Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hughes Farm offers natural produce for local community

At the Hughes Farm near Calumet, neat rows of vegetables and a large greenhouse for extending the season are evidence of the farm's successful production of authentic local food despite the short Keweenaw growing season. The Hughes market, located at the farm, will remain open through the third week of October this year. (July 2009 photos by Keweenaw Now)*

By Tom Graham**

CALUMET -- Just outside Calumet and about two and half miles off US 41 down Golf Course Road, you’ll find one of the sweetest-smelling plots of land around. It comes courtesy of Gary and Pat Hughes and their 40 acres of fruits and vegetables.

However, life on this farm hasn’t always smelt so sweet. Gary, Pat and family have worked hard for years to create their farm.

Gary and his wife Pat are downstate Michigan natives and met while attending college. They developed a special fondness for this area after spending a summer near L’Anse. When Pat found work with the C-L-K school district, they moved up for good.

Gary and Pat Hughes at home on their farm near Calumet.

What the Hugheses now call their business started out in 1979 as little more than an old farm house and 40 acres of land. Pat and Gary, with help from their three children and others along the way, cleared and shaped the land into the farm that it is today.

"I’ve always had an interest in getting my hands dirty and growing things," Gary explained as his motivation for developing the family business.

The Hugheses' remodeled farmhouse as it is today, with the attached greenhouse that has served as the starting spot for many of their vegetables. (Photo © 2010 Tom Graham for Keweenaw Now)

One of the first changes was an addition to the house that included a greenhouse. This allows for planting as early as March or April. The Hugheses also constructed two ponds to allow for consistent and relatively easy watering of crops.

This is one of the ponds constructed especially for watering crops on the Hughes Farm.

In the early 1980s the Hughes Farm gained a reputation for having first-class, all natural strawberries. The decision to grow organic produce was simple according to Gary: "Why use chemicals if you don’t have to?"

The trade-off comes with the added time and labor it takes to combat weeds and wildlife. To help with the additional work load, the Hugheses typically hire two seasonal employees.

The farm once was certified organic, but in recent years the additional cost and paperwork with the certification process have become overbearing. Consequently, even though the Hugheses still maintain their organic practices, their crops technically fall under the "authentic" category as defined by the Marquette Food Co-op.

In the mid-1980s the Hugheses expanded from berries to vegetables and added fruit trees by the end of the decade. By the early 1990s they had added four free-standing hoop greenhouses, mainly to accommodate pepper and tomato plants.

Inside one of his greenhouses, Gary Hughes, second from left, talks about his plants and answers questions posed by participants in the July 2009 Reading the Landscape Sustainable Farming tour of the Hughes Farm.*

The plants inside the greenhouses grow considerably quicker and larger than any grown outside and uncovered. By mid-July the tomato plants are a good three feet tall with tomatoes the size of pears that fill the air with an indescribably earthy scent. Technological advances in the plastic used to cover the greenhouses have helped increase plant production while reducing the frequency of maintenance.

Lisken Van Pelt Dus of Pittsfield, Mass., admires tomato plants inside one of the greenhouses on the Hughes Farm. Lisken, along with her mother, Patricia Van Pelt of Hancock, participated in the July 2009 Reading the Landscape tour of the farm.

With the exception of a few chickens there are no animals on this farm to provide a key ingredient to a good harvest -- proper soil nutrients. The primary source of nutrients for the vegetables and strawberries on the Hughes Farm comes from winter cover crops. A combination of rye and hairy vetch is planted in plots that are open after harvesting. The mix is left to grow in late fall and early spring before being worked into the soil using machinery prior to spring planting. Once worked under, the decaying plant material provides the fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, that the vegetables need to grow over the course of the season.

video

Inside one of his greenhouses Gary Hughes explains to Reading the Landscape participants how he uses rye and hairy vetch to enrich the soil and how he plays music for his plants! (July 2009 videoclip by Keweenaw Now)

With nearly 40 types of fruits and vegetables, the Hugheses aren’t going to be put out from the loss of one or two crops. By diversifying the crops, they stand less risk if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate -- sort of a "don’t put all your eggs in one basket" approach. This year’s spring, which was unusually dry and particularly early, was no exception to the weather anomalies of the Upper Peninsula.

