The regional patterns of Michigans agriculture are not as consistent as those in the
midwestern, corn-belt, prairie states, primarily because of more heterogeneous soils,
topography (slope), drainage, and climatic characteristics and the states location
on the leeward side of Lake Michigan and, to some extent, Lake Superior.
WHAT WE GROW (below)
Source: State of Michigan - Department of Agriculture
The state divides into two general regions, namely, (1) the southern half of the Lower
Peninsula, which has the most farms, the largest amount of land in crops, the highest
yields per acre, and the greatest volume and value of crops, animals, and animal products,
and (2) the remainder of the state which has poorer agricultural conditions and much less
volume and value of farm production
Wide variations in climate, soil types, topography and markets are found within the state.
Because of these factors, Michigan farmers find it advantageous to follow types of farming
best adapted to the particular conditions within the region in which they live.
The distribution of farms in Michigan shows about 80% of
Michigans farms are in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula where soil and
climatic conditions favorable for agricultural production are found. The cost to rent an acre of farmland reflects not only the quality of the soil but also the pressures from development, e.g., wind turbine fields, as well as expansion of mega-dairy operations. See below. Keweenaw County has
the smallest number of farms, and is closely followed by Crawford.
In terms of emphasis in production, the following generalized regions
can be identified on the basis of major farm products sold: (1) dairying
in the southern and central parts of the Lower Peninsula and scattered throughout the rest
of the state; (2) beans, soy and dry,
in the Saginaw Valley and cash grain, mostly corn and wheat, in many of the central and southern counties of the southern
Lower Peninsula; (3) the fruit-growing counties along Lake
Michigan in the Lower Peninsula; and (4) nurseries and greenhouses in the three
metropolitan Detroit counties-Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb. Small areas of specialization
also occur, such as hogs and pigs in Cass County, poultry and poultry products in Ottawa, and field seeds in
Source: Central Michigan University
What to farm?
The factors determining the selection of crop and livestock enterprises (in effect, the
type of farming) on a particular farm may be classified under four headings as follows: 1)
physical, 2) economic, 3) personal and 4) biological. Physical factors largely
determine which products may be produced most efficiently in a given area. The economic
ones determine which products are most profitable to produce. The personal factors include
the likes and dislikes of the farmer. These are important, particularly in the selection
of the kind and location of a farm to buy or rent. Biological factors include insect
pests, plant and animal diseases and animal pests.
The three physical factors important in determining the best type-of-farming to follow
in Michigan are 1) climate, 2) soils and 3) topography. Farmers have little or no
control over climate and topography. A farmer may, however, supplement rainfall by
irrigation. Once the farm is selected, a farmer has no control or choice as to the kind of
soil on the farm. A farmer may, however, modify the drainage, organic matter content,
fertility and acidity and thus improve the productivity of the land he/she owns. The
major climatic factor affecting the selection of crop and livestock enterprises in
Michigan is the length of growing season. The rainfall and total precipitation, ranging
from about 28 to 32 inches, have little or no effect on the selection of crops and
Michigan has a wide range in the length of growing season, which plays an important part in
determining the different type-of-farming areas. The crops in Michigan most sensitive to
adverse climatic conditions are the tree fruits, corn, dry beans and certain vegetables.
The Climatic Atlas of Michigan, Val L. Eichenlaub, et al., 1990.
The three main reason why Michigan has so many variations in length of growing season
are 1) the surrounding Great Lakes, 2) the variation in latitude and 3) the variation in
elevation. Of the three, the influence of the lakes and the variation in latitude are most
pronounced and important. The influence of Lake Michigan on weather makes possible the fruit area in western Michigan. This large body of water, after
being warmed by the summer sun, retains its heat during the autumn. As a result, the
autumns are usually long and mild, and hence favorable for ripening fruit and hardening
new growth on fruit trees, thus lessening winter killing. After the water in the Great
Lakes is finally cooled during the winter, it remains cold until late spring and usually
delaying the opening of fruit buds until danger of frost is past. This lake influence is
much less pronounced on the Lake Huron and Lake Erie shores because the prevailing winds
in the Great Lakes region are from the west. Michigan extends about 400 miles north
and south, and at latitudes 42 and 47, the length of growing season of the northern part
of the state is considerably reduced as contrasted with that of the southern part.
