By: Jamie VanDerZandenBrixstoneMAEAP Technician

In October of 2020, BrixStone Farms in Bear Lake was reverified in the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). Keaton Foster, a young beginning farmer, purchased the farm in 2019 to pursue a lifelong passion of producing maple syrup to retail to customers. With the opportunity to produce his own maple syrup, Keaton also inherited established apple and peach orchards when he bought the farm. The farm had already been MAEAP verified in the farmstead and cropping systems with the previous owner. Keaton decided that he wanted to pursue MAEAP reverification for his farm. After the farm was reverified in MAEAP, I asked Keaton what his thoughts were about the program and becoming verified.

Q: As a young beginning farmer, what challenges do you face with starting a farm?

A: “I jumped into growing fruit with no previous experience and had to learn from the ground up. I am fortunate to have a great group of local farmers and contacts within the agricultural community with whom I can discuss issues with and voice my concerns. I have faced many challenges with this endeavor, some of those being changing consumer preferences and always the rapid changes in weather patterns and unpredictability. The other tough decision for me was choosing which apple varieties to plant, you have to kind of take a risk in hoping that consumers will want your chosen variety 2-4 years after planting and many years beyond that.”

Q: What made you decide to start farming?

A: “I grew up in heavily forested northern Wisconsin where “farming” was not a common occupation. In the early 2000’s my family decided to make maple syrup as a springtime hobby and I think that is where I really gained an appreciation for agriculture, food production and harvesting from the land. While I attended Michigan State University studying Food Industry Management, I always had a vision of owning my own piece of land where I could produce maple syrup and retail to visiting consumers. In 2019 while living near Lansing I found this farm for sale that had a thriving maple forest and an existing apple orchard that offers more than 12 varieties of favored apples to visiting customers. It only took one tour of the farm in beautiful Manistee County Michigan for me to decide to take a risk and pursue my lifelong passion. Now, with one year of growing apples and peaches under my belt I can say that I am glad that I took the risk and continue to take pride in what I grow and harvest. We have been busy installing maple tubing and equipment so that we can offer maple syrup at the farmstead in 2021!”

Q: Why did you decide to pursue MAEAP Verification?

A: “I decided to become verified as I take great pride in being a steward of the land, taking no more from it that what can be sustained. We will tap the maple forest while keeping the habitat intact for wildlife and our new orchards will be planted in higher densities on less ground to lower our footprint and overall acreage needs. I think that it is important to let our visiting customers know that we are environmentally conscious and there is no better way to convey that message than having the MAEAP verification. Through the verification process we have been able to develop a clear business plan with protecting the environment at the highest of priorities.”

Q: How has MAEAP benefited your farm?

A: “Through the process of verification, we have learned to look at areas of improvement for the operation that will ultimately help the farm to run more effectively. We now know the areas of concern on the farm and the proper practices to mitigate erosion and runoff issues. Actively taking soil tests allows us to apply amendments at proper rates and results in quality fruit and healthier orchards. The MAEAP verification has allowed me to better prepare for our GFS primus audit as the record keeping is similar with regards to applicator logs, water tests and soil sampling. We can also assure to our customers that we are adhering to stringent standards and following proper procedures to mitigate risks to people, the environment, and the produce that we grow.”

It is always a pleasure getting to know local farmers, like Keaton, and to see what they are doing for environmental sustainability on their farm. Farmers are top stewards of the land and MAEAP is a great program to help show the community that. MAEAP is also a great program to help assist farmers with risk reduction practices. Like many other farmers, Keaton is doing a great job reducing agricultural risks to the environment and showing the community that protecting the environment is a priority of the farm.