It’s a weekday at VerHage Fruit Farm and Cider Mill, on West ML Avenue. Owners and siblings Kelly and Kevin VerHage hustle around the farm, preparing for the weekend. Kelly is answering the phone while stocking shelves in her country store, and Kevin is busy transporting produce and equipment.
“Except for January, February and March, when we’re closed for the weather, we’ve got something going on all year,” Kelly says.
Kelly and Kevin operate the farm together as partners. While Kelly takes care of the business end, running the country store, answering phone calls and e-mails, organizing social media and promotion and helping to plan seasonal events, Kevin runs the growing side, managing the 130 acres the family owns, split between two locations.
Kelly’s two daughters, Danielle Holbrook and Megan Allen, also work on the farm. Allen works as head baker, incorporating the seasonal fruits and veggies grown on the farm into savory and sweet treats for visitors, while Holbrook assists with baking and with running a booth at the Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market. In short, the family is extremely busy. But they’re used to it.
“Kevin and I have been working on the farm our whole lives,” Kelly says. “Our dad would put us on the side of the highway selling produce when we were probably 10 or so. We couldn’t do that with our kids, of course -— it was just a different time back then, with us — but many of our kids have been helping out on the farm since high school.”
Kelly and Kevin VerHage inherited the farm from their parents, Vern and Nancy VerHage, in 1999. Vern and Nancy originally bought a 100-acre farm on L Avenue 55 years ago to live on but soon sold the house there (while keeping the land for growing) and moved to the 30-acre ML Avenue farm, where the house, mill and country store are now.
Both farms produce a different fruit or vegetable almost every month of the growing year — asparagus in May, strawberries in June, cherries in July, peaches in August, apples in September. The VerHages have a long growing season because fruits and vegetables used to be their main focus.
“When I was working on the farm in high school – when my parents owned it — the farm was solely commercial,” Kevin says. “Now we’ve had a big transition to argitourism.”
As apple season passes and the weather turns cold, local farm enthusiasts might think it’s too late to get a farm experience, but that’s not true. The VerHage farm stays open through December, offering holiday pies (try the famous Caramel Apple Nut), cider, fudge, assorted nut gift boxes, Christmas decorations, fresh and potted Christmas trees and even visits with Santa Claus.
The shift to agritourism came from Kelly, who wanted to attract new business after Vern and Nancy died. Working with Kevin, she added hay rides, a zip line, fresh donuts, fudge and a store — filled with handmade crafts and jewelry and homemade pastas and preserves. Kelly even has her own brand of homemade syrups and pickles and other seasonal products, which are sold in her shop under the brand name Father’s Daughter. With the ML Avenue farm’s close proximity to Kalamazoo and its attractions, it fills up on Saturdays and Sundays.
“We’re having a good year,” Kelly says. “Nobody had fruit last year because of the late frost, so they’re hungry for it this year.”
During apple cider season and leading up to Christmas, the VerHages employ other workers and ask for the help of volunteers, neighbors, and family — one of the perks of having a family-run business. Kevin and Kelly both know that it’s rare to work in a family-owned business that’s been in operation for two generations.
“When your family has everything invested in a farm, and you work on it your whole life, you’re connected,” Kevin says. “If something happened to this farm, it would be a terrible shame. That’s why as long as I’m alive, the farm will be too. After I’m dead, the legacy dies. The kids can do whatever they want with the land. I hope they want it, but it might become a trailer park.”
With the addition of Kelly’s daughters, however, Kevin and Kelly are optimistic that the farm will continue to thrive for another generation.
“I think they’ll work here for the rest of their lives,” Kelly says. “I have four kids total, and only Megan and Danielle are interested in the farm at all. Kevin’s kids don’t show any interest either. They want to go somewhere where they’ll get a guaranteed paycheck every week, not every year. And then, some years like last year, no paycheck at all. It’s not easy.”
With the long growing season, the long hours and the uncertain income, why does the VerHage family work so hard to keep the farm?
“We’re suckers for a good compliment,” Kelly says. “It’s hard not to stay when someone comes in year after year, or when someone says that Megan’s soup is ‘orgasmic.’ We’re stress junkies and compliment junkies. That’s it.”