Michigan Grower a Model of Positive Thinking,
Most of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . . the courage to change the things I can . . . and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a great mantra for anyone to live by — and it’s one that Mike McCormack took to heart a long time ago.
The prayer hung on the wall in Room 624 of Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich., in the spring of 1985. That’s where the 26-year-old McCormack first faced life as a paraplegic. The young farmer from Sunfield, about 25 miles west of Lansing, had been in a terrible traffic accident, and his life would never be the same.
So how did he react? “I woke up in the hospital a couple days later, and somebody showed me a picture of the truck I had been in. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m the luckiest man in the world to be alive!’ ”
That positive attitude traveled with him to Denver, Colo., where he entered Craig Hospital, a world-renowned rehabilitation hospital specializing in those with spinal-cord injury or traumatic brain injury. “I’d been wanting to go to Colorado,” McCormack quips in reference to his flatlander’s wish to learn downhill skiing. “Just not on a
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Sugarbeets — to shift the subject — were not on Mike McCormack’s radar screen in 1985; nor had they been before that.
A sugarbeet factory — originally built by Lansing Sugar Company and later acquired by Michigan Sugar Company — operated in Lansing from 1901 to mid-century. But the McCormack family over in Ionia County had not been beet growers during that era. They were mainly corn and soybean producers, along with some wheat and then alfalfa for their dairy operation.
After he returned to Michigan from Denver that first year following his accident, the question was not if Mike McCormack would continue to farm; rather, the focus was on what adjustments would be required to do so. “We had a lot of neighborhood support,” he recalls. “They threw me up on a tractor, and we figured out how to use a stick to make the pedals work. There was quite a bit of ‘trial and error,’ figuring out what worked and what wouldn't.” McCormack experimented with various types of platform lifts to help him get into tractors, combines and other equipment — and that’s still how he maneuvers into the operator’s seat. For many years, he also has used locking/ unlocking leg braces that allow him to stand and then sit as needed.
He relied heavily on crutches for mobility for quite a few years; but now
— due to their toll on his shoulders and back — uses a wheelchair and the braces to move around.
But back to sugarbeets. “During the ’80s and ’90s, I didn’t feel we were building much equity with corn and soybeans,” he says. “In this area, those crops just didn’t bring the returns. We could cash flow, but that was all.” While aware of sugarbeets, McCormack never had any first-hand contact with this crop or the sugar industry. But in 1998, still looking to diversify, he contacted Monitor Sugar Company at Bay City. Monitor was seeking more acres and sent a fieldman the roughly 125 miles west to Sunfield. “Of course, they then asked about chemicals,” Mc- Cormack says. “This is a corn and soybean area, and we were using Pursuit. So it quickly came down to, ‘Call us in five years.’ ”
He did just that. McCormack bought a planter from a farmer whose brother was a fieldman for Monitor. One thing led to another, and in 2003 he contracted his first 240 acres of sugarbeets.
That fall, he saw a beet harvester at work for the first time as well — only it was in his own field, “It was a really sharp learning curve,” McCormack affirms. He wasn’t able to draw upon neighbors with experience growing sugarbeets, but “I had great support from Monitor,” he says.
Monitor Sugar was still privately owned as of 2003. That changed in October 2004, however, as Monitor growers joined with the grower/owners of Michigan Sugar Company — which had been a cooperative since early 2002 — to purchase Monitor from its South African-based owner. With that move, the Bay City factory joined those of Michigan Sugar under the same corporate umbrella.
So it quickly became “fish or cut bait” time for the new beet grower from Ionia County. McCormack decided to fish, buying 500 shares in Michigan Sugar Company (he recently purchased 99 more). “I’ve never looked back,” he affirms. “No regrets whatsoever. You definitely put more management into sugarbeets, but there’s also been that opportunity for higher returns. They've been a great crop for us.”
grower from Ionia County. He decided to fish.
Part of the answer was cover crops. “As soon as we started raising beets, we started using cover crops,” McCormack relates. “Almost 100% of our acres get either rye or clover; plus, we have alfalfa in the rotation. We also use
radishes, oats, sorghum, peas and various other cover crops.”
Part of it also came down to keeping trucks out of the field during the beet harvest. (“We’ve never had a truck in a beet field to this day,” he notes.) After weighing different options, McCormack ended up buying two used beet carts out of Ontario. The units, originally built by H & S Manufacturing of Stephen, Minn., had been modified by the Lambton harvesting group to clean beets prior to shipment to the Michigan Sugar factory in Croswell (since tare dirt could not be brought back across the border). The carts did their job well — but then the Ontario group went to using a Ropa Maus cleaner/loader.
McCormack has always contracted with commercial truckers — usually in back hauls — to get his beets to the factory at Bay City, as there is no piling site anywhere near his locale. Some of the trucks bring beet pulp back to the
western side of the state; some carry fertilizer; and some haul various other commodities.
