Last week I visited Sweeter Song Farm, a local certified organic fruit and vegetable farm owned and operated by Judy Reinhart and Jim Schwantes. The farm is located on eighty acres, five miles north of Cedar in Leelanau County. My first reaction to Sweeter Song Farm was one of awe at the sheer size of the operation. Everywhere I turned I found something associated with farm living and food production – Fruit trees lining one side of the driveway, rows and rows of kale, Swiss chard and carrots lining the other, and a big weathered barn standing guard on the road to the house and what seems to be the hub of the operation – the processing station. Here I met Caroline Hunt and Molly Tank who were cleaning, weighing and binding green onions. After a brief and lovely exchange, I was directed to Judy who was working out in the fields.
I made my way out to the fields by way of a well worn two-track nestled between a barn and the chicken coop, finally arriving to an expanse of well appointed and tidy rows of vibrant green, the extent of which I’ve not seen. I passed cucumbers, squash, peppers, potatoes, onions and more before reaching Judy and Jane Lively who were harvesting fennel. Judy greeted me with a warm smile and introduced Jane who has been working for Sweeter Song for years. The two finished gathering the fennel while I wandered through the rainbow of ripening tomatoes and then we all made our way back to the the processing station.
On our way back, Judy paused at one of the many barns on the property to show me the recent garlic harvest which was drying in beautiful rows grouped by variety. As I learned from Judy, the garlic needs to be dried for about 6 weeks so that the leaves of the garlic which surround each garlic clove shed their moisture and become the papery exterior of each garlic clove. In that exchange I learned that I had improperly harvested my own garlic from our little home garden weeks earlier, and filed the information away like an eager student for the next growing season.
At the processing station I was introduced to Judy’s husband Jim and employee Matt Rapelje who were busy weighing and boxing vegetables for restaurant deliveries and bi-weekly sales to members of the community. They surveyed the box of fennel and went straight to work trimming and preparing it for addition to the collection of items to be dispersed. No dillydallying here.
Judy and I made our way into the idyllic farmhouse just adjacent to the processing station as she told me about the condition of the home when she and Jim bought the property twenty-four years ago. The house was abandoned at the time of purchase, had only one currant of electricity and no running water. They spent eight years working their jobs by day and renovating the house themselves at night and on the weekends. All of their hard work paid off. Their home today is absolutely lovely. Light streams in from all directions and beautiful paintings hang on every wall. The once non-existent bathrooms offer all the comforts needed by hardworking farmers including a deep soaking tub (with hot running water!). The kitchen is open and efficient, perfectly designed for transforming vegetables from the garden in to meals for the masses or canned goods for the winter. Even inside there is the green of growing things – house plants thrive near sunny windows and the lushness of the gardens outside peek in through large windows throughout. If it’s unclear, let me assure you, this house has my heart.
Once I was thoroughly smitten, Judy took me through the other houses on the property: the hoop houses and the high tunnel. She showed me the boxes she and Jim created to start seeds, explained to me the process of transferring the lettuces from the hoop house to to a smaller structure outside of the hoop house for hardening off before transplanting in the fields, showed me the heirloom tomatoes which are grown exclusively inside, and introduced me to her chickens which provide big, brown eggs for on farm purchase.
The conclusion of my tour was a trek around “Lake Judy” - one of two good sized ponds on the property (the second is “Lake Jim”) which abuts a preservation area to prevent future development of the area. I walked through tall grass and passed a strategically placed bench overlooking picturesque rolling hills dappled with trees and shrubs which Jim and Judy call their “Tuscan View” and reflected upon the beauty and industry of the land and the people working it. Most resounding, was a feeling of energy and passion, and this idea that with dedication any dream is possible. Talking with Judy and learning about she and Jim’s path to Sweeter Song Farm brought me back around to a conclusion that I’ve always known to be true: hard work and dedication payoff.
When I say hard work, I mean haaaaard work. Judy and Jim and their staff of two full-time employees and numerous part-time employees work from dusk to dawn from early spring to late fall to produce nearly 45,000 pounds of produce yearly. Add to that the workshops, organic certification maintenance, seed starting and land stewarding that take place in the “off” months and you can see that farming, and especially organic farming takes immense dedication and toil. Part of what we love about using Sweeter Song produce on our menu is the knowledge and understanding of their enterprise. Not only do they provide us with delicious organic ingredients for our menu items and specials, they provide us a connection to the land and an opportunity to support our community by way of our purchasing decisions. We feel that there is a lot to celebrate by way of food production in our area and we’re proud of our endeavor to provide a culinary tour plate by plate . Judy Reinhardt and Jim Schwantes of Sweeter Song are a true gift to our business and our community as are all of our local producers. We are eternally grateful.
To learn about Judy, Jim and Sweeter Song Farm visit http://www.oryana.coop/sweeter-song-farm, and be sure to watch for them on our menu.
Thank you for the tour Judy. What an amazing place.