How We Farm

Ellis Family Farms Sustainable Agriculture

Ellis Family Farms is verified in MAEAP for all crops produced. MAEAP stands for Michigan’s Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program and certifies environmentally sustainable agricultural practices.
(Many years ago while doing research I discovered a site which is what I based the farm standards upon. The site is ATTRA. You can find it at ATTRA ( PLEASE READ the insert from ATTRA at the end of this article.)
In trying to convey our practices it was hard. It would be manuals for each fruit produced. Sustainable Agriculture is more in tune with my great-grandfather’s ideals and many farmers of that era. You take care of the land because it in turn takes care of you. Therefore for your awareness I will highlight our traditions of horticulture.

  • Build soil structure and soil fertility
  • Protect water quality (our farm and our neighbors)
  • Ecological management of pests
  • Maximize biodiversity on the farm: both plants and animals
  • Preserve the farm for future generations – being profitable to provide an income and a good quality of life.

Build soil structure and soil fertility

KNOW your soil. The farm and rented lands are mostly sandy loams. They drain fast and have a lower organic matter (OM) base. Every three years soil samples are taken and reviewed. Fruit knowledge (botany) is needed to understand what the tree and fruit remove from the soil each year. Due to low OM we continually add composted leaves/grass and manures. In fact, there is an area with over 200 dump truck loads of leaves and a few loads of manure on a site now. Due to laws no plants can be harvested for 6 months when manure is applied. This area is a future planting of peach trees. There will be no harvest of fruit for three years there. Drip irrigation is used to help aid plant life. It is very controlled and does not harm the excessive movement of nutrient and OM in the soil or what is termed run-off.

Protect water quality

The homestead land and some of the rented land have ponds. They are natural depressions in the earth and lined with a strong clay base. Around the ponds grass and natural plantings abound. This helps in many ways. One the soil surrounding the ponds is kept in place not eroding into the pond. Two the water and plant life attracts many species. This helps in pollination. Currently not only are the ponds protected but all of the orchards are covered in sod which has eliminated soil movement. No water is removed from the ponds to irrigate the fruit. All irrigation is done via well water.
What about our neighbors and water. Pesticide usage has decreased over 65% in the last decade. The fertility program does not rely on commercial or mined fertilizers. When checking well water for any traces of contaminates or fertilizers the results are perfect. Our family drinks the same water as our neighbors do and I am proud that the ground water is healthy.

Ecological management of pest

Ellis Family Farms is based on IPM (Integrated Pest Management) practices. On ATTRA’s site IPM is a system that pays close attention to best management practices and reduced pesticide usage.
According to Michigan State University, (, IPM is a sustainable approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, physical and chemical methods to manage pests.
First is my definition of pests – a pest can cause economic distress within the farm. They include insects, mites, diseases and to some extent weeds. Our geographic location (Southwest MI) and climate have an intrinsic role in the incidence and severity of pests. This is even a farm by farm threat in our area. **
There are many considerations when dealing with pests. Here are a few.

  • Planting resistant varieties
  • Understanding pest’s lifecycle
  • Cultural practices
  • Scout, trap and monitor
  • Line of defense when pest is too much to bear

Resistant varieties

The first line of defense is planting resistant varieties. Many of the new fruit seedlings (both nursery tree/shrub stock and plants) offered for sale already have a line of defense within them. These target specific pests, usually diseases. This is great especially in apple plantings (varieties) with fireblight resistant. This does not always work as there are specialty fruit varieties (especially deemed for great taste) that rootstocks are not readily available for. But currently all apples and peaches planted within the last 5 years have some form of resistance. All strawberries, rhubarb and raspberry/blackberry plants come from a disease free nursery.

Understanding Plant/Animal/Disease Life cycles

Each pest has a life cycle. Most consist of an egg, youth, adult and egg on a host or hosts; or release of spores (ascospore), germination of spore, growth of spore (adult) and release again of spores. It depends upon the pest stage as to whether or not the pest is harmful to the host. If you copy and paste the two links included you will see an overview of brown rot (Monilinia fructicola and M. laxa) and Codling Moth ( and
Also, there are many variables within the life cycles of each pest. But all are weather dependant and many are host dependant. Brown rot does rely on stone fruit (cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines) and moths (Oriental Fruit and Codling) harm both stone and pome fruits. These are only two pests of concern on MI (Midwest) farms.

