Farming? Yes!

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Editorial Note: To celebrate the 125 anniversary of the establishment of the Michigan State University Research and Extension Center (UPREC) at Chatham, the editor has invited Dr. Russell Magnaghi to write a series of articles dealing with farming in the Upper Peninsula.

Farming is usually not associated with the life and economy of the Upper Peninsula. Back in the late 1830s when Michigan was looking toward statehood, U.P. pioneer scholar Henry R. Schoolcraft was asked to comment on the value of the Upper Peninsula. He concluded with five main points that would outline the development of the region: mining, timbering, fishing, tourism, and farming. Time has proven him correct in his early assessment.

In the past, the popular perception of many Yoopers was that U.P. agriculture is hopelessly hindered by soil and climatic conditions; besides, agriculture has been overshadowed by more dominant industries like mining and timbering.

So how did the fellow from urban San Francisco, California become interested in UP farming?

Over the years, due to curiosity and interest, I have researched and written about agriculture in the Upper Peninsula, bringing light to the correct role of agriculture in the region. My interest goes back to summers spent in California’s Santa Clara Valley called the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” when over 100,000 acres were planted with fruit trees. Today, it is known as Silicon Valley, a nickname hated by many due to his mechanical feel and air filled with auto exhaust.

We had a summer place there, known as “the ranch”–here it would be called “the camp”–less than an acre in Cupertino surrounded by an orchard filled with prune, apricot, peach, olive, almond, walnut, fig, plum, cherry, pear, quince, lemon and grapefruit trees. You watched the trees develop from blossoms to ripe fruit irrigating them when necessary. There was also a large vegetable garden. So I carried away a love for farming and the aroma of the fertile damp soil. In the U.P. I have managed a number of rather successful vegetable gardens and basil and corn plots over the years. But, back to history.

Native American Farming

The Native Americans in the Upper Peninsula consisted of the Algonquian-speaking people: Menominee, Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi. The Huron who lived here for a short time were of an Iroquoian tradition. These people developed a lifestyle based on wild rice gathering, maple sugaring, hunting, fishing, gathering plants for medicine and substance. Agriculture based on maize or corn cultivation entered the scene.

The Menominee were located in the southern Upper Peninsula along the Menominee River and in the past their homeland consisted of 10 million acres. Today they are located in northeastern Wisconsin. They were known as the “Ancient Ones” and were living in their homeland possibly for a thousand years.

The Ojibwe called them the “wild rice” people, a term picked up by the French. Recent studies reveal that they developed sustainable organic agriculture based on raised fields that archaeological studies testify went back to A.D. 1000 at the northernmost limits of maize cultivation. They had a more complex and sophisticated farming culture than assumed. These beds were scattered through their expansive communities and were comprised of riparian and riverine sediments and charcoal and were an anchor for northern dent corn.

It is possible that this type of farming occurred during the era of climate change at the onset of the Little Ice Age at about AD 1400-1500 and continued into the 1860s. With the arrival of the French in the 17th century they were able to trade corn to passing fur traders.

Moving north, we encounter the Ojibwe/Anishinaabe, Odawa and Huron who were more recent arrivals to the U.P. Reports by French explorers, soldiers and missionaries provide us with insights that farming was part of their world as well. In the 17th century, the French explorer and soldier, Henri Joutel (c1643-1725) sought to buy corn from the Odawa at St. Ignace. They provided him with 1 ½ tons but apologized that they could not provide him with more.

Writing at the same time, a Jesuit noted that the mission at St. Ignace there was an  abundance of fish and soil was excellent for raising Indian corn, have proved a very powerful attraction for the tribes of these region and “a greater number of whom lives only on fish, and some of them on Indian corn.” On June 04, 1671 when French commander Sieur de St. Lusson claimed the upper Great Lakes for Louis XIV, Claude Allouez, S.J. gave a pep-talk to the Native leaders attending the ceremony and said: “You count yourselves rich when you have ten or twelve sacks of corn . . .” an indication that their either grew it or had a source through trade.

Another Jesuit writing about the Odawa noted that the women planted corn a one mile from the shore of Lake Superior in sandy soil. In 1679 the Franciscan priest, Louis Hennepin noted that the Hurons and Odawa at St. Ignace sowed Indian corn and pounded it into meal in a mortar made of a burned hollow of a tree trunk. At Sault Ste. Marie he noted that the Ojibwe did not sow Indian corn at that time because the “thick fogs” on Lake Superior “stifled the corn” before it started to grow. With the advent of the French and then the English, the Odawa and Ojibwe added peas, potatoes and apples to their agricultural activity.

Colonial Farming

French Jesuit missionaries introduced European-style agriculture to the U.P., since missions were supposed to be self-sufficient in terms of food production. The missionaries hoped that the Native people would follow their example. At their residences in Québec City and Montréal, the Jesuits maintained extensive gardens and orchards and thus were familiar with agriculture and had a source for seeds brought into the U.P. Claude Chauchetière, S.J. was a Jesuit of possibly one of a number familiar with farming and fruit production.

