Summer Road Trip 2019: Farming, Family, and Serving the Community in District 13

Author: Michigan State University

On the fifth stop of his road trip to visit all Extension districts in a single summer, director Jeff Dwyer talks to Trever Meachum, a third-generation farmer who balances farming, family, and public service.

November 4, 2019

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Summer Road Trip 2019: Farming, Family, and Serving the Community in District 13 Transcript

Jeff Dwyer: Did you know that Michigan farmers produce more than 300 agricultural commodities? A commodity is an agricultural product that can be sold, everything from apples and asparagus to milk and eggs. That makes us the second most agriculturally diverse state right behind California. Many of us are familiar with the end of the food story, the part where it's on our plates and igniting our taste buds. But many of us are not familiar with the beginning of the story, our Michigan farmers. Today, we're going to start at the very beginning. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension, and this is Partnerships and Peninsulas.

Intro: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. And just like the state of Michigan, this podcast is filled with stories of amazing people who are doing wonderful work from Marquette to Monroe. Sit back and discover everything you didn't know about Michigan State University Extension. Here's your host, Jeff Dwyer.

Jeff Dwyer: Trever Meachum's family has a fruit and vegetable farm in Van Buren County. We're here at the High Acres Fruit Farm's office and packing facility in Southwest Michigan. Trever and his family grow fruit and vegetables. Welcome to the show, Trever.

Trever Meachum: Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff Dwyer: So tell us about High Acres. And I'm well aware that you're not the first Meachum to farm on this land.

Trever Meachum: That is correct. High Acres Fruit Farm is a third-generation family farm. It currently employs my father, and my two brothers, and myself, along with several-full time employees, and a whole host of seasonal employees when crops are harvested. We started in 1942 with my grandpa Glen. He bought 80 acres that had a peach and a cherry tree every other tree planted down the road. That way, if something frosted or died, the other one would live. At that time, a lot of chemicals could be sprayed for both crops. So they would pick a cherry at one time and then a little later on, they'd pick a peach and go to every other tree down the row. Not very efficient, but that's what it was. Today, we grow asparagus, strawberries, cherries, plums, apples, juice grapes, corn, soybeans, wheat, and specialty tomatoes on a little over 5,000 acres.

Jeff Dwyer: That's a tremendous amount of acreage, but also a lot of commodities. Tell us a little bit about the challenges for you in the global market that you now put your products out into.

Trever Meachum: So the challenges for us in a global marketplace are many actually. We not only compete with our neighbors to the north, or to the south, or even other states, or regions, but it's across the globe. Things that affect us currently, our corn and soybean prices are depressed. Typically, that is a little bit of overproduction here. But currently, there is a trade war going on with our government and some other governments in the world. So that has a direct relationship upon us. Other countries have lower costs of production. That can hurt us. The strength or the weakness of our current dollar has a big effect on what we can or can't do. It really is not just what happens next door, but everywhere in this world to what affects us. Currently, If you're a sweet cherry grower or an apple grower, you feel the pinch because of tariffs to Mexico, and to India, and to China. So it not only is grain, but it is also fruits as well.

Jeff Dwyer: So with all of the commodities you grow here at High Acres, you're affected by something in the global context almost every day?

Trever Meachum: That is correct, yes. It really is a challenge daily. But with our diversity, we hope that sometimes if something's a little depressed, maybe something else will be a little better and even things out.

Jeff Dwyer: So the other thing that's going on right now in addition to some trade wars, and we should remind our listeners that we're recording this in early June of 2019, is the weather's been a challenge for many across the country, across the Midwest, and certainly here in Michigan. How has that affected High Acres?

Trever Meachum: Oh, that's a good question, Jeff. Just like most of the Midwest, we probably have a third of our acreage planted to corn and soybeans where right now we would be done. That's been a tough thing. We should be picking strawberries as of last week. Strawberries for us are still a week away because of the cool and cold weather. The cool and cold weather has kept photosynthesis low on apple trees and not good pollination weather for bees, and so we don't have a great apple crop looking at us right now. We've also had to spray a whole bunch more times for apple scab and other fungal diseases in our fruits and vegetables, just because it keeps raining and doesn't stop.

I recently looked at the weather data for our weather station on the farm and in the month of May, we only had 11 days without some form of precipitation. So 11 out of 31 days were a non-rain day, but three of those days had snow that I don't count because of the weather station doesn't pick up snow. So you're down to eight days when we didn't have to have a rain suit on. That makes it a challenge to be a farmer this time of year. But the good Lord gave us the rain for a reason. We'll see why. I'm hoping that when the rain stops, it doesn't turn off and get dry this summer.

Jeff Dwyer: So, Trever, I apologize because I started chuckling a bit when you said three days were snow, but I think that underscores the notion that in farming today, you're just affected by so many things and many of those are out of your control. All you can do is try and as you said, try and have some variability, try and make sure that if one thing's down, another thing will do better for you.

Trever Meachum: That is correct. I learned long ago watching my father in this business that you just can't stress about the things you can't control. When you start to make a list of the things you control in the farming profession, it is a very small list. So you really just get up in the morning, you check the weather, you have some cereal, you kiss your wife and your kids goodbye, and you just go out and have the best day you can. Hopefully, you get something done and if you don't, try again the next day.