In 2013 McCormack purchased a Ropa Tiger self-propelled harvester, as well as a Maus cleaner/loader, so the modified H & S carts were finally retired. The use of the Tiger and Maus greatly reduced harvest labor need. and increased efficiencies, he says.
We don’t have a model to work from out here in Ionia County,” McCormack says of his decade of beet growing experience. “So every year has been one of some adjustment.
“But I’d want any grower — new or old — to experiment with at least one new practice each year, letting their imagination be the only limitation.”
Among the ways he has worked to stay ahead of the game are:
• Planting Date — “I don’t push it
as early as a lot of growers,” McCormack says. “I’ll typically be close to a week later than other beet growers. I don’t know their soils; but around here I’ve seen more failed stands with pushing it too early than being too late. Planting beets around the first of Aprilis ideal for us. But it naturally comes down to whenever the
conditions are right.”
• Adding Cucumbers — Mc- Cormack now also produces 800 acres of cucumbers, adding to the farm’s diversity. Sometimes the cucumbers precede sugarbeets; sometimes they follow beets — which is contrary to what is usually done by other growers with both these crops in their rotation. A rye cover crop helps the upcoming cucumber ground dry out earlier in the
spring. “We like to have the rye get up around 6-8 inches, work it down, let it sit for a few weeks — then plant the cucumbers.”
• Tillage — While stale seedbeds have become very common across the Michigan sugarbeet landscape, McCormack has not yet gone that route. “Typically, with any of our ground going to beets, we will put rye on it and then work it down later in the fall,” he explains. A fair amount of rye residue remains to hold the ground over winter. “That’s a big reason for the rye, but there’s also the organic
• 20-Inch Rows — “We've been 30- inch growers forever,” McCormack says. “But all the research has shown narrow rows are better. I’ve wanted to go to 20s, but I also wanted to make the move to a self-propelled harvester at the same time.” That’s exactly what transpired in 2013 when he bought his Ropa Tiger, which harvests nine 20- inch rows. All of his 2013 sugarbeet and corn acreage was in 20s, as will be the case, of course, going forward.
• Irrigation — McCormack had been “playing with a little bit of irrigation” the past few years, particularly with cucumbers. The recent purchase of another farm, part of which had an old pivot system on part, triggered a reevaluation. As a result, McCormack installed 10 new center pivots there in the spring of 2013, plus a few more for the 2014 season. “Part of it was because of the cucumbers,” he affirms. “They don’t need a lot of water, but they need some at the right time.” Another component in the decision was the very sandy soils on this farm. The “new” McCormack farm is watered by a
spring-fed pond; the home farm fronts the Grand River, which serves as its irrigation water source.
• Variable-Rate — “This isn’t the same soil you’ll find in the Saginaw Valley,” McCormack observes. “We have everything from rocks, sand and gravel, to gumbo clay and some loam. There’s a lot of variability, particularly at the home farm along the Grand River. “We do not plant beets on some fields, just because there are too many stones.”
It all translates into a made-toorder situation for variable-rate mapping and fertilization, and McCormack makes good use of those tools. “We’re also doing a little variable-rate seeding on our beets,” he notes. “Especially with our going to 20-inch rows, I’m not yet sure of where that ‘magic’ population number is for the various soils. We’ve definitely backed off the population on the sandier ridges and have seen some benefit.”
rocks, sand and gravel,
to gumbo clay and loam.’
“Being in a wheelchair, I do want to have people around who can help me,” he says unabashedly. “And now, with having both sugarbeets and cucumbers, I can justify more workers since they are more labor-intensive crops, compared to corn or soybeans. But I enjoy the management end, too, the interaction with others.”
McCormack served on the board of directors of Michigan Sugar Company in 2012 and 2013, finishing out the term of the late Loren Humm of Ithaca. When the time came to decide whether to run for a full term this past fall, however, he opted not to do so.
“I very much enjoyed serving on the board,” he says. “One of the things it did was to really open my eyes to the outstanding commitment of our entire management team to the success of the cooperative.
“But my body requires a little more attention now than I wish it did.” The distance between Sunfield and Bay City also factored into his decision not to run for a full term.
Yet there obviously is a lot of farmer left in McCormack — and not just in the managerial sense. “I’m still fairly independent around equipment, servicing it and fixing it out in the field,” he emphasizes. “I can jump in a harvester and be in there 30 hours straight. That’s where I feel I’m most efficient, as long as I have support people to dig the rock out or fix the chain.”
It all comes back to the Serenity Prayer: knowing what you can do, what you can’t do — and then being at peace with the outcome. That’s something Mike McCormack has understood in a very direct, personal way for many years.
— Don Lilleboe
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