Cultural Practices

These practices are those used without chemicals and are of a disturbance, removal or barrier to the pest. Many are “old fashioned” like mowing. One can almost say it is of orchard sanitation. Of course mowing can remove unwanted pests like weeds. (This can also remove the weed host to an insect’s life cycle). But mowing at the proper timing in spring also inhibits certain insect pests. Proper maintenance with pruning helps remove not only injured or diseased plant tissue, but it also allows adequate air movement. This especially helps berries to dry off in late summer so gray mold (pest) does not begin. Of course proper pruning helps maintain plant health and vigor.
I am not an advocate of open tilling the ground around established fruit. Most of the farm has established sod around trees, vines and shrubs. But I do roto-till around raspberries prior to the onset of Japanese Beatle hatch. Beetles lay eggs underground and the young grubs feed upon the grass roots. Remove the grass disturb the feeding ground and less and less beetles result. In fact I have not had to seriously worry about the Japanese Beetle since 2004.
Above all, keeping the plants with adequate and proper water and nutrients with drip irrigation and composting materials is a must. A healthy plant on its own is the best defense.

Scout, Trap and Monitor

Monitoring is the primary focus. All through the growing season I and the help are observing all components of growth, flowering, fruit development, plant stress factors and harvest. This also includes pest stages or actually scouting. All this data is reviewed both at the time of occurrence and at the end of the year. Many cultural practices can be adapted and put into practice as first defense. Farming, especially horticulture, is a wonderful learning science and one must observe, make adjustments, record, analysis and possible make changes.
Weather is one of the biggest hourly, daily, weekly and annual changes that’s intrinsic to all stages of the farm. Not only the plants but the pests revolve around the weather. Warm and wet, cool and wet, hot and humid (wet) especially in spring bring upon a variety of pests and decisions.
Scouting and traps refer mainly to insects, but also disease. These inform me directly as to location and specific count of the pest. During the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s farmers’ knowledge base was to weekly eradicate pests –insects and diseases. Thank God for science and intelligence as I have numerous practices to rely upon.

Line of defense when pest is too much to bear

For diseases in fall and in spring I use either copper or sulfur and coat the trees/shrubs. This spring 2012, I am already to use copper on apples as apple scab was out of hand in Southwest MI last summer and fall. There was too much rain. Scab overwinters on leaves and fallen fruit. In peaches sulfur is my main line of defense for brown rot. Again the stone fruit in SW Michigan had a rampant display of brown rot in last summer. In 1999 my Dad removed a 2 acre block of apples due to Fireblight – a bacteria. In summer this truly appears on limbs like a black charcoal deadness. Entire orchards have been removed just this past summer due to Fireblight. Culturally disease resistant rootstocks and pruning are the beginnings. But every spring I do a blossom cover with an antibacterial. In just about every apple orchard I can find some Fireblight.
As for the worm in the apple syndrome or any moth-worm, the best practice is cultural with the use of pheromone-based mating disruption which detours the males. It is only as a last resort (as to high infestations) that an actual chemical is used. When I am faced with this decision I turn to organics, biological sprays then finally reduced risk types.
**Regions of the arid west (the “tree line”, Texas through North Dakota) have a significantly reduced disease pressure due to lack of moisture. Many insect pests also are of a lesser occurrence then in the moist Midwest and East.

