LIL BIT OF URKA FARMS HISTORY
Lets start a little bit from the beginning. Breaking ground - John's father Anton Urka, came to America from Lithuania . He originally settled in Kewanee, Il. . where he took a bride, Anna in March 1913, Anton-- unable to afford the pricier farmland in Kewanee--had purchased 40 acres, sight unseen, in Manistee county. His wife Anna homestead the land, which like most of the northern Michigan, had been cleared by timber barons and was subsequently ravaged by fires. This is what they called pine stump country. In the mornings, In the winter we would haul pine stumps to the top of the hill and neighborhood boys would help and have bonfires at night. Anton's son, Joe , remembers the year after, when his father built the farmhouse which still stands near the corner of Clements and Pole rd in Dickison Township. I must have been six or seven years old when my father borrowed a horse and a stone boat, and I was in charge with helping him haul lumber over from an old schoolhouse which was being torn down. We took apart board by board. The only time we took a break was on Sunday, unless it was haying time , or the harvest was in full swing. We were up at 5 am, we raised dairy cows , selling the milk and cream. Skim milk went to the hogs, but today people drink it. We bought our first tractor in 1941. We still had horses, too, but by gosh, that tractor made work much easier. In December, Joe left the farm joining the Army after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Following his discharge, he settled in Fowlerville, starting his own dairy farm while Anton's son, John helped out on the home farm. In 1988 , Joe returned back to his roots, and settled near the farm where he grew up. Which now his younger brother John has worked all his life.
This brings us now to John meeting his wife Joy. They met at MSU during their college years where Joy Grossnickle at the time was pursuing a degree in elementary education and John was taking Agricultural courses. John continued farming with his parents with cattle and later married Joy and had two sons. They started out raising cattle then switched to growing potatoes. Their eldest son, Cary who arrived in 1960. As he grew up on the farm, he left the farm in his 20's for a decade for a career in steel fabrication. Returning back 10 years later to help out on the farm with the mechanical side of the farms operation. Later came their youngest son Lonny who grew up serving in the Service and eventually coming home to lend a hand with farming the fields.
Which brings us now to Changing with the times:
Farming has become a little more sophisticated,in recent years Todays farmers must be cognizant of everything from the host of restriction governing pesticides application to laws regulating workers. Technology has made inroads as well. The Urkas advertise on the internet and most family members carry cell phones into the fields to make communication easier. Staying on top of the changes are essential for survival. During John and Joys potato season one year and unexpected fire broke out destroying their warehouse and much of the harvest equipment. The incident became a turning point for the family.Potato prices had been depressed for some time. It was difficult for a small farm to compete. Urkas were growing 30 acres of potatos compared to thousands of acres in Idaho. This lead to a change. After the fire, the family decided to convert the bulk of its operation to growing strawberries. Michigan used to be the top strawberry-producing state, but the number of farms have reduced over the years. However, the Urka's see room for opportunity. We want to catch it on the upswing. Planting four varieties help extend the season. We have almost a month of picking. While strawberries may be a more lucrative crop, the family has to contend with market forces. California grower flood the market with cheap berries in June. Michigan growers like the Urka's fight back by producing varieties of bred for tenderness and taste rather than the ability to withstand cross country shipping. We're growing a variety that has much better flavor. Cool temps and ample rainfall have contributed to good crops. Strawberries take alot of water.The Urkas irrigate their fields to supplement rainfall . The sprinkler system include over 10,000 feet of pipe. also is used to protect the developing berries from frost.. Urkas also improve their quality of their crops by mulching between rows with straw. The berries which grow on the undersides of plants _ stay cleaned instead of becoming covered with sand. "Its a selling point" acknowledged Cary. The Brethren farms off -the- beaten track location wasn't ideal for the direct sales of customers. As a result, the family started a satellite farm on M 37, 10 miles south of Grand Traverse Mall in 1999. It gave us another outlet. We actually moved part of the farm where more of the population is , Joy said. The Manistee farm in Brethren has grown gradually, but were in a county of 50,000 people as to where up in Traverse city area were 30 minutes from a quarter million people, said Cary. Both farms are u-pick farms. The majority of people in the Unites States do not get a chance to become part of a working farm, and we want them to have that experience. When you pick your own berries, you are actually a part of the harvesting operation. Working with the customers is the part I like, Joy said. Children are welcome to pick alongside of their parents to get that experience as well. So why not bring yourself, your children, your friend and family out to pick some delicious local home grown berries today and make a fun filled day of it. We loved to see you and hope you'll be able to make a tradition with your family ever year with us.