Sheer Determination Grows Dafter Farm

Published in 2015 by The St. Ignace News

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It’s hard to miss Hunter’s Ridge farm in Dafter.

“Just look for the Oreo cows,” farm owner Jodi Hunter says when giving directions.

The playful description suits her herd of Belted Galloway cattle well, as the breed is easily identified by dark coats broken by a wide, white band running down the middle.

The cattle attract a lot of attention. Ms. Hunter has had strangers show her pictures they took of the cows, without realizing they were speaking to their owner. A woman once backed her car into a truck while attempting to take a photograph of the herd. They were even featured as part of a neighbor’s Halloween hayride.

Ms. Hunter has also attracted attention with her hard work and dedication to farming. The Chippewa-Luce-Mackinac Conservation District named her the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program’s Farmer of the Year Thursday, January 22, at a small ceremony in Dafter.

“Jodi is really great to work with,” said Mike McCarthy of the program. “She’s extremely proactive and always asking questions. What she’s done in three years is really quite amazing, especially since she’s employed full time and did so much of the work herself.”

In 2011, Ms. Hunter moved to what was then a 10-acre property. Less than a year later, she purchased her first four heifers. Now, she owns 150 acres and leases 390 more to support both her cattle and hay farming operations. Her herd has grown to 40 cattle and Ms. Hunter expects it to reach 60 by next year.

“I think the most surprising thing is how much we’ve grown and how fast. I didn’t expect all this when I first started,” she said.

Ms. Hunter and her ex-husband owned a few steers and she grew to love working with the animals. When they divorced and she purchased the 10 acres in Dafter, she bought a couple of steers to raise for meat. She only planned to raise enough for herself and a few friends, but the plan changed as she was putting up the fence and a neighbor stopped by to extol the virtues of a cow-and-calf operation.

Interested, she began to look into the idea. After an off-handed comment from her sister, who saw some “Oreo cows” in the Lower Peninsula, Ms. Hunter began researching the Belted Galloways.

“I started looking into the history and the health benefits of the breed and I saw a potential niche market,” Ms. Hunter said. “Their meat is incredibly healthy and more and more people want to know what they’re eating.”

Belted Galloway cattle originated in the Scottish Highlands and can survive on plants that most cows will pick around. While some grasses have no nutritional value for other cattle, the Belted Galloways are nourished by them, and so they’re particularly good to raise on grass. Ms. Hunter’s cattle are all 100% grassfed, eating hay and dried alfalfa during the winter. She expanded the farm to include hay so she could more closely control what the cattle eat year-around. The alfalfa gives the cattle a boost of protein and functions as a treat to keep them coming into the barn.

The meat of grass-fed Belted Galloways is lower in calories and fat content than standard, grain-fed cattle, or even other grass-fed breeds. It’s more easily compared to chicken or pork in terms of health benefits, and is known for its tenderness and flavor. In addition, the cattle can withstand extremely cold conditions.

The trade-off is that they can’t be butchered until they’re about two years old. In contrast, the average grain-fed cow can be slaughtered at 18 months.

Galloways are also a rare breed, and it can be difficult to find purebreds for breeding or purchase. Heifers born at Hunter’s Ridge have been purchased from farmers as far away as Indiana.

Ms. Hunter’s first four heifers came from a farm in Owosso. Two of the heifers turned out to have been pregnant when they were purchased, even though they were a little too young for breeding and one died giving birth, as did her calf. It was a blow, but Ms. Hunter had the cow butchered and got her first taste of Belted Galloway beef. She found it delicious. The other cow gave birth to Hunter’s Ridge’s first calf, Easter.

Two years later, with 40 head, Ms. Hunter knows them all by name and can recount their personalities, likes, dislikes, and backgrounds with ease.

Tyler, a large, good-natured bull, was the most mellow and friendly of three bulls available for sale from a farm in Gobles. The 91-year-old farmer and his wife who owned Tyler thought of him as a pet and, when Ms. Hunter arrived to pick him up, they were having second thoughts.

“The farmer was trying to talk us out of buying Tyler and then started brushing him and talking to him, saying things like ‘Okay, Tyler, you have to go away with the nice lady, but I’m going to make you pretty for the ride.’ His son had to come and help us get Tyler in the trailer. He did not want to go anywhere,” Ms. Hunter recalled.

Tyler has since come to enjoy his new home and particularly likes Ms. Hunter’s company. When he and the steers are let out of their enclosure to “mow” the lawn around her home, he likes peering curiously into the front window.

In October 2013, Ms. Hunter learned she had already fulfilled many of the requirements to become verified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, which calls for good drainage systems, setting corrals on high ground, rotational grazing, and isolating wells from potential contamination. Verification is intended to reward farmers who are proactively reducing agricultural pollution risks and following accepted best agricultural practices.

“I was doing a lot of those things anyway, because if I’m going to do something, I want to do it right,” Ms. Hunter said. “I’m not afraid to try anything. There’s nothing that I can’t learn if I want to.”

She built the corrals and fencing herself, runs the baler, and does anything else that needs to be done, despite not having a farming background.

“Her work ethic is just outstanding,” said Mr. McCarthy. “When she puts her mind to something, she does it, and she makes sure she does it right. She doesn’t just cobble something together that will work, she finds the best way.”

Ms. Hunter attributes the rapid growth of Hunter’s Ridge to hard work, and points to the help of friends and neighbors who have farmed for years.

“Thank God for people helping out, and being able to ask questions when you don’t know what to do,” she said.

When Ms. Hunter was looking to purchase 120 acres using a USDA loan, the owners didn’t want to wait for her to go through the application process, so close friend Max Cox of Sugar Island purchased the land so she could begin using it right away and allowed her to pay him back over time.

“He really believed in me,” Ms. Hunter said of the more experienced farmer, who passed away last summer. “He took to me like a dad and just gave me so much help.”

“He saw that Jodi was serious about [the farm] and that she had the drive to do whatever it took to get it right,” said Landan Clement, her boyfriend, who helps out extensively.

Neighbor Bob Schwiderson taught the couple how to cut hay. When their baler broke down and a rainstorm was headed their way, he helped them bale 15 acres.

“He and his dad are very helpful. They’ve helped us with every type of catastrophe,” Ms. Hunter said. “There’s always excitement on the farm, and when all is said and done, you can sit down and laugh about it, though.”

Ms. Hunter’s passion and ambition are not confined to the cattle. She also works full time as an accounting professor at Lake Superior State University, is pursuing her doctorate degree, and recently accepted an appointment as the Dafter Township clerk. In addition, she grows nearly all of her own vegetables, cans and freezes what she needs off-season, hunts, fishes, weaves rugs from repurposed wool coats and flannel sheets, and takes up anything else that strikes her interest.

“You have to do what you’re interested in,” she said. “If you don’t like something, then why do it?”