Maximize biodiversity on the farm: both plants and animals

The landscape has always maintained areas of set aside- or areas planted in grass that was not farmed for a few years at a time. But since the incorporation of sustainable practices over 15 years ago, specific areas have been developed and maintained. The initial reasoning was to avoid a build-up of monoculture cropping and the insects and diseases that lay within. There are currently three areas of intentional plantings: Two areas are around ponds and one is a 1.5 acre pasture.
The pond plantings are in perennial and native grasses and legumes. Some might even call them “weedy” but native plants do have the un-groomed look. One pond also has a type of hedgerow, All the plantings create niches, create food sources, and habitats for pollinators, (birds, insects). Many species of wildlife have grown. Beneficial insects especially sweet bees, bumble bees, and ladybird beetles have greatly increased.
The pasture is planted in grasses and legumes. The purpose of this pasture is dual –biodiversity and poultry. The pasture is sectioned off so that the hens cannot overgraze any area before they are moved to another section.

Preserve the farm for future generations – being profitable to provide a living income and a good quality of life.

This is not as easy as it is to title it. A sustainable farm, according to ATTRA, is one that not only helps the environment and surrounding communities (including human) but also sustains the life of the farmer and family. To put it in a simple manner sustainable farming is not cheap. It would be easier to purchase large equipment and purchase modern techniques then it is to pay for the labor and maintain the farm.
It is imperative that Ellis Family Farms can continue all sustainable practices but yet keep the prices down for the consumer and preserve the family. Yes, preserve the family. Even though the adult children are intrinsic to the farm, the farm still only can supply an income for one family. Actually, I am the only one with some income. My husband, both sons and daughter-in-law all work out.
And yet this is not all gloom. There has been a definite shift towards the positive as the farm is paving way, expanding and still able to pay for itself. Many older farmers have sold land from their farms in order to maintain a livelihood or retire. That is not the intension here, as this land is in the third generation (80 years). And the future of it is within the family and children. The children are in their mid 20’s and do wish to take over the farm.


Sustainable Agriculture

Because each farm is different and diverse there is no single formula for sustainable success. Below is a general definition of sustainable agriculture taken from ATTRA (
Sustainable agriculture is one that produces abundant food without depleting the earth’s resources or polluting its environment. It is agriculture that follows the principles of nature to develop systems for raising crops and livestock that are, like nature, self-sustaining. Sustainable agriculture is also the agriculture of social values, one whose success is indistinguishable from vibrant rural communities and wholesome food for everyone. But in the first decade of the 21st Century, sustainable agriculture, as a set of commonly accepted practices or a model farm economy, is still in its infancy—more than an idea, but only just.
Although sustainability in agriculture is tied to broader issues of the global economy, declining petroleum reserves, and domestic food security, its midwives were not government policy makers but small farmers, environmentalists, and a persistent cadre of agricultural scientists. These people saw the devastation that late 20th-Century farming was causing to the very means of agricultural production—the water and soil—and so began a search for better ways to farm, an exploration that continues to this day.
Conventional 20th-Century agriculture took industrial production as its model, and vertically-integrated agri-business was the result. The industrial approach, coupled with substantial government subsidies, made food abundant and cheap in the United States. But farms are biological systems, not mechanical ones, and they exist in a social context in ways that manufacturing plants do not. Through its emphasis on high production, the industrial model has degraded soil and water, reduced the biodiversity that is a key element to food security, increased our dependence on imported oil, and driven more and more acres into the hands of fewer and fewer “farmers,” crippling rural communities.
In recent decades, sustainable farmers and researchers around the world have responded to the extractive industrial model with ecology-based approaches, variously called natural, organic, low-input, alternative, regenerative, holistic, Biodynamic, bio-intensive, and biological farming systems. All of them, representing thousands of farms, have contributed to our understanding of what sustainable systems are, and each of them shares a vision of “farming with nature,” an agro-ecology that promotes biodiversity, recycles plant nutrients, protects soil from erosion, conserves and protects water, uses minimum tillage, and integrates crop and livestock enterprises on the farm.
But no matter how elegant the system or how accomplished the farmer, no agriculture is sustainable if it’s not also profitable, able to provide a healthy family income and a good quality of life. Sustainable practices lend themselves to smaller, family-scale farms. These farms, in turn, tend to find their best niches in local markets, within local food systems, often selling directly to consumers. As alternatives to industrial agriculture evolve, so must their markets and the farmers who serve them. Creating and serving new markets remains one of the key challenges for sustainable agriculture.

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