February 3, 2020
Only four years into farming on his own, newly married Kevin Winkel of Hartford watched as 6 inches of marble- to golf ball-sized hail stripped every blossom from his farm in a matter of a few short minutes.
“It took all the buds; it took a significant part of the bark off; it was a complete loss,” he recalls.
That weather event would become the first of several the lifelong horticulturalist would face on his 150-acre farm.
“We’ve had a melee of crop failures,” Winkel says. Similar events took place in 1994, 2000 and 2016, along with a severe freeze statewide in 2012.
“I lost track of the years, but I think we’ve had six years of crop failures and nonharvest where we just abandoned the crop,” he says. While some farms go under when faced with so much adversity, Winkel says sheer persistence helped him to survive.
“Pretty much everyone has adversity in their life of some sort,” he shares. “I think the biggest difference that separates people out is how they handle it and continue to carry on.
Adapting to survive
Winkel moved back to the family farm after graduating from Michigan State University in 1980 with a degree in horticulture and soon bought out his father, Arden, who originally purchased the fruit farm after World War II. Kevin’s parents were ready to retire after nearly 40 years, growing a variety of crops from beans to strawberries to apples.
The farm had turned primarily to tree fruit when Winkel, the youngest of four siblings, was ready to take the helm. The elevation, the region’s history of growing fruit, and Kevin’s mother Luella’s family ties to the fruit industry all were factors that helped focus the farm’s production.
Mike DeMorrow, president and general manager of Shafer Lake Fruit, says Winkel’s enthusiasm for growing apples is unmatched, and the farm consistently produces top-performing fresh market apples in terms of size and quality.
“Kevin is an excellent example of an individual who has developed an overall plan to meet market expectations, implement it extraordinarily well, and adapts to meet the unique challenges presented by Mother Nature,” DeMorrow says.
Kevin has made only one land purchase since taking over the farm, when a neighboring farm came up for sale in the mid-1980s. Expecting it to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain adjoining land, he jumped at the opportunity. “I grew multiple types of tree fruit until a series of weather events and soil conditions afforded me to move toward just growing apples,” he explains.
Kevin is a strong believer that a single owner-operator in the tree fruit industry can manage about 150 acres effectively and never had the desire to take on other partners. He’s only ever had one full-time employee with seasonal labor for harvest and pruning.
In the early years, Kevin streamlined production practices into high-density orchards, but cash and the climate didn’t make it easy. “We may have had more than our fair share of weather challenges, but I found other ways to eliminate the need to borrow capital, such as growing my own trees,” he explains.
Out of necessity, Kevin began experimenting with growing nursery trees and has successfully selected and patented a strain of Red Delicious that achieves a desired deep red color earlier in the season than most others.
“Right now, this farm has approximately 75,000 trees on it, and I’ve propagated somewhere between 45,000 to 50,000 of those myself,” he says.
Master Farmer award nominator and fellow Master Farmer Paul Rood says Kevin is meticulous about caring for his orchards and has succeeded in producing crops of high-quality fruit year after year.
“Some of the innovative practices Kevin has utilized in his orchards include the use of different planting systems, using pollenizer crabapples and planting new varieties to southwest Michigan,” Rood says.
Sod covers all the orchards to eliminate erosion, and Winkel is a strong believer in integrated pest management. “I’ve even worked with nearby abandoned farms to cut branches out in order to bring natural predators into my farm to control insects and spider mites,” he explains.
The farm also is home to an MSU Extension weather station to track insect and disease life cycles and is fully irrigated. “When apples hit a dry spell, they grow slower and don’t have the ability to make it up; the size you lose is permanent,” he says.
Average Michigan apple yields when Kevin started in the 1980s were about 500 bushels per acre. Today, he says his 10-year average is about 1,200 bushels per acre.
“Yes, costs have increased overall with inflation, but in relative terms per bushel, we’re achieving these yields with the same spray bill per acre, the same fertilizer costs and the same pruning costs. And, we are still able to attract harvest labor,” he says.
Grant Hart, the branch manager of Wilbur Ellis Co. in Watervliet, describes Winkel as a steward of the land, an individual who has always given back to the industry and is a mentor to many young growers.
“Kevin has been a host for MSU field staff running trials on his farm for as long as I recall, at least the 20 years I’ve personally worked with him,” he says. "And for the past year has been working with a young grower in the Ridge area as a mentor — always willing to help,” he says.
Solace through music
In 2000, Winkel’s orchard was once again stripped of an entire year’s production, which afforded him time to craft another passion just behind his office — a full production music studio. It has grown into more than Kevin ever expected.
“We lost the entire crop again that year and had nothing to harvest,” he says. “I took that time to record some songs I had written for a nearby praise and worship band.”
Kevin has been a lifelong musician, playing in the high school jazz band and even the jazz band at MSU as a bass guitarist.
“At the time, I thought the music business was too risky, so I chose farming,” he says. Winkel’s songs are listed with Christian Copyright Licensing, and since then he’s received royalty payments due to churches using his music throughout Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, the U.S. and Canada.
“That’s pretty overwhelming when you think about it because I was just writing them to use at a small church here locally,” he explains. “Somehow, they’ve made their way throughout the world.”
Some of his songs have been used in thousands of churches across the U.S. Winkel now also writes music for film and TV.
“In a very twisted way, the disasters we experienced opened another door, and that has turned into more than I ever would have imagined,” he reflects. Kevin hopes composing music will continue to expand and carry him through retirement.
Planning for the future
Kevin met his wife, Roxanne, very young through church confirmation classes in junior high. “She was the first girl I asked out once I got my driver’s license — within a week, I think,” he remembers.
After dating on and off until the end of college, the couple married and returned to the home farm where Roxanne has mainly worked full time in the community as a registered nurse.
“In younger years, she would help out with different jobs on the farm, but her role in the day-to-day farm is mostly encouragement,” he says.
Kevin says he’s most proud of his family and who they’ve grown to be. Their two daughters, Kelsey and Emily, have pursued other careers, and in a few years’ time, Kevin’s preparing for the next chapter.
“They have talents other than agriculture, and so we really don’t have any plans of this being carried on in the family,” he says. “I plan on retiring in another five years or so, and we will put it up for sale.”
Kevin is thankful he’s been able to farm “reasonably successful” as he says, and isn’t overly nostalgic but sees the decision as another stage in his life.
Heslip works as the Michigan anchor/reporter for Brownfield Ag News.
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