Forever a Farm: Miller Easement Preserves Land, Rural Heritage
As if in celebration, a lemony shaft of November sun bursts through a bank of grey clouds to brighten a farm field on the edge of tiny Parkville in St. Joseph County.
It’s Henry Miller’s field, and he has good reason to feel festive: the growing season’s finally over. After endless weeks of 16-hour days, his crops are harvested and a new cover crop of red wheat has taken root. Here, and across the 1,800 acres that Henry farms, the corn and soybeans have been combined and hauled away. His tractors, fertilizer trucks, and praying mantis-like spray rigs are tucked into barns for the winter.
What hasn’t stopped working is the mathematician-turned-farmer mind of Henry Miller. Spend five minutes with Henry and you see it’s not just crop yields and profits that excite him. What keeps this denim-clad, 61-year-old dynamo energized is the cerebral challenge of agriculture: the daily chess game, of sorts, to find the right balance of moisture, fertility, and pest controls that allow edible green things to grow and flourish.
Take care of the soil and the soil will take care of you
A case in point is the 187-acre parcel that he’s standing on. It’s one of three adjacent properties —totaling 347 acres — that Henry recently protected with a Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC) conservation easement. “When I bought this field in 1991, it had been continuously planted to corn,” said Henry, as his gaze scanned the horizon. “I’ve been rotating crops on a yearly basis ever since — with green beans, navy beans, soy beans, corn, and now wheat.
“The rotation helps break up the life cycle of weeds and insects, which means we can use less chemicals. We also plant cover crops in between harvests, so the ground’s never bare. All this organic residue cycles into the ground, where it decomposes to help next year’s crop. So, although it’s a farm, it acts a lot like the natural soil in the woods across the street.”
As good farmers have always known, take care of the soil and the soil will take care of you. As proof, this particular field is among the county’s top producers of Pioneer brand seed corn. And that’s saying a lot, since St. Joseph County annually produces 25 percent of the entire world’s seed corn crop.
Growing food for the world
Despite its value as first-rate cropland, southern Michigan properties like this one are under constant threat of development. That’s because the sandy loam soils are equally well-suited for a more permanent crop: suburban houses and “mini-farm” estates. It’s this vulnerability that interested SWMLC in the Miller property, says Geoff Cripe, land protection specialist.
“Henry Miller’s farm represents two extremes for us,” Geoff said. “It’s the biggest piece of ag property we’ve ever protected and the most intensely farmed. But it also includes the biggest stretch of undeveloped river frontage — more than a mile of wooded corridor along the Portage River. It’s a clear, clean river and a first-rate smallmouth bass fishery.”
And for Henry, it’s simply unacceptable that this land becomes anything but a place that grows food for the world. “This is our legacy,” he says with conviction. “We want this to be open space 200 years from now. It really disturbs me to see people buy 20-40 acres of prime ag land in places like Park Township and then build a house in the middle of it.
“We can’t keep doing that. It takes good land out of production, fragments fields, and makes the practicality of farming very difficult. A few years down the road, who’s going to farm it?” Then again, look at Henry’s life and there’s reason to believe a new crop of farmers may spring up where we least expect them.
Mathematician turned farmer
Although he grew up on a traditional family farm near Three Rivers, it was an occupation Henry was eager to leave behind. “We even raised 16,000 turkeys one year — but only one year,” he recalls. “You know what they say, ‘The only thing dumber than a turkey is the guy who’s raising them.’”
After high school, Henry enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in physics. While there, he made what proved a momentous decision: he learned Spanish and signed on with the Mennonite Voluntary Service. This Peace Corps-type experience took him to San Jose, Costa Rica, where he taught math and science at a small urban school.
One day, as he hung out with friends, a slight young woman with raven-black hair and a twinkle in her eye walked past. Her name was Martha. She was a local girl, and a Spanish teacher, and had that day celebrated her 25th birthday.
“I winked at her, she winked at me, and that was it,” Henry said.
They married in 1972, and for two more years continued to teach in San Jose. Then Henry decided that a master’s degree in education from Western Michigan University might further his teaching career. They “temporarily” returned to Michigan, where Martha soon learned a previously undisclosed family secret.
“I didn’t know he was a farmer — I thought I was marrying a teacher!” Martha said. “He never even said that he lived on a real farm.” (Henry claims he did . . . although for 37 years, that’s been a running argument.)
There weren’t many teaching jobs available in Michigan during the late 70s. While in school, Henry worked construction and again helped his father with the family farm. Martha — a self-proclaimed city girl — learned from Henry’s mother the country arts of canning, vegetable gardening, and chicken butchering. Soon after, the Millers bought a nearby 273-acre farm and launched a new career in full-time agriculture.
The Millers have had four children along the way, all boys. While they were growing up, only Spanish was spoken in the home. “We wanted them to learn as much of their mother’s culture as possible,” Henry said. Even the Villa-Mil Farms sign in their front yard reflects that commitment. Villa is short for Villalobos (literally village wolf ) which is Martha’s maiden name.
As befits a farm family, the Millers have sunk deep roots into their community. Both are active in the Florence Church of the Brethren, a rural congregation of Mennonite heritage. Martha has worked for the court system, hospitals, and local businesses as an interpreter. For 10 years, she taught nutrition and breast cancer awareness for Michigan State University Extension. And Henry? He’s known and respected countywide as a successful, detail-oriented innovator who adapts new techniques before other farmers even know they exist.
“Henry’s on an intellectual quest to do modern farming — big farming — as sustainably as it can be done.” says Tim Peterson, program director for the St. Joseph County Conservation District. “We look to him to see where everyone else will be five years from now.
“And his analytical skills are incredible. He’ll delve into the inner workings of the soil and ask little questions about things like pollination or irrigation rates that most farmers don’t take time to think about.”
On a tour of Henry’s Pinhook Road parcel east of Parkville, that extra care is evident. The field borders the Portage River, and many farmers would run their plows almost to the river’s edge. Not so here. He’s planted a 50-foot wide buffer strip of hardy perennial grass that gradually gives way to raspberries, woodland sunflowers, and oak trees as it nears the river. It’s a farming practice, Henry says, that prevents fertilizer overspray and soil runoff from entering the water. It also leaves more elbow room for wildlife.
“Over there, did you see them?” says Martha, from the cab of Henry’s jostling pick-up truck, “the flock of turkeys?”
“Nope, I missed ‘em,” says Henry. “But I saw something interesting by the river last week: it was a mink chasing a rabbit —and neither one was worried about me.”
Under the Miller conservation easement, all this will remain. What’s grown here may change: the tilled land could revert to prairie, or if oil prices place a premium on locally grown food, it could become an orchard or vegetable farm. But what it won’t become is a subdivision, despite the lucrative deals that Henry could make with would-be developers.
“We talked this over and the kids support us,” Martha said. “Besides, we just can’t let this become anything but a farm. Who would want to have that on their conscience?”
Tom Springer is a former board member. He is currently senior editor with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a freelance writer. His new book, “Looking for Hickories,” is available for sale at the SWMLC office. Tom resides in Three Rivers with his wife Nancy and their two daughters.
Photo by Tim Peterson