigan’s largest organic vegetable growers.

Maple Creek Farm is exactly the kind of idyllic scene you’d imagine. A red barn houses 14 cows, which are raised on organic feed, as are the chickens. Ducks quack outside the barn. Five dogs and 15 cats roam freely. And acres of cultivated land roll out before their 150-year-old farmhouse.

This has been one of the best years yet for the Lutzes. But success hasn’t come easily. And it means more than just making a profit. It’s about growing food that doesn’t harm the land or the people who consume it. For them, it’s a philosophy, a mission, a way of life.

Michelle slings a blue nylon satchel over her shoulder. She crouches among a bed of “sweet dumplings,” also called winter squash, and plucks a perfect one from its foliage. When she fills her sack, she dumps them into one of the cardboard boxes that line the 1,000-foot-long vegetable bed. She loads the boxes on the pickup truck.

Dan, who sports a black bandana and Santana T-shirt, blasts Led Zeppelin from the truck radio. He also picks, packs and loads produce.

When they finish, the couple drives to a large wooden vegetable corral Dan built with some Amish neighbors he befriended. Bushels of red, purple and green peppers, which were picked earlier that day, sit in the stall. Michelle shows off pungent bundles of oregano, sage and dill. Garlic bulbs cure in the rafters. To get the produce to this point, the couple work 16- to 18-hour days, seven days a week. Only lightning keeps them indoors.

They haven’t had a vacation in years, though they may take one in December to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. Summer vacations are out of the question.

From June through October, the couple must prepare and deliver boxes of produce to families in the Detroit area each week. This is how the Lutzes support themselves, their three daughters and the farm. Each customer pays $500 up-front for 18 weeks of organic produce. If the Lutzes have a bad year, failing to produce enough crops to meet the demand, customers could be out their money. This cooperative arrangement is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in which paying members share the farmer’s risk. So far, the Lutzes have not missed a single delivery.

In the beginning, Dan ran the farm while Michelle kept her full-time job at Spirit Airlines. Dan read everything he could about organic farming, but says, “Nothing prepared me for this.”

Initially, he had 15 or so CSA customers. By 1999, the membership had swollen by word-of-mouth to 230. That’s when Michelle quit her job and started working on the farm full time.

It’s a grueling schedule. Every day begins at 5 a.m. Mondays and Thursdays are the toughest, with the couple sometimes working frantically till midnight, picking produce and packing it for the next day’s deliveries. Dan spends eight hours every Tuesday delivering boxes to Clinton Township, St. Clair Shores, Grosse Pointe Park, Dearborn, Detroit and Port Huron; families pick up their boxes at central locations. Michelle delivers on Friday to Ferndale, Oak Park, Troy, Bloomfield Hills, Novi, Rochester, Shelby Township and Farmington. They had about 300 customers this year.

After delivering produce, she returns to the vegetable beds to pick crops to sell on Saturday at an outdoor market in Rochester. The market brings in extra cash and gives Michelle a chance to garner more CSA members.

“We’ve got to get people back to eating local food,” says Michelle.

She and Dan believe that the public can better control the quality and kind of food they buy if they support local growers. The pesticides sprayed on American crops fortifies the couple’s mission to grow organic produce.

“Forty-five billion pounds of pesticides were used last year,” says Dan. “You want to know where cancer comes from? That’s where it comes from.”

“There are 60 government-approved pesticides for green beans alone,” adds Michelle. “I wouldn’t want to work around all those chemicals.”

There is a distinct taste difference between store-bought produce and the apples, red-skinned potatoes, squash, garlic, peppers and radishes the Lutzes grow. The flavors of Maple Creek Farm are potent and rich.

But the quality of the produce is not always up to the Lutz’s standards. In 2000 and 2001, there was little rain and the crop yield and quality were not up to par. Michelle cried in the fields last year. They got by because Dan went out every two hours, day and night, for three weeks to water the vegetable beds.

“This year would have been a complete disaster if we didn’t install an irrigation system,” says Dan.

They grossed $150,000 this year, which helped finance the past two years.

“$25,000 is income and the rest is invested back into the farm,” says Michelle.

Two years ago, they nearly called it quits when they had a poor growing season. But they couldn’t forsake their mission. Michelle says that others considering organic farming are waiting to see how they do. She gives tours of the farm and free workshops on the subject.

“If we throw in the towel, then others will say, ‘Now look at all the Lutzes did and they didn’t make it,’” says Michelle. “We almost feel a greater responsibility.”


For more information call 810-387-4365 or go to www.maplecreekfarm.com.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]