Ron Sportel always looked forward to the day he would inherit his family’s land and all of its blessings. He grew up on the farm that his grandfather established in the early 1900s.
He was a bit older before he realized that taking over the farm at some point meant he would need to invest a considerable amount of what is known today as sweat equity. In other words, he would have to work for it.
“I grew up always thinking it would be mine,” says Sportel, who along with other family members, now owns Sportel Greenhouses LLC in Kalamazoo. “My parents explained to me when I got old enough that I had to earn it. It wasn’t just going to be given to me.”
Such is the story for many multi-generational farms in Michigan.
Honoring Historical Farms
A farm’s value can come from any commodity produced by a farmer, but more importantly, it is derived from the strength a farm builds as it’s passed from one generation to the next. It boils down to family honor.
“I’m very proud that we’ve been able to keep things going,” says Dave Trombley, a third generation farmer in Reese. “We’ve improved the farm over the years and gradually kept it up. The goal is to have something sustainable for the next generation.”
One of the ways Trombley and other multi-generational farm owners have displayed their family pride is through the Michigan Centennial Farm program, which is administered by the Historical Society of Michigan. The program recognizes farms that have remained in the same family for at least 100 years. To qualify, a farm has to be in operation and 10-plus acres in size.
As it happens, Trombley’s farm made the program in 2016 – exactly 100 years after the land was bought by his grandfather, who raised dairy cows and other livestock until the 1950s. Trombley’s father, Lawrence, operated the farm until 1995. It had been a hog farm for many years, but under Trombley’s care, it produces cash crops such as corn, sugarbeets, wheat and soybeans. Though the operation has changed through the years, the homestead has remained the same.
“I grew up on the farm in the farmhouse my grandpa built,” Trombley says. “Dad lived there, and now I do.”
Similarly, Sportel has experienced a farm evolution that started with his grandfather. Atko Sportel emigrated from the Netherlands and started a celery farm in 1918, and the farm remained as such until Ron’s father and uncle began producing bedding plants in the 1950s. Later, they grew flowers in the farm’s greenhouses.
“There was a lot of celery growing in this area [in the 1950s],” Ron Sportel says of the reason for the change. “It was a small farm for this area, and they couldn’t make it on that anymore.”
Sportel bought the operation in 1979, and today runs Sportel Greenhouses with his wife, Barb, sons, Kevin and Bryan, and daughter, Nicole Spencer. Through a brokerage cooperative Ron helped start the Kalamazoo Flower Group. The business sells primarily to national and regional big box stores.
Adapting With the Times
In Ann Arbor, Malaika Whitney is the fifth-generation owner of what is now Whitney Farm. It was established in 1900 when Esli and Sophia Whitney bought the first 38 acres and worked it primarily as a dairy operation.
It has seen many transitions through the years, and the family is now working to return it to its original form, which is “a diversified, draft [animal] powered, small farm selling directly to the people in our community,” according to the farm’s website.
Whitney Farm produces and raises maple syrup, hay, wool, beef cattle, plus a small herd of Guernsey and American Milking Shorthorn dairy cows.