Michigan farm aims to go natural

Meet a mid-Michigan family embarking on an ambitious farm transition plan into a prairie-raised bison farm.

Mike is too small to fare well among the flock. Instead he will be a family pet.
Mike is too small to fare well among the flock. Instead he will be a family pet.

Ashleigh Lerg is blazing a trail in Mid-Michigan in pursuit of farming in harmony with nature. She has reached out to all the usual suspects to assist with their production transition, Michigan Agriculture Environment Assurance Program (MAEAP), United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Michigan State University (MSU) experts, and Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to name a few.

Asking questions about topics few have experience with, at least not in this context, she’s had to keep looking for help. That’s how she found me. While MSU Extension had to cut back field staff on many topics during Michigan’s great recession, it vastly increased its web presence. She reached out to me by email regarding a topic I had little real experience managing: standing water around barns. After checking to see if there were resources regarding drainage that I was just unaware of, I bit the bullet and decided to do my best.

I scheduled a farm visit and sought advice from senior staff on what to look for and what resources might be available to her. I got some excellent advice regarding where to start and set off to learn about the farm and how I might be of assistance.

When the day of our appointment arrived, it was clear and warm. After a couple turns off the highway, I knew I had arrived during the approach because I could make out the bison herd from a mile away. Ashleigh expressed her need to get the water away from the old barns as soon as possible because stored hay for the bison molded last year.

My heart skipped a beat as I wondered what special operation I was going to have the honor and great fortune to visit this time. Every farm delights me because it reflects the individuals who built it and manage it. Each is unique. This one offered closer ties for me. The farm focused on native plants and animals (my Bachelor’s is in field ecology with a specialty in prairie restoration), and the head of the farm is a woman just entering her prime. I thought, “Today is the perfect example of why I wanted to work for Extension. To get out and meet with real people with real struggles who are looking for help.” 

Ashleigh is a fourth generation farmer. She is in the process of taking over management of 950 acres because her dad, Roger, is 65 and it is time for him to slow down at work. He wasn’t slowing down this morning. As is the case with every farm I’ve visited thus far, he was on the move non-stop.

After introductions, they first showed me their young chickens. “We forgot how fast they get big” said Kim, Ashleigh’s mom, as she showed me the setup in the garage. These chickens are their pest control strategy for the bison. They walk behind eating the insects and keeping the bison comfortable.

I noticed one of the hens in its own cage. Kim explained to me that this one was much smaller than the others and it was getting picked on by the rest of the flock. Mike may be small, but the family loves him so much they decided to keep him as a pet. Hear Kim tell the story. The use of chickens to manage bug problems is an example of how Ashleigh is trying to limit the use of chemicals on the farm. Encouraging multiple layers in the food chain is one example of how this farm is mimicking natural systems.

The pride and enthusiasm for their operation is palpable. “There are so many different directions and avenues I can go with this project, but I must never lose focus and remember I have to generate money,” said Ashleigh. “Anyone who has farmed or started up a business knows all your money you earn goes right back into the operation. I want to heal the land and bring the land back to its natural state one acre at a time.” 

Kim and Ashleigh are in their element caring for the chickens and the bison. Twenty years ago they had to leave their family dairy because a new highway project went right through their farm. They turned to field crops for the last 20 years but are notably delighted to get back to raising animals. Most people retreat from change. But the Lerg’s have what it takes to pivot into a new production scheme. 1) The family history of knowing how to run a successful farm with the existing assets, 2) motivation that comes from doing something creative and beneficial for the environment 3) getting a thrill from learning and trying something new.

If you are interested in learning more about their operation, visitors are welcome. You can reach Ashleigh at: lergashl@gmail.com.  

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