Agriculture in Door County

Agriculture has played an important role in Door County’s economy, environment, culture, and social structure for more than 150 years. Today, the county is home to hundreds of farms – over 90 percent of which are individually or family-owned – as well as agriculture-related businesses providing equipment, services, and other products farmers need to grow, process, market, and deliver food to consumers.

Door County’s geology and climate are particularly well-suited to cherry production. The area’s late spring, delayed due to the presence of Green Bay and Lake Michigan, slows down budburst in cherries, reducing potential for frost damage to fruit blossoms. Jim Seaquist, a fourth-generation Northern Door cherry orchard operator, says the shallow, rocky soils predominant in the northern part of the county, which make some farming activities difficult, don’t negatively impact cherry growing at all. More important for cherries, he explains, is having “higher elevation sites with appropriate slopes. Frost collects in low areas, so higher elevation is better. And, while there are some orchards south of the Sturgeon Bay canal…the better fruit sites just seem to be in the north, particularly where the old Martins and Reynolds farms used to be – where there are still orchards now – and some areas near Egg Harbor and Sister Bay.”

Seaquist Orchards was founded, Jim says, “roughly 100 years ago on 30 to 40 acres, which is about how much land the family had in cherry production until probably the 1950s. It’s really only been the last 15 years where we’ve grown rapidly, up to our current 1,000-acre level. I just found some old records regarding production levels:  in 1926, Seaquist’s produced 70,000 pounds of cherries. Now in a good year it’s probably like 4.5 million pounds of cherries. We obviously have a lot more land now, but pounds produced per acre are also higher now than in the past.”

Jim notes, “The ability to mechanically harvest cherries is what keeps us alive. If this was a hand-harvested crop, we’d be out of business. Machine harvesting allows us to harvest economically, to compete worldwide. That aspect of the business really started in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Door County industry went from big yield numbers, in ‘65, ‘66, ‘67, to a real decline in production and acreage. That happened to be right about the time the industry was switched into machine harvest, and a lot of small growers just didn’t make that step.”

Jim entered into partnership in the family business with his dad in 1983. Seaquist Orchards had already begun diversifying, establishing small cherry processing operations the year before. Then, “in 1992 we bought the old Eames Farm (Egg Harbor Orchards) processing plant. We still do all our own processing at that site; it’s one of a small handful of facilities in the county doing processing now. After we do the initial processing, the fruit is taken to Green Bay where it’s sold to dryers, pie-filling manufacturers, bakeries. A significant portion of our cherries do come back to the county, though, to be sold as jam, fruit fillings, pies, juice, etc.”

Photo by Dan Eggert.

He notes, however, that the market has changed significantly. “In the ‘40s and ‘50s,” he says, “we were primarily selling canned, water-packed cherries and frozen cherries directly to bakers and customers. Now, in the past 10 to 20 years, the market has moved toward healthier products, emphasizing juices and dried products, such as in nut and trail mixes, and while we still have a bakery market it has shifted to more upscale pastries. That’s been a huge change that’s occurred, locally, nationally, and internationally.”

Jim explains Seaquist Orchards is a member of CherrCo, a national marketing cooperative created about a decade ago, which includes “25 processing facilities like and including us, 22 of which are in the U.S. and three in Canada. That cooperative controls about 80 to 85 percent of the tart cherries in those two countries. That’s allowed us to price and pool our product together, giving us much better control of marketing, pricing, and new product development, making the industry more profitable. Also, the Cherry Marketing Institute, which is supported by all the states, has hired the top-notch PR firm in Chicago to help us in getting the word out on the health benefits and uses of the product. The guy doing our campaign is actually the guy that was responsible for the ‘Got Milk?’ program, although he’s got about a tenth of the budget he had for that campaign!”

In 1987, Seaquist Orchards added a farm market to their business operations. Jim says having the “three different aspects of the business has worked out pretty well,” noting diversification has helped keep the business successful and also provided plenty for the various branches of the family to do. He fully expects there will be fifth-generation family members taking over the business. What’s different, he says, about the business, compared to what generations before dealt with, is “now it’s much more about managing the labor supply and dealing with the management side of the business more than driving a tractor or running shakers. I like the management part, though. It can be challenging – we deal with a lot of customer and government issues, which can be very time-consuming – but I do like it. One of the main issues is that everything costs so much more today. Years ago, if you worked hard and made some good decisions you were fine, but today working hard doesn’t solve the problems. Prices have not kept up anywhere near to inflation. It makes us constantly have to figure out how to get our yields up and costs down, to manage those costs.” Jim explains this is why successful operators are getting – and have to get – bigger and bigger:  without the economies of scale provided by a large-scale operation, it is impossible to survive market forces.