Soils. Soil is a very important factor in determining, not only, the best type
of farming to follow but also the productivity and value of a farm. The characteristics of
the soil which are of major importance in determining the best us of land are texture,
structure, drainage, slope and the degree of erosion. The soils
of Michigan do not occur, generally, as uniform individual types in areas of large
extent except on some of the dry sandy pine-plains in the northern part of the state. They
exist more commonly in small bodies and in associations comprising a number of soil types
which not only differ chemically and physically, but which also exhibit a great diversity
in topography and drainage. Michigan soils range in texture from plastic compact clays
which are difficult to till and drain to dry sands which, when unprotected, are subject to
In addition to the mineral soils, Michigan has approximately 5 million
acres (nearly one-seventh of the land area of the state) of organic soils (mucks and
peats). The organic soils, which generally occur in
relatively small separate bodies, range in chemical and physical properties from raw,
highly acid peat bogs or marshes to black well-decomposed mucks.
Topography. Michigan has a wide range in topography
from the level lands of the old lake beds which range from 580 to 800 feet above sea level
to the Huron and Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula which reach about 2,000 feet
in elevation. The topography or slope of the land is an important factor in the
selection of the best kinds of crops and livestock to produce on a farm. For example, with
hilly land and land with steeper and longer slopes a higher proportion needs to be in
grass and legumes than is true for the more level land. With the level to gently rolling
land, a higher proportion may be in row crops and grains. The topography or slope of
the land also effects the air drainage, water drainage, soil erosion, and the size and
types of farm power and machinery units which can be used efficiently on the farm. Soil
erosion is a problem on the rolling and hilly lands. Water drainage is often a real
problem in the level loam and clay loam areas. The modern farm power and machinery units
are much better adapted to the level and gently rolling areas than they are to the hilly
and steeply sloping areas.
The elevation above sea level influences the climate of some sections
of the state to a considerable degree. In the north-central portion of the lower peninsula
and in the western part of the upper peninsula where the elevation is 1,200 to 2,000 feet
above sea level, the weather is colder in the winter and the growing season is
comparatively shorter than it is at lower elevations.
Largely responsible for our topography, landforms,
and our conglomeration of soils were the glaciers which covered Michigan. Six major
landform types emerged from the maelstrom of forces that were operative in our state
during recent geologic time: moraines, till plains, outwash plains, lake clay plains, lake
sand plains, and rock outcrop areas with little or no glacial drift upon their surfaces.
Glacial end moraines are belts of rolling
or rugged hills with intervening swales, swamps and lakes that enhance the beauty of the
countryside. Morainic soils, however, consist of materials ranging from boulders to fine
clay and silts, with all possible gradations of rock derivatives from coarse gravel to
fine sand intervening between the two extremes. Our morainic areas contain much good soil
and much that is either too poor or too steep for cultivated crops.
Till plains, or ground moraine, are
gently undulating lands. They are generally fertile, with soils that are predominately
clay loams and sandy loams, capable of supporting diversified agriculture indefinitely,
provided they are handled properly.
Outwash plains occupy extensive areas
in northern Michigan and constitute the poorest soils, with the exception of exposed or
almost barren rock. The sandy hardwood and jack pine plains
of the northern half of the Lower Peninsula are typical. These have been the problem lands
of Michigan. Forty to 50 years ago large scale attempts were made to clear and farm these
lands, but the thin forest humus overlying infertile sand was
soon exhausted and thousands of hopeful pioneer farmers starved out and their lands
reverted. Ownership records indicate that some of these farms went through the tax
reversion wringer two or three times before they finally came to rest in public ownership.
The lake (lacustrine) plains,
which are typical of Saginaw, Huron, Monroe and other counties bordering lakes Huron and
Erie, comprise our richest agricultural lands, but they require drainage and careful
handling. Sandy areas on the lake plains, with dune lands and ancient beach ridges, are of
low fertility and often wet. Like the outwash plains, they help supply our need for wood
and vast areas of wildlife habitat.