Jeff Dwyer: That's a tremendous attitude to have. You mentioned just a moment ago, your weather station. I think that's one of the tools and one of the ways that you've interacted with Michigan State University and MSU Extension over the years. Can you tell us a little bit about MSU, and viral weather, and how the interaction with MSU Extension has helped you?

Trever Meachum: Sure, Jeff. So we were one of the first farms in Southwest Michigan that joined the MAWN, Michigan Air Culture Weather Network many moons ago. So what that does is that allows us to have real-time data of the weather that's not in our area, but actually on our farm. It's right at our farm shop. So when it comes time to make a decision on how much rain, how many degree days we've had, how warm, how cold, is it frosting, is it not frosting, soil moisture, leaf wetness, all of these different aspects . . .  I don't have to guess about what it is in the area or look at a television or radio station's information. I can have it right on my farm, and that has been a valuable asset to us.

Trever Meachum: Currently, the weather station also has several predictive models in it, so it can tell you when a certain insect will be out, or hatching, or when it will be in flight, when a certain disease might come about based on the weather. That helps us make very pinpoint spray decisions so we're not spraying all the time. We only spray when we need to with the right chemical at the right time. That's really saved us money on our chemical bills.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, and I imagine with 5,000 acres, you have, I guess the phrase I would use is microclimates, that you have to pay attention to. So this must help you then, from field to field, know what to do.

Trever Meachum: It sure does, yes. It absolutely does. There are also several weather stations in our area in Berrien County, Cass County, Kalamazoo, all around the neighboring area. So a lot of times, if you need to know the exact microclimate of a certain field, sometimes you have to blend the two closest stations. Because, as we all know, it might rain here and five miles north of us, it's sunny. That's just wonderful Michigan weather. We have a farm that's about ten miles south of us, and the weather at my home farm is nowhere near the weather that it is ten miles south. For example, yesterday, we got three-tenths of an inch of rain. Yes, it rained again. The farm to the south of us ten miles got almost a half an inch. So that two-tenths really makes a difference on what to or what not to do with that field.

Jeff Dwyer: So I know you partner with MSU and MSU Extension in a number of different ways and have for many years. As one example, tell me how you work with Larry Gut and how that helps you in terms of insect control strategies.

Trever Meachum: All right, Jeff, that's a loaded question as well. Larry and his team have been here for a long time. We started with a program to try to reduce the amount of insecticides that were being used for the residue levels that were for exports. So we were trying to reduce our export levels to get apples into the European Union. So that partnership became something that I have an open area for Larry and his team. Whenever they want to come down and study bugs, they know that they have a place to come and study. I think that really helps them because they have a real-world, real-time farm operation that they can come and do research on. Instead of having a small research plot somewhere, they can actually come out and do insecticide trials and bug tests right in someone's farm. I think that that's helped them.

For me, personally, it's helped me because he's allowed that information to come back to me directly. We can see what does work and what doesn't work. If I ever have a bug question, he's a great resource. His team's a great resource. He's on speed dial. I can say, "Larry, help. I found this." Or, "Hey, I haven't seen this bug for a while, what's going on?" He'll say, "Oh, be patient. It's been cold and wet. It might come out next week if the sun comes up." So it's been a good working relationship.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, thank you for sharing that, and I think that's a good reminder to our listeners that this is a very reciprocal relationship between the university, and our scientists, and our outreach people through Extension, and people like you. Neither of us could do what we do without the other. And certainly, your willingness, as others do, to make plots available and things like that, do give us that real-world opportunity and allow us to get information back to you that applies directly to what you do.

So I know that you know Extension well and know that we do things outside of agriculture as well. How has the Extension impacted your family over the years, your kids may be in 4-H or any other programs that we do?

Trever Meachum: My kids are only six. We have six-year-old-twins. They're not in 4-H yet. The rest of my family has been. We've been in 4-H a long time too with animals at the fair plus other projects and things like that. My two children are excited to have pigs, and we think that next year we might just start the Swine Project. We'll see.

So as far as Extension, it's amazing that if you're in agriculture you understand Extension. You understand who to call, where to call, where to get information. But if you're not, and maybe you're a home gardener and you want to be part of the Master Gardener program, that's a great way to learn about Extension. Children in 4-H, whether you're in the countryside or in an urban setting, there's great opportunities for 4-H at all levels. 4-H taught me a lot of leadership skills when I was in 4-H. I was part of the leadership of our 4-H club as I got older. It's a great way for older children to mentor younger children coming up, especially for myself and my family.

When we were doing animal projects at the fair, if you're a ten-year-old with a steer and you have an 18-year-old with a steer next door, that 18-year-old is very willing to help you with your steer because you may not know a whole bunch about how to run the steer, or how to show a horse, or, "Why is my pig doing this or that?" It becomes a big family, especially in a small fair like here we have in Van Buren County. Everybody just sort of works together, and it's a week of spending time with each other and you know everybody and you can't wait to get there next year just to see all of your friends again.