Despite the many challenges to the industry, which also include providing code-compliant housing for workers and following immigration regulations, both of which can be complicated, time-consuming, and costly, Jim is optimistic. He says, “I think and hope this will be an industry we can continue to survive in. Orchards are deep in the history of Door County and we like the idea that we’re trying to keep that alive. The bottom line is that we really enjoy what we’re doing, and we couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place in the world to do it. We’ve traveled to most of the other fruit production places in the country, and we wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. It’s a privilege to be living and farming here. And that’s what’s important, right? To try and make a living in a place you like to be.”

Cherry harvesting at Seaquist Orchards. Photo by Dan Eggert.

Like the orchard industry, “cash-cropping” – the production of grains such as corn, soybeans, and wheat to sell for cash, as opposed to production of grains to feed animals you are also raising – continues to do well in Door County, actually increasing over the past 20 years in terms of acreage. This increase is in part due to the fact that many farmers in the county, such as Mark Heimbecher, found raising cattle to be too time-consuming, so have switched to cash-cropping.

Mark farms about 150 acres in the Town of Clay Banks, including owned and rented land, typically growing alfalfa hay, peas, soybeans, and winter wheat. Mark’s description of how his crops get harvested, processed, and sold provides indication as to some of the issues facing local cash-croppers:  “I contract with someone to harvest my crops. They come in and combine them and do the trucking. As a smaller operation I don’t have the equipment for that. For soybeans and wheat, I usually deal with and sell it to feed mills out of the county. For canning crops, I contract with Hartung Bros., a canning company that comes to the county and buys crops here then brings them to their facility for processing.”

Mark’s farm has been in his family since 1871; he is the fifth generation of his family to farm that land. He notes, however, “when I’m done farming, my kids are not going into farming, so I’ll be the last one in my family to farm this land. It’s kind of sad, but they’ve got other interests. It’s a different world, a different type of economy out there than 20 to 30 years ago.”

In addition to not having a next generation waiting to take over the farm, Mark’s daily life as a farmer is different than that of his parents and grandparents before him. The primary difference, he says, is “I work outside the farm full time. The past generations didn’t do that – the farm was their only livelihood. I started at the shipyard right out of high school, and continue to do so for the steady income and health insurance. I think the majority of farm families in the county, and the trend per the farm papers I read, have one or the other spouse working outside the farm. The cost of health insurance is a big issue. If I was carrying all that myself, it would be difficult.”

Farmers deal with many other financial issues, too. Mark notes that “diesel fuel is about $1.50 more a gallon over last year, and fertilizer is up a lot – one type of fertilizer I buy was $465 a ton last year and this year it’s $1,150 per ton! These are costs farmers have no control over. I do set a rent limit for myself, and that’s as high as I’ll go – once rent hits that number, it doesn’t make sense to rent and farm that land anymore. And, while my input costs are continually fluctuating or increasing, I get the same price for some crops – like hay – now as I did on average over the past 30 years! The farm does pay for itself, though, or else I wouldn’t do it.”

Harvesting wheat in Clay Banks. Photo by Dan Eggert.

He goes on to say, “Farming is a lot of hours, a lot of weather issues, a lot of things we can’t control. I’d say the hardest part about farming right now for me, though, is managing the everyday costs. I love doing the fieldwork. I can do a lot of thinking when I’m on that tractor; that’s why I farm. I enjoy it. It’s kind of sad that I’m going to be the last generation of my family farming, but that’s life.”

Still, when asked how he feels about the future of farming in Door County, Mark says, “I’m an optimist. It’s going to be tough, and some of our farmers aren’t going to make it, especially up north or the dairy farmers, due to the pressures they’re under. I still think there will be farmers up north, but whether or not they’ll be dairy, that’s a different question. Farming will last longer in the southern part of the county, just because it is more agriculturally-oriented and less developed than Northern Door. I don’t like to see farms be sold off, to see them developed, but…I can see why other people want to buy land to live up here. I like Door County. I’ve lived here all my life. It’s a nice place.”

Agriculture and Door County’s Geology and Climate

Door County’s shallow soil depths and underlying bedrock present many challenges to local agricultural operators. Twenty-two percent of the county’s soils are less than 18 inches in depth to bedrock; an additional 17 percent of the county’s soils are between 18 and 36 inches to bedrock. Shallower, rocky soils are particularly prevalent in the northern two-thirds of the county. Underneath those shallow soils is bedrock laden with “Karst” features – cracks and fissures that allow for rapid transport of potential pollutants into groundwater aquifers – further complicating management of agricultural activities.

Door County does have a longer-than-typical growing season for areas at this northern latitude, due primarily to the moderating effect of Lake Michigan and Green Bay. There are fewer days with extremely high and low temperatures than is common for this latitude, and the water, cooled during winter, delays spring and early summer and, warmed during the summer, delays the first freeze in the fall.

