By Jeremy C. Nagel
RUMELY — It’s a good thing Dan Bahrman gave me an accurate visual description of the farm, because western Alger County is not thick with cell signal, meaning smartphone navigation gets blunted to a useless nub.
He and his brother Dave raise cattle, hay and a potatoes a few miles west of Chatham, where MSU Extension maintains its northernmost ag research outposts.
Farming in the Upper Peninsula is as challenging as it is scattered, strewn in small pockets hither and yon across vast swaths of state and federal forests. The pocket the Bahrmans call home is in the sprawling Hiawathaland Farm Bureau: Alger, Delta and eastern Marquette counties.
Term limits periodically bump Dan off the president’s perch, but he’s back again atop the Hiawathaland hierarchy — “recycled,” he says. Fortunately for his 492 regular members, Bahrman understands their issues from a lifetime of personal experience farming in the U.P.
“We’ve been doing this all our lives,” Dan said. “We were making hay full-time when I was nine — I was cutting hay and Dave was baling. Nowadays that’s unheard of, but dad taught us all how to do it.”
The two split off on their own in the early 1980s, leaving the home farm in Skandia to two other Bahrman brothers and buying their own place to the east, half-way to Chatham.
Three hundred acres of the Rumley farm produce a mix of timothy and red clover hay. Most years yield two cuttings; whatever of a third they’re blessed with is baled into haylage.
More than 100 head of red, black and mixed angus comprise the beef herd.
“We’re transitioning over to red angus; all the bulls we buy now are red,” Dan said, noting that the only real difference is that “the black angus like to kick a little more.”
“And we do still grow some potatoes,” Dan said, but fewer than five acres — down from 40-50 in the crop’s heyday.
“Our family’s grown potatoes over 100 years, but my son told me when he takes over the place, that’ll be it — the end of the line. All good things must come to an end.
“We’ve got potato customers we’ve had for 30 years — mostly service clubs like the Elks Club — they make pasties and stuff. We also have some churches and some fire departments; it’s all for fundraising. The number-ones go that way, we donate all our number-twos to a food pantry and the culls we just feed to the cattle.”
Describing himself as “recycled,” Dan’s new term as Hiawathaland Farm Bureau president is his third, maybe fourth.
“I really enjoy Farm Bureau,” he says bluntly. “That’s why I’m willing to spend the time for it — and for the members.”
“Because you get something out of it, moving agriculture forward with your members — you’re always doing it for the members.”
How do you sell the membership? Start by asking the right questions: “What impacts you a lot? Weather? Well we can’t do a lot about weather. Markets? We can do something with trade. Regulations? That’s a big one.
“Producers are producers,” Dan said. “Whether you’ve got a large garden or 5,000 acres of beans, there are at least three issues all growers have in common: labor, markets and regulations.”
And while membership recruitment is the focus this time of year, the parallel issue of getting those members involved in the organization is never far beneath the surface.
“I always say: if you’re not active and you’re not willing to participate, don’t complain,” Dan said. “Hiawathaland is pretty active. We understand problems and what could be happening and foreseeing other issues. We try to all work together and solve problems or, if you can’t solve them, understand how to get around them.
“It’s always for the members.”