Extension's done a great job with everything, and they've evolved. I don't know if evolve's the right word, but I'll use it. They've evolved over the last several years because people can get on the Internet and Google something now instead of calling an agent. So to make themselves more important, they're doing more at-home visits, they're coming out, they're trying to be on the more of the cutting edge, and it's really starting to show.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, thank you for those examples and that explanation. I know you also know well and work closely with Julie Pioch, our district director here in District 13. She really helps in this seven-county area to organize and actually work with you and others to say, "What are the other things we need to bring here to help you?" So, Trever, I know another way that we interact is you're the past president of the Michigan Vegetable Council and partner with MSU Extension in putting on the Great Lakes Expo in Grand Rapids each December. That's a huge show, one of the largest fruit and vegetable shows in the United States. How has Extension worked with you and the Michigan Vegetable Council on that Great Lakes Expo?

Trever Meachum: So that's a great question too, Jeff, and that's a great example of what MSU Extension has done in the vegetable team, and the fruit teams, and Bob Trenton with his farm market team. If you want to know about agriculture in Michigan, that is the place to be. I'm just going to guess at these numbers because I haven't seen the actual ones this year, but 4,500 attendees and probably close to 500 or 600 exhibitors, basically from fruits and vegetables to farm markets to how to grow things. But MSU has taken the lead and run the educational programs there and help set those up, and they bring in people from all over the world, top-notch people, to speak so that if you're a small five-acre farmer in Flint, you're going to have just as much information garnered there is someone that has 1,000 acres from say, Grant. It's an amazing opportunity to meet, to talk to people. Everybody's on the same level, very professional operation and it's all done by Extension. They're the backbone of that operation.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, I've had the chance to attend the last three or four years, and it really is a phenomenal show. I'm always surprised at how many people come from truly all over the country and Canada to attend that show because of what it offers. So you're here at High Acres, you participate in the Michigan Vegetable Council and been a past president. You have kids, and a family, and all of these other sorts of things. You're also on the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development, something you've been a part of since 2012. Can you talk a little bit about what that commission is and about what that means for agriculture in Michigan?

Trever Meachum: Sure, Jeff. MDARD's ag commission, I knew very little about it when I first got asked to join. It has been a tremendous opportunity for me. I'm currently the chairman of that organization. This is my seventh . . . no, this will be my eighth year. It's a great opportunity for an individual like myself to give input to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on how they run their programs. The ag commission is set up as a five-member, governor-appointed, nonpartisan oversight committee, and we essentially help guide the department when we see the need to do so. We don't micromanage, but there's been times when we've stepped in and said, "Hey, it might be a good idea to do this or that." It's a great way to work with the Department of Natural Resources, with the Department of Environmental Quality, which has now become EGLE. It's a great way to partnership and to see the various aspects of agriculture in Michigan.

The things that I didn't understand when I first was asked to join is that when I think of Department of Ag, I think, okay, someone that's going to come out and do a camp inspection because that was what we did, or some food safety items because we saw they hurt the farm. But it's so much more than that. Now, we look for skimmers in gas pumps, the weights and measures. If you buy a bag of potato chips and you think you only got 12 ounces and the bags at 16, we are the ones you call to see why you didn't get enough potato chips or if your five-pound bag of potatoes didn't have enough.

Trever Meachum: The Department of Ag does all the inspections for exports. So without them, we wouldn't be allowed to export our product across the globe. So they're very important for that. They're in charge of food safety. They're in charge of making sure the milk that we get is safe, that licensed foods facilities are licensed, and inspected, and safe. They're in charge of the Michigan Right to Farm law and to make the annual GAAMPs. That's probably the most important thing that I see currently at the commission-level. We are charged from the legislature with making that program work with following their guidelines and making sure that all farmers are exempt from nuisance lawsuits when they're following the GAAMPs.

Jeff Dwyer: Well first, let me say thank you for your service on that commission. I know that it is very important in Michigan, and it plays an important role in all of those areas you mentioned and more. But it's also a tremendous commitment of your time. I'm sure there are days when you go to commission meetings when you really need to be out in the field. I think we all appreciate your willingness to make that kind of investment. So as we close here, you have so much experience. I know as soon as we're done here today, you said you're going to go grab some chemicals and go out in the field and spray. I'm sure you'll be thinking about commission activities and other things while you're doing that.

But if there are any farmers or aspiring farmers . . . in fact, I know there are farmers and aspiring farmers listening to this podcast. What advice would you give them today?

Trever Meachum: Jeff, that may be a loaded question. My advice based on our current marketing conditions and weather is keep your head up. The sun will come out eventually. Whether you're big or small, whether you're in the country or an urban setting, agriculture's important to the state, to this world, the economy. It's one of the oldest profession, if not the oldest profession that the Lord gave us. And it is a great joy to be able to plant a seed, see a plant grow, and to pick a crop, and eat it. I think that it truly is a great opportunity. So if you're not a farmer, grab a packet of seed someday at your local store and plant them in your yard, in your window, and just watch them grow. And every day, just a little nurturing that you do to those plants will bring a lot of joy to you.

Jeff Dwyer: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer. I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Trever Meachum. Thank you very much for being here with us today, Trever.