Agricultural Census and Other Data

According to the 2002 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture, in that year Door County had 135,128 acres of farmland and 877 farms, up from the 1997 count of 702 farms comprising 121,879 acres. Note, however, that the USDA changed its definition of “farm” in 1995 – which had been any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold in the Census year – so as to also include any place having five or more horses or ponies. And, in Door County, the number of places with five or more horses or ponies more than doubled between 1992 and 2002, from 69 to 156.

Overall, excluding horse and pony farms, the number of product-producing/selling farms in the county decreased by about 200 between 1987 and 2002. Acreage in productive farming also decreased – by well over 20,000 acres – during that same time period. The number of large farms in the county, defined as those with 500 or more acres, increased, from 34 in 1987 to 49 in 2002. Large farms as defined by large volumes of sales – over $100,000 annually – numbered 108 in both 1987 and 2002.

While Door County is still well known for its cherry production – producing the largest quantity of tart cherries of any county in Wisconsin, typically eight to nine million pounds annually – the number of acres and farms producing cherries in the county are in decline. In the middle of the last century, there were about 700 cherry growers, with the county easily and consistently producing 25 to 30 million pounds of cherries annually. Roughly 50 years later, in 1992, there were 138 farms producing cherries on approximately 3,137 acres. By 2002, only 87 cherry farms remained, growing cherries on about 2,295 acres. According to Jim Seaquist, this number is down now to less than 60 growers, but those probably comprise roughly the same number of acres as in 2002.

Cash-cropping – the production of grains, such as non-feed corn, soybeans, and wheat for sale rather than for animal feed – has increased steadily over the past two decades, from a total of more than 14,600 acres in 1987 for those three crops to a total of roughly 42,600 acres in 2007.

Mark Heimbecher upon his tractor at his farm. Photo by Dan Eggert.

Dairy farming has historically comprised a significant component of the county’s agricultural activities. As of 2002, Door County’s farms included 151 dairy farms housing 9,286 milk cows, and the value of dairy products sold from those farms was valued at over $20 million. Dairy farming has been declining, though:  between 1992 and 2002, the number of dairy farms in the county declined 46 percent and the number of dairy cows, 26 percent. Most of this decline occurred in areas north of Sturgeon Bay:  the Towns of Liberty Grove, Baileys Harbor, Egg Harbor, and Gibraltar had a total of 59 dairy farms in 1989, but only 15 in 2002.

Economic Benefits of Agricultural Activities

In the year 2000, agriculture in Door County:

  • accounted for nearly $188.9 million, or 14 percent, of the county’s total economic activity.
  • generated $4.6 million in local and state taxes through economic activity associated with Door County’s farms and agriculture-related businesses.
  • provided 2,199 jobs, or 11.3 percent, of Door County’s total workforce.

A 2004 study conducted in the Towns of Gibraltar and Nasewaupee concluded that “farmlands, forests, wetlands and other open spaces provide more revenue to a community than they require in expenditures, resulting in a net fiscal benefit to that community,” as opposed to residential development, which typically costs a community more in services than it pays in taxes.

Finally, while not easily quantifiable in terms of economic value, agricultural lands and their adjacent/intertwined natural areas – such as woodlots, wetlands, and stream corridors – provide environmental benefits (habitat for flora and fauna, groundwater recharge areas, etc.) as well as scenic vistas, which draw residents and visitors who in turn contribute to the county’s overall economic activity.

Other Issues Facing Local Farmers  

A number of other issues facing Door County farmers have been identified in recent local discussion groups, such as:

Development pressures/population growth. In Northern Door, significant declines over the past few decades in both the number of farms and the total number of acres farmed have coincided with significant population growth for both year-round and seasonal residents. Development pressure in Southern Door is expected to increase with the completed expansion of State Highway 57.

Financial pressures. Farming is generally financially risky due to factors outside the operator’s control such as weather, costs of fuel and other inputs. Plus, for many farmers, their land represents their retirement fund – they need to sell some or all of their land in order to afford housing, medical, and other costs in retirement. And, selling agricultural lands to be developed for non-agricultural uses has for years gotten the seller much higher market values (in the past few years in Door County, two to three times as high).

Heimbecher’s alfalfa field.

Regulatory issues. Local zoning regulations often require large minimum lot sizes for new lots in agricultural zoning districts, forcing farmers to significantly fragment their operations if they need to sell off some land. Zoning and state regulations can also make it difficult for farmers to process and sell products on their property. Various other state regulations, while serving worthwhile purposes such as groundwater protection, can also sometimes be cumbersome and costly to farmers.

Misunderstandings or disconnects with local residents and businesses. Some farmers report that people move into an agricultural area, then later complain about agricultural practices (noise, odor, etc.). Farmers say that nowadays people don’t really understand – or seem to have forgotten – where their food comes from and how it is produced. Likewise, most grocery stores and restaurants don’t want to deal with small farmers/producers, so tend not to buy local products:  instead, they want large truck loads – with known quantities and known types – of “perfect-looking” product shipped to them.

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