Michigan farmers adjusting as the virus pandemic continues

Ryan Boldrey
Kalamazoo Gazette

Kalamazoo – As the coronavirus pandemic has affected the supply chain in numerous ways, it’s no secret many farms have been struggling.

Many are finding ways to adjust. Others are not having such an easy time doing so.

For some farmers, like Norm Carlson from Carlson Farms in Lawton, business came to a screeching halt five weeks ago.

In this March 21, 2016 photo, a hog stares curiously into the camera at Naturally Norms on Carlson Farms in Lawton, Mich.

About 90% of the business Carlson does is with local restaurants and that business has completely gone away, he said.

“When the executive order came down to close restaurants, it was devastating,” he told the Kalamazoo Gazette.

“Everybody thinks of the cooks and the chefs, and the waiters and the other staffing, but for the really good restaurants that are doing farm direct, your Food Dances, your Latitude 42′s, your Lake Burger, your Organic Gypsy, it was devastating. One second they were there and the next second they were gone.”

Don’t mistake Carlson’s attitude as one that is “woe is me.”

Carlson cares deeply for the restaurants he works with and wants nothing more than to see them all back on their feet as soon as they are able. Those relationships are what makes his business and his business is about exactly that, relationships, he said.

In a Monday, June 6, 2016 photo, a hen sits perched atop Norm Carlson's shoulder after it flew up to greet him as he walked through his field with the hens at Naturally Norm's on Carlson Farms in Lawton, Michigan.

“Our brand recognition is our personal touch,” Carlson said. “That’s us. They know our face. They know our voice. They know my family, because we’ve become family to every single one.

“I make my own deliveries. My sons make deliveries with me. There’s no contracts. Everything’s a handshake and the chefs put in their orders daily and if not daily, at least twice a week.”

While Carlson Farms has been around since 1959, it’s just over the past 12 years that its business model shifted from taking cattle to the slaughterhouse to becoming centered around working directly with area restaurants, as well as Bronson Methodist Hospital.

“It all began with Food Dance,” Carlson said. “They brought us in 12 years ago, took us under their wing and then we nurtured this whole program from there with the support of the community and its passion for sustainable farm direct food.”

Carlson is still selling some food as he works closely with Bronson and a few area grocers, and the farm also has Copper Ridge Inn and Market on site in Lawton, where they have continued to serve customers directly, selling meats and eggs.

That business pales in comparison to what they have lost, at least temporarily, Carlson said.

In this June 6, 2016 photo, Norm Carlson checks on his hens as he makes his rounds throughout Naturally Norm's on Carlson Farms in Lawton, Mich.

“We had a little family meeting the other day and one of my sons said, ‘You know, dad, we were just where we needed to be where we didn’t need to be any bigger,’ to allow the legacy of Carlson Farms to continue,” he said.

“I’ve been planning to pass it on to my sons and my granddaughters and right now I’m worried about that.”

It’s not just his own business Carlson is worried about. And he is counting on the community to come together to all pitch in once things start to open back up.

“I’m worried about people,” he said. “I’m worried about the businesses that we are in business with with, that we are supplying … This is going to be quite difficult for some of them to even survive.

“Just like you worry about a family member, we have to realize that these businesses and individuals aren’t disposable in this world that we’ve grown to know. Whatever it takes, we have to be ready to help rebuild Southwest Michigan.”