by Sally Colby
Like many farms that were started by new immigrants, Visser Farms in Zeeland, MI, is the continuing legacy of its original founders. Today, Phil and Cindy Visser are the primary operators, and Cindy says their six sons, who range in age from 15 to 27, are all either currently involved in the farm operation or are interested in becoming involved.
Visser Farms was started in 1902 when Phil Visser’s great grandparents arrived in the United States from the Netherlands. They raised potatoes and other vegetable crops and sold them at farmers markets. Phil’s grandparents and his father Minard took produce to farmers markets, including Cottage Grove – one of the original farmers markets in Grand Rapids. The family has been selling produce at the Fulton Street market almost from the start of that market.
When plans were underway to refurbish the Fulton Street Market, organizers consulted Minard since he had such an extensive history with that market. Minard, who lives near the main farm, is still active on the farm today.
The Vissers grow about 200 acres of crops, including vegetables, strawberries, wheat and hay. Wheat is part of a crop rotation and is used for grain as well as straw for mulching strawberries in fall.
Vegetable production includes 12,500 square feet of greenhouse cover. Greenhouses are kept full with flowers and young vegetable starts for the field. Started crops are planted outside in succession depending on weather conditions. “We have early squash, lettuce, pickles, plus tomatoes, peppers and a wide variety of onions,” said Cindy.
Onions are planted with a vacuum seeder, then placed on a heated bench. After they’re established, onions are moved to a colder house where they are mowed every four to seven days to help the bulbs gain strength. “They have a nice sized plug with a good root ball so they grow well,” said Cindy. “Then they go out in the field, usually in early April.” Cindy noted that the Candy sweet onions are a popular item at farmers’ markets. “They’re a popular choice for people,” she said. “They taste so good, and caramelize wonderfully.” The Vissers also grow set onions directly in the ground, several varieties of red onions, cooking onions and onions that are suitable for winter storage.
“We sell to restaurants year round, so we have to have a crop that can be stored through winter,” said Cindy. “In winter, we also grow a lot of greens, and take cuttings for hanging baskets to start in the greenhouses. We also grow beets, carrots turnips, parsnips and rutabagas for winter storage.”
The Vissers have been harvesting fall-planted kale in the greenhouse since January, and field-grown kale and spinach are growing well now. Cindy noted that kale has gained popularity over the past several years. “It goes into smoothies,” she said, “and it’s great in a salad. Spinach is also good in smoothies.”
The heat source for greenhouses is propane and wood. Each of the main houses is heated, and the house that is used earliest in the season has two heaters – one in the front and one in the back. The head house has a wood stove that can be started later in the season, which provides ‘just in case’ heat in the event of a power or a furnace failure.
Managing the heavy snowfall in the region can prove to be challenging. Cindy says that two years ago, snowfall was an issue and they had to continually remove snow from between the greenhouses to keep the areas clear. In the case of persistent snow and cold, heaters are turned on to melt snow on the roof. “We were afraid the houses would come down under the snow load the previous season,” said Cindy, “but it wasn’t too bad this past winter.”
Part of Visser Farms’ IPM management includes a weekly visit from a professional scout. “We try to use as many biological controls as possible,” said Cindy. “Then we can approach a problem in a proactive way rather than reactive.” Prior to starting a greenhouse crop, each house is thoroughly disinfected to eliminate pests and disease. “There are four houses that are idle from June through January,” said Cindy. “We use a disinfectant in them before starting a new crop.” Soil tests ensure appropriate fertility for each crop, and a three-year rotation for each field helps prevent pest and disease issues.
The Vissers sell produce at the year-round Fulton Street Market and at the Holland Market, which held a winter market for the first time this past year. The Vissers also sell produce to several area restaurants. Cindy says most restaurants want the same produce from week to week, which requires careful planning for timely planting and harvest. “Some restaurants have standing orders and get the same thing every Tuesday and Thursday,” she said, “and some order once a week.”
Visser Farms’ CSA is operated as a flex plan rather than a scheduled pick-up. “Money equals points,” said Cindy, adding that customers receive a discount for early payment on their share. “People can go to any farmers’ market any day it’s open and pick up what they want rather than get whatever I put in a box. They can also come to the farm Monday through Friday and pick up what they want. It works out well for people who like to can and freeze.” Cindy says last season they offered 150 shares, but have exceeded that number for this year.
Strawberries, mostly Jewel variety, are planted in spring to mature in a four to six week window. An annual Strawberry Extravaganza is held on two days during the strawberry season, and includes activities such as face painting, wagon rides and other family-oriented activities.
Visser Farms’ website provides extensive information about each crop, including selections and availability. One section of the website includes tips for you-pick strawberries so that customers know what to expect when they arrive at the farm.
The farm’s Facebook page provides information about what customers can expect to see at the markets, featured produce and you-pick information.
Visit Visser Farms on line at www.visser-farms.com.
A family legacy continues
by Sally Colby