This is evidenced in a letter written in 1694 to his brother a fellow Jesuit showing his knowledge of fruit culture at Montréal. He noted that apples were raised from seeds and when necessary branches were grafted. He also discussed pears, cherries, peaches and grape vines. When Jacques Marquette, S.J. and Louis Nicolas, S.J. first introduced farming to the mission at Sault Ste. Marie in 1668, some Ojibwa followed their example and developed gardens. It was at this time that the Jesuits introduced apples to the eastern U.P.

In 1750, Sieur de Repentigny and Louis Bonne were given a grant to develop farmland, so farming returned to the Sault. Although the French were called away to battlefields, their farm manager, Jean-Baptiste Cadotte and his métis family continued to work the soil.

The Straits of Mackinac with its temperate conditions was a center of agricultural activity. Although Fort Michilimackinac is located immediately to the south of the UP, farming activity there is being included as it was the major French and Anglo settlement in the colonial U.P. The Jesuits and French households maintained gardens inside Fort Michilimackinac after the fort’s foundation on the south shore in 1715.

Later after 1763, the Scots-Irish businessman, merchant and trader, John Askin living at Fort Michilimackinac developed two farms in operation in 1774-1775. One was a large “garden” near the fort and the “farm” located three miles southwest of the fort at French Farm Lake. His journal goes into detail on the crops he was growing. Potatoes were the main crop. He also grew beets, corn, cabbage, buckwheat, onions, peas, spinach, clover, lettuce and rye grass.

Askin’s journal provides us with the most detail of one of these colonial farm endeavors and goes into detail about farming techniques. It is most probable that Askin used his two black slaves, Pompey and Jupiter along with hired farm laborers to work the farms. Askins also raised livestock: sheep, hogs and cattle. The French had little regard for the potato until the time of Napoleon and introduced peas so the potato was introduced by the English. At this time Askin planted apple trees from seeds which he obtained either from Montréal or Detroit.

Besides Askin, outside the fort, Charles Boyer planted peas, Captain Cornwillis raised hogs, Charles Morison was a fur trader who had a farm at the fort and raised cattle, and Henry Bostwick another fur trader had a garden. There were also Native Americans farming among these Europeans.

Early 19th Century

In the early 19th century agriculture continued in the eastern U.P. Between 1815 and 1828 the British occupied Fort Drummond on the island of the same name. Farmers on the island produced root crops for the British garrison who initially had suffered from scurvy. On Mackinac Island there were military gardens at the foot of the fort, built by the British in 1780, and some fifty fruit trees flourished. In the 1820s this agrarian tradition continued at Fort Brady at the Sault where gardens were created.

John Johnston (1762-1828) of Scots-Irish ancestry and arrived at the Sault as a fur trader connected with the North West Company. He is considered the first permanent European-American settler at the Sault. Following a pattern connected with the U.P. he did not want to import foodstuffs which were costly. As a result he and his métis (mixed blood) family developed a large potato farm and was raising a thousand bushels of potatoes annually.

In July 1822, a reporter from the Detroit Gazette reached the Soo reported, “Potatoes, oats, pease, and garden stuffs generally succeed with certainty every year.” Four years later when the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas McKenney visited the Sault, he was impressed with “the finest quality” potatoes being cultivated and was amazed at the agricultural products being grown in the barren north country.

The early Protestant and Catholic missionaries who came to the U.P. in the 1820s, re-introduced agriculture to the Native Americans in an attempt to create sedentary living and “civilize” them according to 19th century American standards. At the Sault, Baptist missionary, Rev. Abel Bingham encouraged Indians to create farms and become self-sufficient. By the 1840s model farms were further developed for the Indians at the Sault and in the L’Anse-Baraga area to the west by Rev. Frederic Baraga and Methodist missionary, John H. Pitezel. To the south at Lac Vieux Desert, Native wild race growing was augmented with farming.

With the opening of the copper and iron countries in the 1840s and 1850s there was a demand for food. Chippewa County was the gateway to the booming activity in these areas. By 1860 there were thirty-three farmers located in Chippewa County attracted by the markets and the good growing conditions. They were primarily from French Canada, with a few from Germany, England, Scotland, and the United States. François Sobran was from Red River Valley, Manitoba and John Serviston was born on the shores of Hudson Bay. The property value of these farms was $43,480 while their personal estate amounted to $22,200, which was a significant amount of money at that time.

An outstanding entrepreneur in this area was Philetus S. Church (1812-1883), an early settler from New York who arrived on Sugar Island in 1846. By 1850 his farm was valued at $3,000 and a decade later his real estate the value of his property had risen $12,000 as was his personal income (2024 value: $886,976). By the 1870s, using Native berry pickers he created a raspberry preserve business that produced as much as twelve tons of preserves annually, which were sent to Eastern and Midwestern markets and four tons of maple sugar.


