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Serving: MI

Waldron Farms: A true partnership

The Waldron family receives a 2021 Michigan Master Farmer award.

Waldron Farms in Stanton, Mich., puts family unity at the center of its operation with members of three generations working side by side. Each family member contributes as full-time operators, helping to expand the Montcalm County farm to include 3,500 acres of corn, dry beans, wheat, soybeans, oats, hay and rye.

While Wayne Waldron may be the patriarch and the fourth generation on the farm, his wife of 48 years, Mary, is right beside him making joint decisions and sharing in the work. Their son Keith and his wife, Heather, are in the fields, the barns and the workshops full time as well — while their teenage boys are following suit, showcasing that same love of farming.

At Waldron Farms, it’s not just a family operation, it’s a family cooperation — a true partnership. Together, they are excellent stewards of the land, pushing soil fertility in an environmentally responsible way, says Phil Tuggle, who works with them at Michigan Agricultural Commodities.

“They are forward-thinking, including irrigation, water conservation through cover crops and strip tilling,” Tuggle says. “Their practices have made them leaders in Montcalm County.”

For their commitment to agriculture, Waldron Farms has been named a 2021 Michigan Master Farmer.

“They have a beautiful facility, a model partnership and have worked hard to position themselves well into the future,” adds Tuggle, who nominated the family. “The only way Wayne would agree to the nomination was if we included the whole family. The Waldrons are very humble people. The spotlight does not typically find them, but not because it isn’t deserved.”

History

One of the first farms settled in the area in 1876, Wayne’s great-grandfather Hiram E. Waldron demonstrated the determination that runs through the family, moving his wife and 10 children from Ohio to west-central Michigan with only 2 of 160 acres cleared.

As the farm transitioned, Wayne’s father, CL, milked cows, expanded acreage and farmed various crops, including corn, dry beans and hay. On light ground, pickles were grown for about five years in the 1960s.

“That’s when we first started irrigating with hand lines that had to be moved every two hours,” says Wayne, who was the youngest of three kids. Ironically, it was the youngest son in each generation prior that continued the operation.

In high school, Wayne took care of the dairy cattle, while his father showed more interest in fieldwork. “By the 1970s, we were more into cash crops and irrigation,” Wayne says. “We were looking at doing either a major expansion in the barn or going cash crop. We got out of dairy in 1976.”

In 1973, Wayne married his high school sweetheart, Mary Shepard, who came from a small farm with beef cattle. “She joined right in with chores and tractor work … every day by my side,” says Wayne with a smile. They went on to add 425 acres to the operation.

They have two children. Their oldest, Denise, and her husband, Tom, work off the farm. “She works at a bank, but her heart is still in farming,” Mary says.

Their son, Keith, has been farming with his parents since before he could see over the steering wheel. “Keith couldn’t wait to get home from school to help out with the farm,” Mary says. “We had him in the cab of the tractor at 8 years old. We’d disk around the edge of the field, and he’d finish it up.”

Continuing love of farming

Keith transitioned into the farm by taking over small pieces of ground. “In 1987-88 we had a dry bean disaster — I learned hard lessons at a young age,” he says. “I bought my first piece of ground when I was in high school.”

Keith met Heather Brownrigg through a college friend and, “She came to the farm, and I gave her a chance to drive a tractor across the field,” Keith says.

Heather didn’t need to be coaxed into being a full-time farm gal. She jumped in with both feet.

“If he was in a tractor, that’s where I went. If he had to go look at this field, that’s where I went,” she says.

They were wed in 2000 and have two sons, Zachary, 17, and Garrett, 15, who are the sixth generation of Waldrons. “I can just see the love of farming in them,” Keith says. “I don’t have to ask for them to do things; they just do. And, like myself, I got them started farming young, with their own fields, own crops, own disasters and own successes.”

Garrett says, “I enjoy learning how to do new things on the farm.”

As babies, they were in car seats in the tractor cab, Heather recounts. “Later, we would bring toy tractors to play with and pillows and blankets for naps on the floor,” she says. “Now, they have grown into young men with 100% interest in the farm.”

The farm has always had hands-on women. “We are pulling for the same thing,” Mary says. “It really makes a difference in how things run. Heather came from the suburbs, but picked up quickly and is a great asset to the farm.”

In 2006, the Waldrons added Holstein beef cattle and finish about 100 head a year. Keith and Heather have added 182 acres, plus another 180 acres together with Wayne and Mary.

Important irrigation

Today, most of the 1,150 acres of owned ground is irrigated, as well as more than 50% of rented ground. “We have a lot of light, marginal land, so irrigation is critical,” Wayne says. “The heavier land to the south works well for soybeans.”

In the 1980s, center pivots were added, and the farm has about 30 now. “I’ll never forget, after buying a piece of ground in 1975, a guy said, I bought another ‘sand hill.’ Well, we turned that sand hill into a beautiful crop of light red kidney beans, and the next year he said we stole it," Wayne says.

Dry beans, mostly kidney and cranberry, have been part of the operation for many years. “With dry beans’ short maturity, if you have a dry stretch, it’s important to get the water on right when it needs it," Wayne says.

The Waldrons raise 900-plus acres of dry beans, so when the owner of the neighboring dry bean processing plant began to talk retirement, they took note. “We didn’t want to lose those markets; beans have been good to us,” Wayne says.

It took a couple of years, but the Waldrons took ownership of the business in 2020 and are leasing the building and equipment they plan to replace in the future. The plant can process 120 100-pound bags in an hour, according to Keith, who says Zach will be heading up the business, while Garrett will lend his specialty of building and maintenance.

“I love running all the equipment and being involved with the farm every day,” Zach says. “I’ve learned to work hard and take things all the way — do the best you can at everything.”

Former operations manager Roger Rockafellow will be working with the family to teach them the business, and how to address problems while maintaining quality.

“We really want to maintain this industry because our farm, and the several growers that deliver to the plant, produce quality beans for a premium,” Keith says.

Conservation

Wayne’s father was an earlier adopter of cover crops, which have continued for more than 60 years on Waldron Farms.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the farm struggled with dry bean yields. “We changed our management practices and spread out the rotation,” Wayne says. “And we went to strip till ahead of the corn planter, which was Keith and Heather’s idea. The only time the soil is worked up is for kidney and cranberry beans. We’ve had less root and disease issues and yields have improved.”

Keeping the respect of nonfarmers is important, Heather says. “We have to do what’s best for the ground — treat it right for future generations.”

For Keith, farming is rewarding. "We strive to be the farmers our neighbors and community respect by having good management practices," he says.

Master Farmer profile

Name: Wayne and Mary Waldron, Keith and Heather Waldron, Zachary Waldron and Garrett Waldron

Farm: Waldron Farms — corn, wheat, soybeans, dry beans, hay, oats, rye and beef cattle

Nominator: Phil Tuggle, Michigan Agricultural Commodities

Ag and community leadership: Farm Bureau members, Montcalm County Conservation District’s Cooperator of the Year Award 2002

Mary: current chair of the Montcalm County FSA committee, past adviser and regular member of the county committee and part of the committee 23 of the past 25 years. 

Keith and Heather: Young Farmer Achievement Award finalists in 2009 and 2010, Farm Bureau State Young Farmer Committee 2011-14

Heather: past Farm Bureau Young Farmer chair, lifetime member of Girl Scouting

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