Williamston’s farming transformation

Williamston was the main stop from Detroit to Grand Rapids when it was founded and became the commercial and social ‘hub’ of the farming and early industrial society in Eastern Ingham County. The area is still rural and some of the farms are still in use, while others sit dormant.

“For the most part, the percentage of people in agriculture, the farm was a place to live and a place to earn a living,” said Bill Turner, a Williamston resident who grew up on a farm until the 1950s.

The farmland in Williamston, and surrounding areas, was acreage that was purchased from the government, some through the Homestead Act. Families would cultivate the land to sustain themselves and pay back the government with crops. Many farms in the area were dairy and grain.

The livestock was many peoples livelihood, “Cows raised a lot of families and bought a lot for the farm,” said Turner.

The products from livestock created a steady income and helped to feed the family, but it was a lot of work and confined farmers, according to Turner. Over the 15 years that Turner lived on his family’s farm he said that as time passed the size of farms and herds increased due to mechanization. Moving from horses to tractors and having electricity changed the way farms worked.

“Tractors could do a lot of work and cut time in half. They allowed farms to get bigger,” said Turner.

Electricity reached rural areas around 1936 after the Rural Electrification Act was passed. The act was seen as an improvement to the quality of life. On the farm they started using milking machines, coolers and water pumps, which used to be powered by windmills.

Charlie Dietz Sr., a fifth generation farmer, can attest to the changes in farming over time. Dietz’s family has been farming in Williamston since 1826 and their farms today are used for cash crops. When he bought the farm he lives on he farmed general livestock, cows, chicken and hogs, had a garden and grew soy, wheat and corn. Once electricity reached his farm he built had a milking parlor for the cows, built a hen house to raise his chickens and eggs and had running water.

“A lot has changed in my time. There have been a lot of transitions,” he said.

According to Dietz chemicals, combines and tractors had the biggest impact on farming. These gave way to bigger farms or renting land and raising crops changed because of fertilizers.

“To be a farmer today you have to have an education…it didn’t used to be that way,” he said.

The larger farms are taking over the industry and mass production is the way to make a living. Whether it is dairy, corn or grains farmers today have to manage much more than before “Now there are not many small farmers left because it is too costly to grow a small acreage. Large production is taking over,” said Turner.

As Michigan’s economy continues to decline many people are out of jobs, but farmers are not suffering as much as others. Michigan has always been an agricultural state with a lot of land and the climate range with the lakes, it is the second most diverse agricultural production in the US. However, the cost of energy, including fuel and chemicals, is expensive increasing the cost of products.

According to Rhonda Crackel, a food science professor at Michigan State University, there will always be farms because there is a world demand for food, but it will become more expensive to farm and consumers will have to spend more to eat. She also noted that the production of corn has changed from being grown for feed to being grown for ethanol.

This change has affected farmers and consumers. Consumers have to pay more for corn, corn products, beef, pork and poultry because not as much corn is being grown for human and animal consumption. For farmers growing corn for ethanol is more expensive and this year the cost to grow corn has increased with high-priced fertilizers and seeds.

The city of Williamston still carries its rural feel and barns line country roads, but larger silos are showing up and family farms are dwindling while larger farms are expanding. 


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