When Rob Heath and his father, Bob Heath, both fell ill from exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, he transitioned from commodity crops to a completely organic farm and is proud to know each customer on a personal level. They also utilize the innovative aquaponics technique, using fish excretion that breaks down by nitrification to feed a number of their plants year-round. Rebecca Addison, Washtenaw Food Policy Council Intern, takes a few moments to talk with Bob about what drives his family to farm in SE Michigan.
BH: I’m a 4th generation farmer, in what would be called commercial farming. At one time my dad and I farmed nearly 4000 acres of corn and soybeans with a little bit of wheat. We both got sick with adrenal fatigue, and we credit it to all of the herbicides and pesticides we were using. We stopped in about 2000 and started this organic, no-chemicals farming to feed ourselves. After getting my energy back by decreasing my consumption of processed foods, and eating the produce we were growing, we decided to turn it into a business.
What’s the difference in your attitude about where your food used to end up and where it ends up now?
BH: Before, we sold to Chicago Board of Trade. There were no faces behind the food. Most of it ended up at feedlots for cows and chickens. We didn’t consider it food. There was no attitude. I put it in a semi from my quarter million bushel elevator and load it on rails in Toledo, where it would go to China or Russia or Japan or to feedlots in other parts of the country. I was a cog in an industrial system, so I only cared about the standards laid out for me. There was no person there on the other end.
Now, I know the people I’m selling my food to. I know a good bit about their lives. I see them face-to-face and we are in contact with them a couple of times a week. So, I don’t want to give them bad food. What we are growing now is food.
In the industrial model, I only saw what we grew as grain. But now I realize that it actually was food. Who was eating it? Animals. Who eats the animals? We do.
What were some of the challenges of this type of farming?
BH: The hardest part of marketing. Growing soybeans, there’s always a market. I may not like the price, but I can sell it. Selling to individual families is hard. It’s hard to find those individuals. And a major question is “what does organic mean?” I charge more than organic, but in the grocery store when people see “organic” they often still don’t know where it comes from or if chemicals were actually used. The biggest challenge is “How do you get to people?” The marketing is really hard.
Tell me how you got into aquaponics.
BH: We got into it because my dad was vacationing in Florida, and he started talking to a guy that does aquaponics. He came home and kept trying to get me on board to try it. In June 2013, we went to Kalamazoo to meet the guy he met in Florida. I realized that we had to try it. We just looked at photographs from that guy’s system, took a class in Tampa, and bought 4 used greenhouses to tear down and build our. Then we went all in. The plants grow very well. They like it. We can control the nitrogen by how much we feed the fish. In the winter, we use the wood-fired furnace to keep the greenhouse warm enough.
Your son Rob (a film major in college) and his wife Stephanie recently moved back home to help with the farming and the social media/marketing aspect of the business. How have they helped you expand?
Rob does a lot of our marketing, and Stephanie runs our social media, which helps a lot, but we still find that our primary marketing is on an individual, personal basis. This is either through existing customers, or through customers we have picked up have been at Farmer’s Markets. Our goal at the Farmers’ Markets is to go out and talk to people. The hardest part is taking everything we’re about in this interview, our philosophies, and putting it in a snippet for people.
Learn more about Local Grown Harvest and the Heath family’s story.
Interview conducted and written by Rebecca Addison, Washtenaw Food Policy Council Intern
Photos courtesy of Robert Heath