As settlers moved into the U.P., Native Americans found that they were ready to buy blueberries that they sold from door-to-door. White people–especially Scandinavians–were pleased to find wild berries–raspberries, blackberries, strawberries–growing as in their homeland and took to gathering them for home use. During the difficult days of the Depression of the 1930s hundreds of people spent the month of August camped in blueberry fields especially in Schoolcraft County gathering blueberries.

They made money selling Negaunee-made baskets filled with berries to contractors who shipped “wild blueberries” to dealers in Chicago and other urban centers. Since 1986, the Jampot monks of the Poorock Abbey at Jacob’s Fall near Eagle River have developed a highly successful jam business made with wild berries. Other commercial ventures have developed since that time and locally made jams and jelly are found in store throughout the region.

Mining Companies and Farming

In an unusual exchange, the farmers and miners in the iron and copper regions developed a reciprocal relationship.  The mines needed a stable labor force and encouraged miners to bring their families and create a stable work force.  As a result from even the earliest days, mines like the Cliff on the northern Keweenaw Peninsula cultivated a large potato field and encouraged its workers to do the same. This trend spread as companies offered miners an acre of land at a dollar annually so that they could grow potatoes and other crops and even raise livestock.  These miner-farmers were encouraged to cultivate other root crops, cabbages, peas, and other crops that could be stored for the winter.

Hardier varieties of apples and small fruits like strawberries, currants, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries were either cultivated or gathered from the forest. This would cut down on the cost of importing food. Even Calumet & Hecla, the huge copper-mining company at Calumet was into farming and in 1882 harvested several thousand bushels of oats and hay for its animals and potatoes for sale.

In the central U.P., Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company under William Mather promoted farming among its workers. He understood that a farming alternative would aid miners during difficult economic times. During World War I and the Depression, CCI supplied miners with plots of land and aided with plowing, fertilizing and supplying seed potatoes. At various times CCI had contests and awards for the best vegetable garden in a community.

Women had a major role in the development of these small truck gardens. Remaining at home with their families, they could maintain gardens and raise poultry and small livestock for local sale along with dairy products. The money and foodstuffs supplemented the family income. Later miners purchased their own land farther away from the mine to develop larger farms, which were tended by the family, while the men were at work. When a labor strike hit, wages dropped, or the mines temporarily shut down, the miner-farmer could rely on this alternative source of food and money.

Farming Outside of Mining

Of the three traditional farming counties in the U.P., Chippewa has been discussed. Now we move into Delta and Menominee counties. As early as 1860, Delta county and Escanaba became centers for timbering and fishing with a population 1,211 there were forty-six working the fields. This focus on farming would become a main ingredient in the economy of the county and eventually would leave to become the center of the U.P. fair.

Menominee County, the southern-most of the U.P, and the largest county in Michigan (1,338 square miles was a prime location for the development of farms. In 1855, several German families arrived in the county, cleared the land and developed farms at Birch Creek. Other farmers settled the county and in the 1860s various logging companies developed farms to feed the men and animals taking out the timber.

In 1870 the population in the county stood at 1,640 with most of the population engaged in milling timber however there were 23 farmers and farm laborers supplying the community with produce. By 1920, there were 2,098 farmers plying their trade, but 30 years later the number had fallen to 1,313. These raised hay and oats along with turnips, cabbage and even experimented with winter wheat. Despite the decline in farmers in the past, agriculture continues to be an important part of the local economy. However, due to regulations and retirements dairy farming has declined. Bigger farms have gotten bigger and given the expense of starting a farm younger people find it difficult to enter the field.

Forest Fires

An area little-studied is the role of forest fires in the Upper Peninsula. Forest fires commonly ravaged the countryside in the past. Farms were located on the edges of forests and cut over lands and as a result prone to fire hazards and destruction by forest fires. In 1871 at the time of the horrific Peshtigo fire, the fire crossed the Menominee River and destroyed a section of Menominee County which saw the destruction of farm.

Potatoes Rule the UP

Potatoes were accepted and became part of the Native diet. With the opening of the copper mines in the 1840s-1850s, these Ojibwa farmers in the L’Anse-Baraga area found a ready market for their potatoes, which provided an inexpensive and nourishing food source for the miners. With the settlement of the U.P., white farmers also found a ready market for their crops of “unequaled potatoes.”

By 1860 there were some 17 farmers tilling the soil at Clifton on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The mining companies rented acreage, close to locations where miners could garden and especially plant potatoes. The potato went on to become a staple and profitable farm crop in the U.P. Its profitable success after 1900 was overseen by the Michigan State University experimental farm at Chatham and by the Upper Peninsula Potato Association, which held annual potato congresses to identify the prime variety. Winners eventually went to the state potato congress held in Grand Rapids. The Upper Peninsula Development Agency encouraged locals to buy “Cloverland potatoes,” and the Cohodas vegetable and fruit provisioners in Ishpeming sold bags labeled “Lake Superior Brand Potatoes.”