The rock outcrop areas of Michigan are most prominent in the Upper
Peninsula. There are two types of landforms in this category: the rugged hills and mountains found in the western half of the peninsula, and
flat limestone and sandstone outcrops, typical of Drummond Island and certain sections of
the eastern half of the peninsula. The rocks are frequently covered with a thin layer of
glacial drift and humus that is capable of supporting a vigorous stand of northern
hardwood and coniferous trees.
None of these basic landmarks is homogeneous. For example, in the Lower
Peninsula moraines occur in concentric ranges parallel to the
shores of Saginaw Bay, Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, but others occur in
irregular patterns which seemingly have no relations to the outlines of the Great Lakes.
Till plains and outwash plains commonly fill in the space between the hill formations. Lake plains occupy much of the Saginaw River Valley, and
the broad belt of flat land surrounding the "Thumb" and extending southward
along the shores of Lakes Huron, St. Clair and Erie.
A large part of Michigans northern land has moderate limitations
as far as agriculture in concerned. It consists of rugged hills, shallow rocky soils with
rock outcrops, rolling sandy plains, extensive swamps, inland lakes and streams. This is
Michigans public and private forest and recreation land. This is the land that makes
Michigans tourist industry second only to the automotive industry in
dollars-and-cents value. This is the land that was logged and destroyed by fire. This is the land that has come back from desolation as a
result of forest management, good forest fire control and intelligent land-use planning.
However, not all of northern Michigan is bad, agriculturally. Scattered areas of fair to
good farm land may be found throughout this part of the state. Northern Michigan has also
produced the major share of Michigans mineral wealth: limestone, gypsum, copper, iron, oil
and gas. This rugged northern, mineral-laden land has supplied the crude materials for
heavy industry in the great industrial cities of the world.
Source: Central Michigan University
Economic factors largely determine the kinds of products that are most profitable to
produce on a farm. This influence is in the form of prices received by farmers for farm
products, costs of production, and types and nearness of markets. For example, two
enterprises may be equally well adapted to the physical conditions within an area, and yet
not be at all comparable from the standpoint of financial returns per acre.
The economic factors which are important in determining the kind or
kinds of crops and livestock to produce on a given farm are 1) markets, 2) price of land
and 3) competitive and supplementary enterprises. Temporarily such factors as the cycles
in the supply of different products, periods required for returns on capital investments,
and the supply of labor, the size of farms, the supply of capital and whether the farm is
tenant or owner-operated may affect the type of farming followed on an individual farm.
Markets. Nearness to large markets is the most important single economic factor
affecting the best types of farming to follow on southern Michigan farms. Large population
centers in SE Michigan increase the local demand for bulky farm products and for products
with a high degree of perishability, like vegetables and milk. Such products tend to be
produced near the markets because of lower transportation costs and quicker delivery time.
Thus, Michigan farmers tend to produce such products as fluid milk, vegetables and small
fruits in season, tree fruits and poultry products.
Price of Land. Farm land prices are probably more the result rather than the cause
of variations in types of farming. Once established, however, farm land prices do have an
important influence on the selection of crop and livestock enterprises. Higher
priced land demands intensive use for successful operations. Intensive use is obtained by
first producing intensive enterprises such as dairy, poultry, fruit, truck crops, dry
beans, sugar beets, potatoes, corn and high producing pastures; and second by the handling
of these intensive enterprises in an intensive, high producing manner.
Extensive types of farming, where sheep and beef cattle are the major
enterprises, are best adapted to the larger farms in regions where land prices are
relatively low. These rather extensive enterprises do not as a rule produce sufficient
income per acre to be profitable on the average size of farm in Michigan.
Source: Central Michigan University
Hart, John Fraser (1991)
“Part-Ownership and Farm Enlargement in the Midwest.” Annals of the
Association of American Geographers 81 (1) , 66–79.
Source: Central Michigan University
Types of farming in Michigan
There are a number of different farming areas in Michigan. The maps below show two
different classifications of farming regions within the state.
Source: Hill, E.B., Riddell, F.T., and F.F. Elliot. 1930.
Types of farming in Michigan. Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station Special
TYPES OF FARMING AREAS
Michigans 17 farming areas are largely based on the sources of farm income and
the prevailing kinds of crops and livestock. The divisions between the areas are not so
definite as the boundary lines would indicate. The transition from one area to the next is
usually a gradual one.
