Urka Farms - Family History
Urka Farms
Family History

Brethren Farm is Rich in Strawberries, History
By Judy Toomey, Staff Writer.
Saturday-Sunday, June 23-24, 2001, Cadillac News.

"BRETHREN -- On a day during the height of strawberry season at Urka Farms, the entire Urka family is pitching in to ensure the harvest is a success.

Joy Urka is holding down the fort at the family farm in Brethren, while her husband, John, staffs a satellite farm south of Traverse City.

John's brother, Joe, is en route between the locations with a needed piece of equipment, while another brother, Andrew, is at the airport awaiting the arrival of nephew Lonny, who will spend his vacation helping with the harvest.

Another of John and Joy's sons, Cary, is calling supermarkets to line up the days deliveries.

Even Joy's 95-year-old mother, Gladys Grossnickle, isn't exempt. She is busy preparing the dinner that will feed the family after the sun goes down.

In the green fields, the low mounds of strawberry plants are laden with clusters of sweet, ripe fruit -- berries that are the result of months of labor, sweat and love.

Urkas have been farming this sandy patch of soil northeast of Brethren for a long time.

Breaking ground
John's father, Anton Urka, came to America from Lithuania around the turn of the last century. He originally settled in Kewanee, Ill., where he took a bride, Anna, in March 1913.

Around 1910, Anton -- unable to afford the pricier farmland around Kewanee -- had purchased 40 acres, sight unseen, in Manistee County. He and Anna homesteaded the land, which like most of northern Michigan had been cleared by timber barons and was subsequently ravaged by fires.

"This was all pine stump country," recalled son Joe Urka, 85.

Looking east over a thickly-wooded expanse in the distance, he added, "The hills were all bare. I remember when the pine stumps would be on fire -- it would look like candles up on those hills."

In Saturday afternoons in the winter, neighbor boys would gather to help haul pine stumps to the top of the hill. "On Saturday nights we would have a bonfire and go sleigh riding," Joe said.

He remembers the year that his father built the farmhouse which still stands near the corner of Clements and Pole roads in Dickson Township.

"I must have been six or seven years old," Joe said. His father borrowed a horse and a stone boat, and Joe was charged with helping him haul lumber over from an old schoolhouse which was being torn down. "We took it apart board by board," he said.

"In them days, instead of teaching kids to turn on the TV or radio, they had us working. From the time we were big enough to walk, we had to pick string beans and pickles. Nobody loafed," Joe said.

The only time people took a break was on Sunday -- unless it was haying time, or the harvest was in full swing. "Otherwise, families wouldn't work," Joe said.

"Everything was done with horses," he explained. "We used to follow a horse all day, then walk to Brethren or Kaleva for a free show. If we weren't up by 5 the next morning, we couldn't go to the show the next week, so we never overslept," he said.

Later, on leave from the Civilian Conservation Corps, Joe would walk 34 miles home for the weekend. "The folks would feed us, then we would go square dancing," he said.

Back then, the Urkas raised dairy cows, selling milk and cream. "Skim milk went to the hogs, but today people drink it," Joe noted.

The family bought its first tractor -- a one-plow BN International -- in 1941. "We still had horses, too, but by gosh, that tractor made work so easy," Joe remembered.

He left the farm shortly thereafter, joining the Army in December after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Following his discharge, he settled in Fowlerville, starting his own dairy farm.

Afraid to buy on credit, Joe built up his herd one cow at a time until, at the time he retired, he sold 102 cows.

In 1988, he returned to his roots, settling near the farm where he grew up, which his younger brother, John, has worked all his life.

Today, Joe does the farm's tractor work. He drives a John Deere, although he still owns the first tractor he ever purchased -- a 1937 Allis Chalmers which starts with a couple turns of the hand crank.

"He's back to farming some of the same land he farmed as a child," noted Joy Urka.

A farm family
Although Joy and John grew up less than three miles apart, they didn't date in high school.

"We met at Michigan State University," Joy explained. She was pursuing a degree in elementary education, while John was taking agricultural courses.

"I saw this tall, handsome guy from back home and I hollered at him," she joked.

The rest is history. The couple dated for two years, married and built a home across the road from Johns parents, where they still live today.

Joy went to work teaching kindergarten and first grade for the Copemish school district, while John farmed along with his parents.

Their eldest son, Cary, arrived in 1960. "He loved to go out to the barn and see the cows. His first word was 'tractor.' I can remember him standing by the window, seeing the tractor and going 'trac-tor,'" Joy said.