Potato farming even expanded to growing seed potatoes that were sold around the United States. In the early 1980s there was a story that Peter Vitton of Hancock had a contract with McDonald’s to grow seed potatoes for its farm clients throughout the country. Today, there are ten large efficient potato growers in the central UP planting thirty-five varieties. Of these farms, the Melvin Johnson Potato Farm in Sagola, operating since the 1930s, produces eleven to eleven and a half million pounds of potatoes annually. It has contract with Kroger and Costco and sells to local outlets. Thus, this historic UP industry continues to flourish some 260 years after its introduction.

Apple Culture

The apple is another crop that found a home in the Upper Peninsula, first introduced by Jesuit missionaries at Sault Ste. Marie and the Straits of Mackinac. There is archaeological evidence of either apples or pears having been grown in the Straits area. From evidence gathered in the 1850s among old French residents of Detroit, there were three popular French apples still growing there and by extension in the U.P. These were the Calville Blanc d’hiver, which was popular in France and was one of the apples grown at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson; the Detroit Red or Black which usually dates from before 1790; the Pomme de Neige or the Snow Apple which was developed in France in the 1600s and known for its winter hardiness; and finally the Pomme gris (grey apple) that was also popular in France at this time. So it is probable that some or all of these varieties were grown in the eastern UP.

These varieties along with those introduced by American settlers were cultivated by Ojibwe and the settlers. Farming families tried to plant at least three or four varieties of apples so they had apples through the entire harvest, some varieties storing well into March. The heyday of apple growing was the 1920s and 1930s, and it has declined due to weather conditions–early frosts–and the lack of markets. Today the largest commercial apple orchard in the U.P. is located at St. Nicholas Road, north of Perkins where Jim Barron raises and sells apples from his orchard of at least 400 trees. Other farmers oversee smaller numbers of trees. As you travel through outlying areas of the U.P. where only foundations of former homes exist you will find apple trees and lilacs growing in the woods.

Rutabagas – Almost Gain a Foothold

The rutabaga is a vegetable little known to many Americans. It was an intentional or unintentional crossing of the turnip and wild cabbage. Being a hardy plant that likes cool weather and hard frosts to sweeten it, the rutabaga found a home in Northern Europe, where Norwegians refer to it as the “orange of the North.” It is a healthy food with few calories and filled with vitamins and minerals. The Canadians and English call it swede and others refer to it as a yellow turnip, Swedish turnip and Canadian turnip. Our term, rutabaga is derived from the Swedish rotabagge, or “baggy root.” The vegetable has never been popular with Americans, who are rather mystified by rutabagas in groceries.

The rutabaga had ethnic origins coming into the Upper Peninsula. The Cornish use it in pasties, the Irish include it in colcannon and the Scandinavians and Finns have many uses for it in their cuisines. As a result, when these immigrants arrived in the U.P., they were pleased to find that their traditional food could thrive in this environment and they would not have to import them from Ontario. Finnish, Swedish and Belgian farmers planted rutabagas, and they were followed by American farmers who saw that there was a profitable market for the crop. As a result, more than any place in the United States, people in the U.P. readily encountered the rutabaga in groceries, at county fairs, in church and lodge suppers and in hotel dining rooms, where mashed rutabagas were often on the menu. The humble rutabaga found a home in this corner of the United States.

The rutabaga was developed commercially in the 1930s when farmers were encouraged to grow them by the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railroad so they could be shipped on their rails and the UP Potato Association worked out a plan to have them shipped with potatoes to the Chicago market. Rutabagas were seen as a means for farmers to make extra money during the Depression of the 1930s. Unfortunately, this market was fickle, as one year potatoes were in demand and the following year rutabagas were popular. Rutabaga farming declined after World War II. The Vermote farms at St. Nicholas Road grew as many as 7-8 acres of rutabagas and had semi-trucks coming from Milwaukee to pick up loads of them, three and four times during the winter.

Unfortunately, the end was in sight for the remaining rutabaga farmers. Chlordane was used as a pesticide to keep worms from infesting the rutabagas with worm tunnels. Eventually, the chemical was suspected of causing cancer, diabetes, and neurological disorders. By the 1980s, it was illegal to use in the United States. Now 1000’s of rutabagas would have to have worm holes cut out and these cuts did not attract customer. Rutabaga farmers began to retire and the next generation was less interested in farming. Thus commercial rutabaga farming in the U.P. began to trickle out. Today some are sold from Wisconsin farmers, but most are imported from Canada.