Source: Hill, E.B., Riddell, F.T., and F.F. Elliot. 1930.
Types of farming in Michigan. Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station Special
AREA 1 - GENERAL LIVESTOCK AND CORN
The most important source of farm income from Area 1 is from the sale of livestock, mostly
cattle, hogs and sheep. The other sources of income in order of their importance are dairy
products; field crops, mostly wheat, corn, sugar beets and soybeans, and poultry and
poultry products. On some farms, truck crops such as tomatoes, sweet corn, squash, melons,
cabbage, and potatoes are important sources of income. The major factors influencing the
selection of farm enterprises in this areas are the generally productive soils, the
relatively long growing season, 150 to 170 days, and the good local and nearby markets.
Detroit is about 65 miles to the northeast and Toledo, Ohio, is closeby to the southeast.
AREA 2 - DAIRY, LIVESTOCK AND CORN
The farming in this area is largely characterized by dairy cattle and hogs with beef
cattle, poultry and sheep of importance on certain farms. The sources of farm income are
about equally divided between dairy products, sale of cattle and hogs and the sale of
crops mostly wheat, corn, and soybeans, with smaller amounts from potatoes, mint, celery
and asparagus. The major factors influencing the selection of enterprises in Area 2 are
the generally lighter but wide range of soils; the relatively long growing season, 150 to
170 days; the local markets of Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and many smaller cities; and the
nearby cities of surrounding areas.
AREA 3 - SOUTHWESTERN FRUIT, DAIRY AND TRUCK
This is the most important fruit region of Michigan, the major fruits being apples,
peaches, grapes and pears. Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, asparagus, tomatoes,
muskmelons and mint are important specialty crops. Dairying is the major livestock
enterprise. Farmers in general have a wide choice in the selection of fruit and vegetables
crops. Largely because of the lighter soils, yields of field crops usually are not high.
The major factors determining the selection of enterprises in this area are the climate,
topography and nearby markets. Lake Michigan and the rolling to hilly land combine to make
climatic conditions favorable to fruit production. The wholesale fruit market at Benton
Harbor and local shipping centers provide good markets. The soils range from sands of low
productivity to sandy loams and loams of relatively high productivity. Soil erosion is a
serious problem on the more rolling lands.
This is an area of high land prices and of small farms intensively
operated. The farmers who have consistently good incomes year after year are those who
have several sources of income. The fruit farmers frequently include apples, peaches and
probably one other tree fruit in their farm program. They may also have asparagus,
raspberries, blackberries and one other small fruit or vegetable crop.
AREA 4- DAIRY, POULTRY AND TRUCK
Area 4 is the most intensive poultry area in Michigan. The farms are small. In addition to
the usual field crops of hay, pasture, corn, oats and wheat, special crops of importance
are berries, mint, celery, onions and carrots. The acreage of tree fruits is small,
primarily because of poor air drainage and wet sandy soils. The livestock program centers
around the dairy and poultry enterprises. Dairying has been increasing in importance
during the past 15 years, and most of the milk is sold as fluid milk. The major factors
influencing the selection of enterprises in Area 4 are: 1) the soils which include level,
wet and dry sand of low fertility; level to rolling loam soils of higher productivity; and
muck soils; and 2) the nearby markets of Muskegon, Grand Rapids and Holland.
AREA 5 - DAIRY AND GENERAL FARMING
Dairy and general farming predominate in this area. The minor livestock enterprises are
hogs, poultry and sheep. Most of the crops grown are the feed crops of hay, pasture, corn
and oats. Wheat, corn, and soybeans are the major cash crops. The major factors
influencing the selection of enterprises in this area are: 1) the relatively long growing
season, which ranges from 140 to 160 days; 2) the predominance of sandy loams, silt loams
and loams of medium to high fertility; and 3) the good markets for whole milk. The major
cities included in the area are Lansing and Jackson. A considerable portion of the milk
goes outside the area to Grand Rapids, Flint and Detroit.
AREA 6 - DAIRY, PART-TIME AND TRUCK
Area 6 is the metropolitan area of southeastern Michigan and contains the major cities of
Detroit, Dearborn, Ypsilanti, Willow Run, Livonia, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Pontiac, Mt.
