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First-time farmers plant seeds with hope

A photo gallery follows this young Michigan couple through planting. Look for more updates throughout 2024.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

May 23, 2024

27 Slides

Editor’s note: This story begins a series highlighting the first full year of farming for a young family from mid-Michigan. They are the daughter and son-in-law of editor Jennifer Kiel.

It’s the chance of a lifetime, both Emily and Tyler Malkin agree.

“We might come out on top, or we might lose our behinds,” says Emily, looking ahead to their first full year of farming the 360-acre, Laingsburg, Mich., farm developed by Tyler’s grandfather, Warren Malkin. “It’s a risk, but to continue to learn from Warren and see his wishes of keeping the farm in the Malkin family fulfilled — while having an awesome place to raise our family — is a privilege.”

Neither Tyler, 30, nor Emily, 27, had any prior experience managing a farm, but they did have deep interest in agriculture. In the summer of 2022, the Malkins were raising their infant son, Tucker, a half-hour away from the farm and had full-time jobs — Emily as a federal employee as the Clinton County Soil Conservationist, and Tyler as a driver and mechanic with Woodhull Construction.

A farm transition wasn’t really on the radar. They never dreamed of the life-changing proposal Warren would offer.

“He offered it to us, and we moved into the farmhouse with him four months later,” Tyler says.

It wasn’t free, but both parties were happy with the agreement. The offer — which included a bundle of land, equipment, the house, and a grain drying and storage system — was very generous, but it didn’t come without skin in the game.  

The Malkins sold their home and 2-acre parcel north of St. Johns, Mich., and created a multigenerational home. Warren, 85, and his late wife, Janet, had four children, but there wasn’t any interest in taking over the farm.

“Warren’s goal was to keep the farm together,” says Tyler, while noting part of the deal included keeping the farm intact for at least 20 years. “He approached us, and there’s no regrets, even though last year put a lot of strain on Emily and I — really the whole family.”

They used their savings and an operating loan to finance crops and operations. 2024 is their first full crop season, as they did not plant the wheat harvested in 2023.

The terms of the farm transition have long been agreed upon, but the legal process — including two different lawyers — is taking some time. They hope to have it finalized soon.

Ag interest

Emily and Tyler both kept their full-time jobs. His experience with equipment repair and days of helping Warren with planting, harvest and other chores was an asset. “I was more of a worker, though, and I never touched the sprayer,” he explains. “That’s something new for me.”

Tyler discussed the opportunity with his employer. “I told him I wanted to give it a shot, and he said, “Yes, absolutely, you should do it, and I’ll give you all the time you need to get your work done in the spring and fall.’ My boss is a great person.”

Emily, a previous Clinton County FFA president and a Michigan State University graduate in crop and soil sciences, brought her knowledge of soil health, crops, weeds and farm programs. This year, they will be participating in the Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Stewardship Program. Because they are both veterans, Emily with the Army National Guard and Tyler with the Marines, they qualify for a step up in funding under the Historically Underserved Producers category.

In 2023, Warren advised, helped run equipment when necessary and “covered things I didn’t know about at the time,” adds Tyler, who admits to making some mistakes.

“Spraying and weed control were a huge problem last year,” Tyler says. “It was a learning curve. This year, I am way more confident in my chemical plan, application rates and coverage. I think we’ll see a boost in yields if the weather cooperates.”

Despite a few mistakes, the 2023 yields were respectable: a 145 bushels-per-acre average on corn, 55 bpa on soybeans and 65 bpa on wheat.

Management plan

Tyler is doing all his spraying this year, minus a fungicide application on corn right before tassel. He’s following last year’s blueprint with minor tweaks. (Click on the photo gallery to look into their lives and planting season.)

“He’s learning fast, and I’m happy with how things are going — they are improving,” says Warren, who purchased six parcels to expand the farm through the years, raising corn, hay, wheat, dry beans, sunflowers, soybeans, cattle, hogs and one year of strawberries, which were a favorite of deer and quail. A conservationist and wildlife lover, “I enjoyed seeing the quail, though,” Warren adds.

The farm is Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) verified in three systems: cropping, forest/wetlands/habitat, and homestead. Warren, who simultaneously worked for General Motors full time for 35 years before retiring in 1992, says conservation is in his blood, as his dad was an early adopter of cover crops.

“We’ve been no-tilling for about a dozen years and have used reduced-vertical tillage for about five years to work in fertilizer on beans,” says Warren, who started farming in 1967. The old moldboard plow hasn’t been touched in 20 years. He’s also got 46 wood duck boxes, as well as bluebird and owl boxes, scattered on the property. The majority of the acreage is tiled.

Conservation will remain a priority for the farm, as they look at effectiveness of different cover crops and mixes. Last fall, Tyler put in rye following corn, a mix of rye-oats-crimson clover-oilseed radish following wheat, and soybeans were followed with wheat.

“We had a wet fall, and the ‘East 80’ [acres] was too late to insure, but the wheat crop is looking good even though I wasn’t able to get a herbicide application on before it headed out,” Tyler says. “I didn’t get in touch with our contract applicator in time, and they were busy. But I don’t think it will be too much of a problem.”

Things are about to get even busier with this young farm family, as they are expecting their second son, Thomas, this August. “We’re not looking at adding much or changing things up until we can get our family established and out of the small-children phase,” Emily says. “In the future, we might consider dry beans, though.”

“Our five-year-goal is to survive and thrive as we get better at it,” Tyler adds.

If they should stumble along the way, Emily says they will lean on their renewed faith in God. “There’s always next year. We have to trust in God — it’s his plan. Everything he does, he does for a reason. So, if he gives us a hard year, maybe it’s because he wants us to learn from it.”

As Warren smiles watching Tucker push around a toy tractor, he offers this advice to these young farmers, “Keep your nose to the grindstone, and if you take care of the farm, the farm will take care of you.”

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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