Finally, there was Golden Plume celery. In 1886 it was found that the muck land around Newberry was ideal for growing celery. John G. Van Tuyl, an immigrant from the Netherlands opened the O.K. Celery Farm and Harry L. Harris cultivated  celery at the neighboring Newberry Celery Farm. Their celery quickly rivaled the more famous Kalamazoo celery and in 1891, 450,000 plants were set out. Within four years celery farming was a major industry in Luce County and there was speculation that these farms would become the largest in the state of Michigan. Rail cars packed with celery brought the stick vegetable to major urban centers: Detroit, Grand Rapids, Duluth, Chicago, New York City and Toronto. “Newberry Celery” appeared on restaurant and railway diner menus. Yoopers watched for newspaper ads about the arrival of celery shipments. The local athletic teams at Newberry were known as the Celery City Cagers and Celeryites. Celery was the pride of Newberry for over sixty years, but decline set in. Blight, demand for Green Pascal celery from California and problems with natural fertilizer caused the farms to close by the early 1950s.


In the early days of U.P. settlement beginning with the British, barrels of salted beef and pork arrived at Fort Mackinac for the garrison. Some of the English settlers at colonial Fort Michilimackinac raised livestock as the small animals could be brought by ship across the eastern Great Lakes. With the settlement of the Marquette iron range and the Copper Country barrels by the hundreds continued to arrive.  It did not take long for the mining companies and private ranchers to develop their own cattle herds and save money on importing food.  Soon cattle ranches flourished across the U.P., supplied the local demand and sold beef cattle to the lumber camps. When the Carp River Trail from Escanaba to Marquette was completed in the early 1850s, herders sent animals north in t he summer and winter.

Connected with cattle ranching was dairy farming, which has always been an important agricultural activity in the Upper Peninsula. In 1899 there were 4,816 dairy farms, which produced six and a half million gallons of milk, 596 tons of butter, and nearly a half-ton of cheese. Some of this commercial cheese production was in the hands of Italians, who established the Sargento and Stella cheese empires along with the Asiago cheese company. From this U.P. source Italian cheese, previous unknown to Americans entered the national market through neighboring Wisconsin.

Swine were popular as they could be raised during the summer months on a variety of poor-quality foods or allowed to forage. The animal was small enough to be consumed by one family unlike larger cattle. Before refrigeration, the hog was slaughtered, processed and stored in lard-filled crocks for use during the winter. Among Italian immigrants and others early November was the time for hog processing and sausage production.

Large-scale sheep ranching never developed in the U.P. on a large scale in the early days. When the Upper Peninsula Development Bureau contemplated the settlement of cut-over land in 1918-1919, officials decided to promote the introduction of sheep ranching. A group of sheep men from the drought-stricken Far West toured the region and were impressed with cut-over lands. One of them, John Casabonne, a French immigrant, brought a flock of 3,000 sheep to Houghton County, and the Cloverland Sheep and Wool Company was established in Iron Mountain. Although the conditions were right, there were problems with predatory animals and adequate winter feed. As a result, Casabonne lost $30,000 worth of animals to wolves and coyotes and went back to the west. Over the years sheep ranching has become part of the local economy. By the late twentieth century there were 112 ranches in the U.P. raising 2,647 head of sheep.

Cut-Over Land

As the timber industry clear-cut the forests there was an expectation that farmers, as in Ohio and other states, could settle this land with farms as idea. In the years between 1900 and 1910 the movement grew. Roger Andrews of the Menominee Herald-Leader led the movement to develop the land, especially along the Wisconsin border, which he renamed “Cloverland.”  Through a variety of publications and especially his Cloverland Magazine, he campaigned for this idea. Business and government leaders throughout the Peninsula hoping to bring prosperity to the land promoted the concept, although University of Michigan forestry experts presented arguments against it. Cloverland attracted many hopeful farmers, who quickly learned that most of the land was not at all appropriate as farmland and they left in disgust.

During the 1920s this movement morphed into the Hiawatha project, which replaced agricultural development with recreation and tourism and the renewal and preservation of the natural environment.

Sugar Making

The production of sugar in some form goes back to Native American traditional harvesting of maple sugar. With the arrival of white settlers they tapped the maple trees and produced sugar and syrup as well. It should be remembered that it takes some 40 gallons of maple sap to produce a gallon of a gallon of syrup and more for sugar. In 1880 throughout the U.P. 2.2 tons of maple sugar were processed along with 1,685 gallons of maple syrup. By the 21st century, local commercial maple production has gained a growing market.

However other forms of sugar production developed, especially in Menominee County. As early as 1890 a publicity campaign reported that the cut-over lands of the southern Upper Peninsula had a “soil . . . suitable for beet growing.” This avenue of development was pursued by the Menominee River Sugar Company, organized in 1902. It was considered the largest such plant in Michigan and the third largest in the United States. Farmers in the county and into Delta County and elsewhere grew sugar beets as a cash supplement to their regular farming.

Sugar beet cultivation was promoted by Leo Geismar superintendent of the MSU experimental farm at Chatham, who envisioned refineries to process the beets at Marquette and at Sault Ste. Marie. However, the climate worked against this development along the shore of Lake Superior. The Menominee plant flourished during World War I, survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II and continued in operation until the mid-1950s.