Clemens, Flint and many smaller cities and towns. The nearby markets and off-farm work
opportunities are the best of any area in the state. The nearby markets are particularly
good for fluid milk, poultry and poultry products, vegetables, tree and small fruits.
AREA 7 - DAIRY AND CASH CROPS
Area 7 is a major dairy and cash crop area. It is close enough to the large nearby markets
to favor dairy production and general farming yet not close enough to have as many
part-time farmers as does the area to the southwest. The soils in the eastern counties of
the area are level in surface and mostly loams and silt loams. In the western counties,
the land surface is more rolling and in some cases hilly and the soils range from sands to
Dairying is the most important enterprise for the areas and on many
farms is the sole source of income. The number of dairy cows per farm is the highest in
the state. There are also many beef breeding herds and steer feeding enterprises in the
area. Dry field beans, corn, wheat and sugar beets are the major cash crops. Because of
the heavier, wetter soils and late spring frosts the proportion of the land in corn in the
eastern part of this areas is considerably less than in the areas to the west and south.
Also, more of the land is in hay and tillable pasture.
AREA 8 - CASH CROPS AND DAIRY
Area 8 is the leading cash crop area in Michigan. The major cash crops are field beans,
sugar beets, corn and wheat. The other major crops - oats and forages - are mostly fed to
livestock on farms in the area. The major factors accounting for the type of farming in
this areas are the level, generally highly productive soils (when drained); the nearby
good markets which favor dairy and poultry; the sugar beet processing plants; the length
of growing season which ranges from 130 to 160 days; and the moderated temperatures which
favor dry, field bean production.
AREA 9 - GENERAL LIVESTOCK AND PART-TIME
Area 9 is characterized by many soil types ranging from dry sands to wet clays, and from
level low lands to hilly uplands. Large acreages of state owned land dedicated to
forestry, parks and recreation are included in this area. Nearly one-half of the farms in
this area are part-time or residential farms. This area does not have the good local
markets that are found in the more southern counties of the state. In general, about half
of the total land is in farms and about one-half of the land in farms is tillable. The
major crops grown are: hay and tillable pasture about 55-60%, along with oats, wheat and
corn. Livestock in this areas is rather diversified. There are many beef as well as dairy
cattle, and the sales of dairy products and those of livestock and livestock products
other than dairy and poultry are about equal.
AREA 10 - DAIRY, POTATOES AND TRUCK
Except for Montcalm County, the major source of farm product sales in this area is dairy
products. In Montcalm, 41% of the farm product sales is from field crops mostly potatoes,
dry field beans and wheat. Locally, cucumbers, snap beans, onion, celery, carrots and
spinach are important sources of farm product sales. Area 10 was formerly the major potato
region of Michigan. The major livestock enterprise in the area is dairy followed by
poultry and hogs. The major factors determining the selection of crop and livestock
enterprises in this area are 1) the sandy loam soils which are comparatively low in lime
and intermediate in fertility; 2) the muck soils which comprise about 10% of the area; 3)
the intermediate length growing season of 110 to 140 days; 4) fairly good markets,
particularly Grand Rapids for milk, and also the local canning and food processing plants.
AREA 11 - NORTHWESTERN FRUIT AND DAIRY
Area 11 is the second most important fruit producing region in Michigan. It is a
relatively narrow strip of land extending from the central part of Kent County to the
northwestern part of Charlevoix County. The area contains a great diversity of soil types
occupying level to extremely hilly areas. The major factor encouraging fruit production in
this region is the favorable climate which results largely from the close proximity of
Lake Michigan. The rolling topography which provides good air and water drainage is also a
factor related to the location of sites favorable to fruit production. The average length
of growing season ranges form 130 to 150 days. The markets are good for fruit and truck
crops. Grand Rapids, other nearby cities and Chicago take much of the fresh fruit. Local
processing plants, canning and freezing, also provide good outlets for fruit and truck
crops. Apples are the major type of fruit; peaches are important in Kent and Oceana
AREA 12 - DAIRY, PART-TIME AND POTATOES
This area is largely a dairy and potato area along with a high proportion of part-time
farming. The major crops are 1) hay and tillable pasture, 2) corn 3) potatoes and 4) oats.