In his 20s, Cary Urka left the farm for a decade, pursuing a career in steel fabrication. He returned about 10 years ago, and today takes care of the mechanical side of the farm's operation, repairing everything from tractors to telephones.

Changing with the times
Farming has become more sophisticated in recent years. Today, farmers must be cognizant of everything from the host of restrictions governing pesticide application to laws regulating working conditions for the migrant laborers.

Technology has made inroads as well. The Urkas advertise on the Internet and most family members carry cellular phones into the fields for convenient communication.

Staying on top of the changes is essential for survival.

"We've had to become more specialized," Joy acknowledges. "You have to look at the market and what you can sell. Where the market is, and the price you can get for your product, determines whether you can stay in business."

John and Joy raised cattle in the beginning, then switched to growing potatoes.

About five years ago, a fire destroyed their potato warehouse and much of the harvesting equipment. The incident became a turning point for the family.

Potato prices had been depressed for some time. Cary Urka attributes the fact in part to Americans' changing dietary habits.

Families today are smaller and no longer purchase large quantities of fresh potatoes, instead relying more heavily on preprocessed convenience foods.

It was also difficult for small farms to compete in the market. The Urkas were growing 30 acres of potatoes, compared to farmers in Idaho, who plant thousands of acres. After the fire, the family decided to convert the bulk of its operation to growing strawberries.

Michigan used to be a top strawberry-producing state, but the number of farms has declined in recent years. However, the Urkas see room for opportunity. "We want to catch it on the upswing," said Cary.

The Urkas grow about 18 acres of berries. Planting four varieties helps extend the season. "We have almost a month of picking, while other farms are done in a week and a half," Cary noted.

While strawberries may be a more lucrative crop, the family still has to contend with market forces. California growers flood the market with cheap berries in June. Michigan growers like the Urkas fight back by producing varieties bred for tenderness and taste rather than the ability to withstand cross-country shipping.

"We're growing a variety that has a much better flavor," Cary said.

Cool temperatures and ample rainfall have contributed to a good crop this summer.

"Strawberries take a lot of water, and watering early in the season is vital," Cary said.

The Urkas irrigate their fields to supplement rainfall. The sprinkler system -- including over 10,000 feet of pipe -- also is used to protect the developing berries from frost.

The Urkas also improve the quality of their crop by mulching between the rows with straw. The berries -- which grow on the undersides of the plants - stay clean instead of becoming covered with sand. "It's a selling point," acknowledged Cary.

The Brethren farm's off-the-beaten-track location wasn't ideal for direct sales to customers. As a result, the family started a satellite farm on M-37, 10 miles south of the Grand Traverse Mall, in 1999.

"It gave us another outlet. We actually moved part of the farm to where more of the population is," said Joy.

"The Manistee farm has grown gradually and consistently, but we're in a county of 50,000 people. Up there, were 30 minutes away from a quarter of a million people," Cary said.

Both farms offer freshly-picked berries as well as allowing customers to pick their own. Not only can people save money by doing so, but they also get a taste of farm life," said Joy.

"The majority of people in the United States do not get a chance to become part of a working farm, and we want them to have that experience. When you pick your own berries, you are actually a part of the harvesting operation," she said.

The Urkas had plenty of harvesters at the Brethren farm on a recent morning. Kari Franz of Kaleva and her children Kirsten, 6, and Devin, 9, were among the pickers.

Joy spent a few minutes showing the children the difference between an unripe berry and one suitable for picking.

"Working with the customers is the part I like the best," Joy said.

While children are welcome to pick alongside an adult, Joy doesn't tolerate shenanigans. "If I see strawberries flying through the air, I zero in," she said.

Adopting what she calls her "best schoolteacher voice," she sternly threatens to fine the culprits a dime for each airborne berry, a maneuver which quickly quells rowdiness.

However, the tactic was unnecessary with Kirsten and Devin, who were model harvesters.

Wellston resident Jerry Martin indicated she visits the Urka farm every year. "By picking your own, you can get the nice, big ones," she said.

She and niece Debbie Wingerter were planning to take home 16 quarts to make jam.

Strawberry jam was also on the mind of Brethren resident Diane Somsel, who made the trip to the farm along with her cousin, Carol Pasco.

Somsel also planned to freeze some berries and make a pie.

"I'll probably only get eight quarts today, but I'll be back," she said, adding, "The berries are wonderful here."

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