Little has been written about the history of beekeeping in the Upper Peninsula. Direction to apiary centered around the Michigan Beekeepers Association founded in 1865 and one of the oldest in the country. During the 19th century some U.P. farmers did get into beekeeping. In 1899 honey was being produced in a few U.P. counties. Menominee County led the region, producing 371 pounds of honey followed by Chippewa County with 150 pounds.

We are able to get a grasp to the extent and profitability of beekeeping in 1910. At that time 171 hives were kept in Menominee (77), Ontonagon (65), Dickinson (20), Chippewa (7), Marquette (2) counties valued at $1097 (2024 value $35,614). They produced 8,626 pounds of honey and 180 pounds of wax valued at $1,390 (2024 value $45,126).

So as a side-line to farming, apiary could be productive and profitable. A dozen years later Dr. B. F. King, director of apiary instruction, Michigan Department of Agriculture he took this approach in Cloverland Magazine (March 1922) when he carefully promoted beekeeping. With 494 hives in the U.P. he wrote that the return on each hive was $13.40 for a total of $66,196 (2024 value: $1,215,236). Today Michigan State University Extension has a Pollination Performance Center and there are four beekeeping clubs active across the U.P. U.P. produced honey has reached the shelves of regional markets.

Non-Traditional Crops

Non-traditional crops have been attempted. A lone farmer experimented with peanuts, but had to let his hogs eat the immature greens. During the 1920s a spearmint farm and distillery were developed north of Manistique.  The spearmint oil was shipped to Wrigley’s chewing gum factory in Chicago. This quickly ended when mint farming returned to Kalamazoo. For years deer hunters in Manistique swore that their venison had a minty taste.

The Centennial Cranberry Farm was named after the national celebration in 1876. Located north of Paradise on Whitefish Point in Luce County, it was developed by John Clarke. In 1897 Centennial harvested 1,600 bushels of cranberries from twenty acres, which produced revenue of about $5,000, quite a sum for that time. The last word was that the farm had closed permanently and no longer does a thriving business in the autumn.

Tobacco was definitely an exotic crop in the U.P. Minimal acreage produced only 450 pounds in 1899. Fifty-five percent of the tobacco harvested came from Delta County while the closest competing county was Houghton with 120 pounds followed by Menominee’s fifty pounds. Alger and Chippewa Counties produced ten and twenty pounds respectively. Obviously, tobacco would not be a big contributor to the economy of the U.P.

Promoting Agriculture

By the early twentieth century, as agriculture became more scientific, many people felt that future farmers should be better trained in modern methods and to meet the increasing demand.  As a result, agricultural boarding schools were established for high school students. Two schools opened in Menominee and at Otter Lake in the Copper Country but did not last long. As early as 1905, Northern State Normal School (now Northern Michigan University) offered courses in Agriculture, so high school teachers could bring agricultural concepts into the classroom. By 1914, every student teacher working in a rural school had to become proficient in the use of the Babcock milk tester for fat content, the testing of seeds, working in the school gardens, and regular textbook work. Teachers like George Butler worked diligently to develop a program that would benefit future farmers and as a result Northern maintained a major in agriculture until 1963.

Leo M. Geismar

Now I would like to honor the first director, Leo M. Geismar of the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center (UPREC) at this 125th anniversary. The state of Michigan saw the need to become involved in the development and expansion of farms and crops in the U.P. and established the Upper Peninsula Research & Extension Center at Chatham in January 1899. Its first director, Leo Geismar (1857-1929), was a strong promoter and advocate of scientific agriculture throughout the UP and can be considered the “father of Modern Upper Peninsula Agriculture.”

Born in Alsace-Lorraine, France and his family left when the Germans took over in the early 1870s when France lost the Franco-Prussian War. He was trained in practical scientific farming in Paris and Berlin and he was familiar with sugar beet cultivation from both nations. He came to the United States in the 1879, settled in Detroit. He married Johanna Schumacher  in 1883. A few years later he worked as a bar tender in Detroit before getting government land in Bruce Crossing. He developed the farm using  scientific methods and studied the weather for the Department of Agriculture.

Soon after the creation of the farm, the State Board of Agriculture appointed Geismar, director. His work philosophy was based on the following statement made in 1903 in the Mining Journal: “We can raise something else besides snow and icicles on the Upper Peninsula. We have a fine a country as there is in Michigan and we are making it our business to demonstrate this to the public. His other statement shows is deep devotion to U.P. farming: “I believe that it is a great deal more important that I should work for the general agricultural development of this section than that I should grow prize turnips at Chatham.”