The major livestock enterprise is dairy. Dairy product sales were the most important
source of farm income in all the counties in this region except for Antrim and Charlevoix
Counties where crop sales ranked first. The major factors accounting for the selection of
crop and livestock enterprises in Area 12 are 1) the sandy loams and the dry deep sandy
soils; 2) the relatively short growing season of 80 days on the eastern side to 130 days
on the western side and ; 3) the greater distance from major markets.
AREA 13 - FORESTRY, PART-TIME AND CATTLE
Forestry is the major land use in this area. The farming is limited in extent and is
largely confined to the local isolated small areas of well drained sandy loams and clay
loam soils. This area is composed largely of soils of very low agricultural value and is
at a further disadvantage because of the shorter growing season, 80 to 110 days.
Considerable acreages of land in this area are owned by the state and federal governments
and dedicated to forestry, parks and recreation.
AREA 14 - CATTLE, POTATOES AND PART-TIME
Livestock is the major source of farm product sales in Area 14. Sales from livestock and
livestock products (mostly cattle) other than dairy products and poultry slightly exceed
the sales of dairy products in most counties. Crop sales, mostly potatoes, are of major
importance in Presque Isle County.
AREA 15 - CATTLE, HAY AND PART-TIME
Area 15 is a small portion of the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and
contains portions of Chippewa and Mackinaw Counties (the Chippewa County Clay Plains). The
soils are dominantly level, productive red clays. One of the major soil problems of this
area is inadequate drainage (i.e, the soils are wet). The length of growing season ranges
from 130 days in the west to about 140 days in the eastern part of the area. Sault Ste.
Marie is the best local market and provides an outlet for a limited amount of whole milk
and fresh eggs. Local creameries and cheese factories provide markets for the remainder of
the dairy products. The major crop is hay and tillable pasture, which occupies about 65%
of the tillable farm land.
AREA 16 - DAIRY AND POTATOES
The major farm products for Area 16 are dairy and potatoes. Fairly good outlets for market
milk are provided by the cities of Menominee, Stephenson, Hermansville, Iron Mountain,
Escanaba, Gladstone; the many smaller towns and villages in this area and also by cities
immediately outside this area such as Munising, Marquette, Negaunee and Ishpeming. Cheese
factories also provide relatively good markets for dairy products. Area 16 is
characterized by a large proportion of well drained limy sandy loams and loams. The
growing season ranges from 100 days in the north to 150 days in the south.
AREA 17 - DAIRY, POTATOES, PART-TIME AND FORESTRY
Area 17 comprises most of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is a large area and has,
therefore, considerable variation in soils, climate and markets between different parts of
the area. The length of growing season is on the short side, ranging from 80 to 140 days.
Considerable acreages of land are owned by the state and federal governments and are used
for forestry, parks and recreation.
Locally, there are some good farming areas in the region. The
intervening spaces are mostly "wild land" and contain few if any farms. Farming
in the region is largely restricted to the land that has the better soils, without too
many stones or excessively steep slopes and where drainage and land clearing costs are not
The locations of the better agricultural communities are as follows:
Luce County, around Newberry; Mackinac County, around Engadine; Schoolcraft County, around
Cooks and in the Garden Peninsula; Marquette County, around Skandia and Champion;
Dickinson County, around Iron Mountain; Iron County, the Iron River-Crystal Falls area;
Baraga around Baraga, Skanee, Pelkie and Covington; Houghton County, around Chassell,
Tapiola and Hancock; Ontonagon County, the Ewen and Ontonagon areas; and in Gogebic
County, around North Ironwood.
The major sources of farm income are from the sales of dairy products,
cattle, poultry and potatoes. Potatoes are of particular importance in Houghton, Iron,
Dickinson and Schoolcraft Counties. The larger cities of the area provide an outlet for
the sale of fluid milk from a small number of farms. Other dairy products are marketed
through local milk condenseries, creameries and cheese factories. Most of the potatoes are
shipped to out-of-state or to southern Michigan markets.
Parts of the text above have been paraphrased from C.M. Davis Readings in the Geography of Michigan (1964).
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