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Even at 90, Michigan apple farmer not ready to retire – Detroit Free Press

At 90, Ed Erwin might not have the strength or memory he used to, but every day, he still gets out in the family apple orchard and works.

“Farmers never retire,” he says grinning, as he drives across the farm.

Since Erwin’s father took over the place more than a half-century ago, Erwin Orchards in South Lyon has endured hail, family tragedy, a tornado, a crop-killing freeze last year and tough economic times.

Yet, like many farms in America, one of the biggest risks the farm faces is not having someone to pass it on to.

At least a quarter of the 3.2 million farmers nationwide are 65 and older, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 2002 to 2007 — the latest years for which statistics are available because the census is taken every five years — the number of farm operators in that age bracket nationwide increased by 22%, and the number of farmers ages 45-64 grew 13%. But over that time, those younger than 45 shrank by 14%.

For the most part, Erwin — whose son was killed in a car accident — has turned over the farm to his 68-year-old nephew, Bill Erwin, who has a partner.

But, who will take over for them?

“That’s what worries Bill,” Ed Erwin says. “He doesn’t have anyone to pass it on to.”

Hope in agri-tainment

Aging farmers is the “the No. 1 or No. 2 issue we’re going to have to address as an industry. There aren’t enough young people to take over,” says Jason Jaekel, a farmer and the manager of the Young Farmer Department for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“For a long time, farming was not as profitable, and because of that, if you could find employment elsewhere, you did,” Jaekel, 28, says. “A whole generation basically just left the farm.”

But Jaekel, adds, there’s hope.

Farmers of his generation are turning to agriculture, in part, because they take solace in operations like Erwin Orchards, which has diversified revenue streams by adding family attractions that offer more financial stability and higher profit margins in years when crops might not be as good. They also want to dabble in other businesses.

“What the farm is now, we call agri-tainment,” Erwin says, pointing to the cider mill, petting farm, wagon rides, corn maze and spooky barn the farm also offers. “It’s kind of famous. We probably draw more people from out of town than in it.”

Erwin estimates about 250,000 people visit Erwin Orchards annually, including more than 20,000 schoolchildren on class field trips.

What changes, what remains

Just about every day, Erwin inspects the crops and prunes the trees with battery-powered clippers.

“It’s good for you,” he says. “It keeps you young.”

But, Erwin acknowledges, his memory isn’t quite what it once was. He can recall things that happened a long time ago much better than what just happened. To help him remember his thoughts, he jots them down in a notebook he carries in his shirt pocket.

The you-pick orchard offers about a dozen variates of apples, as well as sweet cherries, asparagus — and pumpkins.

“You plant your orchard so you have a long harvest season,” he says. “Mrs. Housewife tells us what to grow.”

Erwin also has taken to eating a meal of applesauce twice daily — for “breakfast and lunch, and sometimes in between.”

“I like apples and never get tired of them,” the farmer says.

Farming, weather and war

There was a time, Erwin says, that he thought he might become a weatherman.

His great-grandfather James was a farmer, and so were his grandfather and father, Erwin says. His great-grandfather came from Ireland, Erwin says. He landed in New York and headed to Michigan. His grandfather William started a farm in Novi, and his father, James, bought the orchards he farms now.

Erwin, who had three sisters and two brothers, graduated from high school in 1941 then attended the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, which later became Michigan State University. In 1942, while he was waiting for a physics lecture, he says, he heard about a military program that would train him to become a meteorologist if he enlisted.

So he joined the war effort. But he never saw combat, and the war ended.

At 23, after his military training, he came home to the farm.

“I guess I’ll go to work,” he recalls telling his father.

What the military taught Erwin about the weather — and discipline — has come in handy, he says.

“We’re on a rise here,” the 6-foot-tall farmer says, pointing out how the farm’s location benefits the crops and how from his home, he can see across the county. “Cold air runs downhill.”

Once, he recalls, a tornado struck the farm. It ripped out 100 or so trees. Another time, he says, a hail storm hit. It bruised the apple crop.

But, the worst year — in terms of the weather — was the one that just passed, when a cold spell swept the state and wiped out the entire apple crop. That was devastating. There were no apples to pick, and so in the fall, very few people came to the orchard.

“See the apples on the tree,” Erwin says, pointing to maturing, green fruit. “OK. Now, put that in your story. We want people to know that we’re back in business.”

A hard, but good, life

Erwin says he’s glad to be a farmer.

Over the years, the farm has gotten smaller as other family members sold off parts as they got out of the business.

He says he sold a few small tracts himself as he dabbled in a little development of his own. He turned a few acres of farmland into homes and turned big profits doing so. The property, he says, was worth 100 times more with a house on it.

Many Oakland County farms have disappeared this way, he says.

Farming, he says, is a hard life, but a good one.

“I feel really blessed with my health and life,” he adds. “I just have to go out the back door, and I’m at work.”

Even at 90, Michigan apple farmer not ready to retire – Detroit Free Press
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