By 1906 the Detroit Free Press singled him out as the individual who had greatly enhanced the profitable crop harvests in the U.P. He unsuccessfully promoted sugar beet farming. He developed a small orchard at the farm and raised plum, cherry, apple and pear trees that did well along with grape vines. He traveled across the U.P. during the winter months and continually promoted scientific farming and worked with school children to get them to become farmers. His door was open to anyone seeking to advance farming. He also promoted the idea of the development of a fair that would promote agriculture in the Upper Peninsula. Over the years, the newspapers throughout the U.P. and even as far as Detroit are filled with stories of his work to promote scientific farming.

His heyday at the farm and around the Upper Peninsula lasted for about a dozen years. Then tragedy struck. In 1909 his 22-year old son, Albert, a student at the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) died a victim of tuberculosis, despite the best treatment. Two year later his wife passed away of appendicitis. He was left with four daughters and no longer wanted to travel, but to care for them around a home environment. He resigned his position at Chatham in 1912 and soon after became the first farm agent for Houghton County. Here he continued his fastidious promotion of scientific farming and his work was acclaimed by all. He remained as agent until his death in 1929. He was so admired by U.P. farmers that more than 400 farmers attended his burial service in Chatham, many of them joining the funeral cortege from Hancock. His legacy, continues with the work of the Center as the hub for integrated crop and livestock research.

The work of the station had a suggestive impact on U.P. farming during the first three decades of the twentieth century with the introduction of Red Rock wheat and Rosen rye. The number of farms doubled during this time from 6,102 in 1900 to 13,087 in 1930. There was also a resulting increase in the number of flour mills in the region from five at the turn-of-the-century to fourteen in 1921, although they declined after this date.

State Fair

The first county fair in the Upper Peninsula developed in the 1870s and afterward. The first known fair took place in Escanaba in 1878. On the county level the second fair held in the U.P. went back to October 1882 when local agriculture and industry was promoted was promoted in Marquette. The idea was to show the public what could be grown in the Lake Superior country.

Then in 1900 the MSU Experimental Farm was established at Chatham and Leo Geismar was appointed superintendent. In September 1903 when Geismar returned from the state fair at Pontiac he pointed out that only the experimental station had an exhibit. In the following years he oversaw exhibits at the state fair when it moved to Detroit. His goal was to promote agriculture in the U.P. and to attract farmers to what he considered some of the best farmland in the nation.

The idea of a regional fair developed around 1910 and gradually grew as the Northern Michigan State Fair in Escanaba beginning in 1911 and promoted by the Delta County Agricultural Society. In 1914, it was decided to move the Marquette Cattle Congress to the state fair. A year later the fair was considered “Cloverland’s Great Display in Cloverland’s Greatest County.” In 1928 the name was changed to the Upper Peninsula State Fair having received state approval. Since that time it has continued to play a major role in promoting agriculture throughout the Upper Peninsula.

During the Depression many Yoopers fled the cities and breadlines and returned to their roots where they had more control over their food supply. As a result, in 1935 there were 16,081 farms throughout the Peninsula, the highest in the twentieth century. World War II brought drastic changes to the farmers of the U.P. With so many men away at war, the farmers who remained had to turn to mechanization and thus had to develop more acreage to make the machinery worthwhile. They bought out neighboring farms, and so farms became fewer but larger. Farmers also began to specialize in dairy or beef cattle, potatoes or strawberries or in the production of grasses and hay for cattle feed.

Immigrant Farming Communities

What is little known and will be briefly presented here was the development of immigrant farming communities. A future article will go into more detail about this unique development, but for now an overview. The Finns were the largest ethnic group in the UP and developed farm communities in the Pelkie area of Baraga County, on Drummond Island and across the Peninsula.

The next largest ethnic group was the Swedes and they established communities at Skanee, Skandia, but they can be found specially in Delta and Menominee Counties. The Stonington Peninsula east of Escanaba attracted a collection of Scandivanian farmers. One of the largest and oldest farming communities was created by Scots-Irish in central Chippewa County at Pickford and one of the more recent and smaller communities was created by Dutch immigrants from Grand Rapids near Rudyard. Polish immigrants from the Pennsylvania coal mines and Chicago established farms at De Tour and Goetzville in Chippewa County, at New Krakow on the Garden Peninsula and at Harris and Wilson in Delta County. Swabian Germans usually known as “German Hungarians” had a colony at Banat near neighboring Stephenson while after 1912 a group of Belgians established themselves at St. Nicholas Road north of Perkins in Delta County.

Italians had a collection of farms along the Menominee River in Dickinson County, in Gogebic County and a large concentration of dairy farms south of Calumet. A small Italian colony was found in Mackinac County. Eastern Europeans–Bohemians, Ukrainians, Poles–established farms in southern Menominee County while French Canadians developed a community on the Garden Peninsula. In 1914 when a Japanese colony was proposed in Alger County it was unwelcome and never developed. In the 1920s a group of Chicago African Americans saw their hopes for an agricultural colony in Iron County dashed due to racial prejudice.

