Michigan farmer supports new MSU climate resiliency program, seeks long-term solutions

Ben Schilling is a sixth-generation farmer in southwest Michigan.

Ben Schilling
Ben Schilling, a sixth-generation farmer from southwest Michigan.

EAU CLAIRE, Mich. — While many Michiganders welcome warm winter temperatures, fruit growers are wary. The 2023-24 winter season saw several warmer-than-normal days, which can be troublesome for fruit trees.

Early in winter, warmer temperatures deny fruit trees the opportunity to reach full dormancy — a phase needed for protection against rapid drops and extreme lows. In late winter, abnormal highs can nudge trees toward blossoming early. If that’s followed by a return to normal freezing conditions, it can spell disaster before the growing season has even started.

This year, both critical freezing and warming events occurred. A late-January freeze saw record lows, and a late-February temperature spike resulted in areas across Michigan setting record highs. Feb. 27 hit 73 degrees Fahrenheit in Eau Claire, Michigan, a small village in the southwest corner of the state. That’s where Ben Schilling is based and runs Schilling Family Farms, a sixth-generation farm that began in 1864.

Schilling and his wife, Bae, along with his brother, Mark, and sister-in-law, Abby, own and operate the farm, which includes the family’s original land in Eau Claire, as well as other farms in southwest Michigan. They grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but the staples are apples, peaches, tart cherries and tomatoes.

Schilling said that he and many other southwest Michigan farmers suffered significant peach losses from the January frost event. Despite this, the Schilling farm was largely successful at avoiding widespread damage because precautions were taken when possible. With strawberries, for example, irrigation immediately prior to frosts forms an ice barrier over the plant that insulates it. Practices like these are being implemented more often due to varying weather patterns.

“It’s not just the early blooming and frosts that can cause serious issues,” Schilling said. “Warmer winters mean not as many hard frosts, which can allow insects and pathogens to survive and then thrive the next growing season. That affects all crops. There are a number of problems caused by the warm temperatures, and we all have limited resources to address them.”

Schilling is hoping a new initiative from Michigan State University called the Agricultural Climate Resiliency Program can help.

The program, which is operated through MSU AgBioResearch and MSU Extension, began in 2024 through a partnership among MSU, the Michigan Plant Coalition, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It’s geared toward addressing persistent climate- and water-related challenges in Michigan plant agriculture.

Research and outreach will be conducted on topics such as the effects of climate change on long-term insect and pathogen management, soil and plant health, carbon sequestration, efficient use of water and protection of water resources. The State of Michigan allocated a one-time $5 million investment for a competitive grants program, which recently funded four new projects at roughly $1.25 million each over three years.

A recurring $1 million in funding will support a cluster hire of faculty and Extension personnel, which enhances MSU expertise in areas such as soil health, water use and availability, the economic impact of climate change on Michigan farms, and pest management strategies in the face of climate change.

On March 12, Schilling and two other farmers testified on behalf of the program before the Michigan House Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development and Natural Resources, encouraging legislators to understand the urgency of the situation.

“We truly appreciate the willingness of Ben and other farmers to share their experiences with Michigan legislators,” said George Smith, director of MSU AgBioResearch. “Demonstrating the need for research and outreach by showing our elected officials the direct impact of these long-term challenges on growers is the most compelling message we can deliver.”


Schilling believes the research need is evident in the number of emerging and enduring threats to farms around the state.

“I’ve only been farming for about six years, but my family has been doing this for more than 150 years,” he said. “The things we’re dealing with today are different than they were in the past, even recently. For example, many pathogens that typically occur in warmer climates are making their way to Michigan. We also have varieties of certain crops that, while they are hardy in some ways, can’t deal with the temperature fluctuations that are happening now. We need research that addresses ways to deal with pests, diseases, water and nutrient use, and identifying varieties suited to today’s conditions.”

Prior to purchasing the farm with his brother and their spouses, Schilling — an MSU alum with a degree in agribusiness management — spent two decades in corporate agriculture positions, including managing a global business unit for a GPS company. He’s been learning on the job at the farm and has consulted with MSU researchers and Extension staff on research results.

Schilling and his wife have visited the MSU Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center (SWMREC) in Benton Harbor to work with Ben Phillips, a vegetable crop specialist with MSU Extension. Phillips runs variety trials on a host of vegetable crops, but Schilling has been most interested in tomatoes.

“Many farms and companies will submit varieties for assessment, so we test a lot of different things during our trials,” Phillips said. “Yield and disease resistance are some of the major things we look at. With tomatoes, they have to ripen at the right size. If they’re too big or too small, there’s not much of a market.

“Oftentimes when a variety is resistant, there is some give and take. That resistance comes at the cost of flavor or other production quality attributes. The key is to find and develop varieties that are high in quality and able to withstand the disease, insect and weather pressures in Michigan.”

In addition to tomatoes, Schilling’s brother, Mark, has discussed peach research with William Shane, the SWMREC station coordinator and tree fruit production specialist. The group is examining which rootstocks make sense for the Schillings’ farm and how to deal with issues facing peaches.

“Although we haven’t worked with MSU a lot just yet, it’s been nice to have them as a resource,” Schilling said. “Hopefully this new program can lead to research and outreach that solves some of the problems we’re facing. We’re working to ensure our farm is able to survive long into the future, and we need to answer a lot of questions to do that.”

Michigan State University AgBioResearch scientists discover dynamic solutions for food systems and the environment. More than 300 MSU faculty conduct leading-edge research on a variety of topics, from health and climate to agriculture and natural resources. Originally formed in 1888 as the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, MSU AgBioResearch oversees numerous on-campus research facilities, as well as 15 outlying centers throughout Michigan. To learn more, visit agbioresearch.msu.edu.

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