Artist Margo McCafferty Rudd demonstrates sketching vegetables to participants in the July 2009 Reading the Landscape Sustainable Farming tour of the Hughes Farm. The Reading the Landscape field trips combine art and natural history of the local area.

Weather isn’t the only enemy to combat. The crops grown in outdoor plots are left vulnerable to wildlife. Some of these plots are protected from wildlife by fencing or specially coated ribbon designed to deter animals like deer.

The specially coated ribbon, visible here in the foreground, deters animals from invading outdoor plots on the Hughes Farm.

The Hugheses market the majority of their produce right from the farm. The on-farm shop accounts for about 85 percent of their yearly sales, with the Keweenaw Co-op and other local grocery stores handling the rest.

Even now, in early fall, the market offers a wide variety of produce, including bumper crops of pumpkins and onions, Gary noted.

The recent frost that affected some gardens in the Keweenaw did not reach the Hughes farm because of their location high on a hill.

"We didn't get a frost," Gary said. "The air moves down the hill (so) the frost doesn't have a chance to settle."

This great view of the landscape from the Hughes Farm shows how its location, being on a hill, protects it from frost. Covers like this one in the foreground also protect plants from inclement weather and insects.

In addition to the pumpkins and onions, the Hughes market now also offers quantities of gourds, corn stalks, winter squash, cucumbers, carrots, beets, potatoes, lettuce, kale and chard, Gary said.

"We're going to be open probably through the third week in October," he predicted.

Pat explained that when operating the store, a typical morning starts with everyone picking. As the time to open approaches, she heads up and readies the shop. Once it is open, Pat spends her day weighing and cashiering and keeping the various items stocked while Gary and the employees continue to pick and tend to the crops.

Pat and Gary said their business has really taken off and been consistently busy over the last ten years.

The day-to-day grind of operating the farm shows not only in their hands, but hearts as well. Although proud of the business they’ve nurtured, when asked what their future plans included, Gary simply stated, "Retirement!"

The Hugheses are grateful for the community support they receive and work to return the favor in their spare time. Not only do they offer the community healthy all-natural produce, but they share their knowledge of the land with students from the C-L-K school district.

Pat handles most of the details, explaining to the children where the fruits and vegetables they eat come from and what they look like prior to processing. She even helps guide the students to select appropriate vegetation, hardy to the area, for the school’s student-led Heritage Garden Project. The gardening program is funded through a grant from the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative and support from other community partners. The purpose of the grant is to engage students in activities that benefit their community, school and the Lake Superior watershed -- all virtues that Pat and Gary support and participate in.***

Interested in enjoying the tastes, texture and smells of all-natural produce grown right here in the Keweenaw? Then stop by the farm and see what’s available. The shop is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays through the third week of October. Raspberries and strawberries are available to be picked throughout the season when announced or by appointment. For more information, look for their signs along the road, give them a call, or check out their website at www.hughesfarm.net.

Editor's Notes: * Photos for this article, with one exception, were taken by Keweenaw Now during the July 2009 Reading the Landscape Sustainable Farming tour of the Hughes Farm and are reprinted here with Gary Hughes' permission. Reading the Landscape is a collaborative program of art and natural history field trips sponsored by several local conservation groups. Read more about it on the Gratiot Lake Conservancy Web site.

** Guest reporter Tom Graham wrote this article for David Clanaugh's recent summer journalism class at Michigan Tech University.

*** See our Aug. 14 article, "C-L-K school garden project yields rich harvest," by Madeline Baron and David Clanaugh.

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