Wine, Beer & Mead Production

The production of fruit wine in the U.P. began on a limited basis in Chippewa County in the early nineteenth century–and quietly faded away. On the Garden Peninsula in 1900, where a more temperate climate prevailed, a farmer harvested 233 bushels of grapes and made fifty-two gallons of wine, while his only U.P. competitor produced only ten gallons of wine.

Unable to grow wine grapes in the U.P. Italian, Croatian, Slovenian, and other immigrants shipped in car-loads of grapes from New York, Ohio, and California and produced their own wine.  A by-product of the process was distilled grappa made from fermented grape skins. In recent years in Delta and Menominee Counties vintners have planted vineyards with cold climate grapes and opened wineries in Escanaba, Bark River and Stephenson that have won awards for their wines.  A number of other wineries in the U.P. produce wines from berries or imported grapes and concentrate.

The folks on the beer front have not been left out. Breweries flourished in the U.P. and local folks grew hops to meet the demand. A hops farm has developed in Rock although, it cannot supply enough for the numerous microbreweries that flourish across the Peninsula. In a recent venture, a meadery in Greenland in Ontonagon County produces wine from local honey.

Farming Situation Today

Since 1935, U.P. farms have declined to 2,252 in 2012. Prospective farmers have to contend with the U.P. environment: weather, soil-types, and a short growing season. Then there is the distance to markets and sources of supplies that cut into profits. Relatively small fields and equipment make large-scale crop production difficult. On a personal level, there are too few neighboring farmers to provide support and a lack of an upcoming generation to take over the farm. However, inexpensive land is available and the UP has a laid-back lifestyle some people seek.

Those who go into farming develop commodity-type farms producing grass, mixed hay, pasture, alfalfa in some areas, corn (mostly for silage), and grains: oats, barley, wheat, potatoes and canola. As a result, cattle and dairy farming becomes attractive.

The introduction of South American alpacas began in the 1990s in the central U.P. The animals are suited to the cold climate and mild summers. As a result, a cottage industry developed around stud service and the sale of soft-fleece yarn and apparel.

Nationally there is a growing concern about our food sources and a harkening to the idea of “the closer the better.” This concern for fresh, locally grown, organic produce has given rise to small farms. These farmers rely on cole or brassica crops: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts; similar green-leaf vegetables; short stem and cold hardy vegetables. Hoophouses expand cultivation possibilities. These farmers in turn have raised buffalo for local consumption and many developed “pick-‘em-yourself” berry operations.

Most communities have weekly farmers’ markets during the warmer months, where this produce can be sold. Local restaurants are promoting the use of locally grown produce, which is especially enjoyed by tourists. In the 21st century the Upper Peninsula is attracting new and younger farmers. Farmland is relatively inexpensive, rural life is quiet and pleasant and MSU’s U.P. Research and Extension Center in Chatham provides scientific direction.

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Russell Magnaghi

Russell Magnaghi was born in San Francisco in the middle of World War II, but has lived in Michigan's Upper Peninsula since 1969. Magnaghi received his education at the University of San Francisco (BA 1965) and at St. Louis University (Ph.D. 1970). Magnaghi has had a 45-year teaching career at Northern Michigan University and also served as director of the Center for Upper Peninsula Studies. He has written many journal and newspaper articles and books and has given talks on local heritage and regional history.


  1. Glen Miller on April 10, 2024 at 7:43 am

    So much wonderful information. I am going to save this and read it a couple of more times.

  2. Brian Hoduski on April 10, 2024 at 9:57 pm

    Very interesting piece by Dr. Magnaghi, but I was surprised that cheesemaking wasn’t discussed. My family’s farm was outside of Carney, in Menominee County, and the Frigo Cheese plant there was an important part of the agricultural economy. Another couple bits of UP agriculture that would have been interesting to explore is wreath making and fern gathering. During the Depression it wasn’t just wild blueberries being sent by rail to Chicago, but also wild gathered ferns for city florists to use. Thanks again for the piece!

    • Ron Hoduski on April 11, 2024 at 7:51 am

      Thank for mentioning the cheese making time in Carney I was a part of that industry for a short time in the 1950’s.

  3. Sarah Smith on April 11, 2024 at 8:57 am

    This is a fabulous article with some very interesting data on crop production in the U.P. Missing, however, is the story of strawberry production in the Copper Country. The rise and fall of that industry is quite fascinating and would make a good addition to this article.

  4. Donald Bode on April 12, 2024 at 7:27 am

    Russell’s research and this article is a testament to his expertise on local heritage and regional history. I will save this and read it again. Thank you for your wonderful research.

  5. Scott Carlson on April 12, 2024 at 8:46 am

    Great article!! Hoping for additional / follow up articles that go even deeper.

  6. Jared Hautamaki on April 17, 2024 at 7:01 pm

    Anyone else doing silviculture? I’m planting trees and expanding my forest for eventual select harvesting, as well as developing an indigenous food forest and orchard in various areas of my 80 acres.

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