Celebrating Polish Heritage on the Farm

By Madeleine Hill Vedel

Sun contributor

Pigs, goats, chickens, guinea hens, ducks, cats, and a couple small children roam the pastures, pathways, and vegetable patch of the Polish Heritage Farm in Cedar.

We came up five years ago [from Hamtramck, a Detroit neighborhood]. We had this vision: doing a farm and raising our kids on a farm, knowing where their food came from,” bubbles Kathleen Bittner Koch as I begin my discovery of her and her husband Thomas’ recently established farm.

Steel gray clouds threaten rain during their animated tour of the outdoor pastured pigs—Duroch, Mangalitsa, and Berkshire, both mixed-breed; a pure, old barn, ingeniously constructed multi-pallet fencing (designed to withstand wind, rain and snow, as well as 300-pound four-legged beasts); and a mixed goat herd—Nigerian, Pygmies and a few Alpines—while a pet chicken lays her egg in the window flower box.

All of this has been happenstance. We’re just rolling with the punches,” laughs Kathleen. Descendants of a Gospodarczyk (farmer in Polish) and a Koch (cook), Thomas and Kathleen have found their home here, planting roots resonant with their agricultural and entrepreneurial ancestors.

Sandy-haired toddler Leokadia Ray is nestled in her mom’s arms while her gangly brother Thomas Gordon, all grown up at five, clearly wants to take over the tour and show me his farm friends himself. His parents tag-team as they share their story. “Before this farm, we had no knowledge, no breeding knowledge at all. But we asked, read, ask and read. We connect with fellow farmers to learn as much as we can.”

Polish in origin (and spirit), Kathleen and Thomas drove through Cedar in the middle of the night one Fourth of July weekend, saw the Cedar Polka Fest signs up and determined, “This is it!” Originally interested in a farm in Isadore, which sold before they could gather their funds together, the Kochs continued searching until they found their current home on East Glazier Drive in Centerville Township by Lake Leelanau, comprising a barn, granary, and house with an open hay field and pasture including lake access. It was the last farm they visited. Here, they appreciate their neighbors and the possibility of putting up a vegetable stand at the entrance to their property.

We want to be liked by our neighbors,” says Kathleen. “That’s really important when you have a farm. And we like to cater to them. Last year they purchased 20 chickens and a pig from us for their wedding.”

A gift of two bred sows-Lucy, a pure Duroch and Rosie, a mix of Mangalitsa and Berkshire-three years ago was the start of the Kochs’ livestock operation. These first pigs came through connections Kathleen made during her one-week Girrls Meat Camp experience, an all-female whole animal butchery course that had been held in Northport. Lucy and Rosie produced a litter each, 12 piglets in all, of which three were kept back for breeding stock and the rest raised to be sold as meat. The next year the three youngsters were bred alongside the older sows, and an additional gift of five pigs came to the farm. The day I visited, the farm boasted 66 walking pigs: 52 babies, two boars, and 12 sows. And people say rabbits multiply!

Our pigs have a great diet. We plant a ton of forage: standing rye, crimson clover and kale. This year we did a huge planting for soil improvement of daikon radish, and then let the pigs run over it and consume the greens. Aberdeen Stone Cottage Bed & Breakfast [Traverse City] has eight or so mature walnut trees on their property and they bring us three-four recycling bins of walnuts weekly. For five to six weeks straight we have 400 pounds of walnuts a week. It’s fantastic finishing feed. Then our apple trees start producing, and the pigs get all that fruit. We collect food scraps from Tap Root Cidery and Rare Bird Brewery in downtown Traverse City, and grain from Rare Bird and Earthen Ales, and we pick up a bin of whatever’s left-over from Pleasanton Bakery.” Thomas credits Dan Hall of Hall’s Farm and Feed Mill on North Long Lake road for teaching him about soil development.

Spending a moment with this dynamic couple and their home-schooled kids is a lesson in energy, drive, and enthusiasm. Both boast a personal history of entrepreneurship family business. They were able to save the 20 percent down payment for their farm through scrimping and hard work. Thomas has a few rental units down in the Detroit area that he maintains and rents out, having purchased property during the worst of the recession. And with their parents present to co-sign, they obtained a manageable mortgage from the Polish-American Credit Union.

Being your own boss is liberating,” says Kathleen. “We never grew up with parents who punched clocks. My parents worked until midnight in their shop most days. We learned great business sense and how to talk to adults. Success is doing what you love.”

I always like to be doing something and there’s always something to do on a farm— for the rest of my days,” adds Thomas. “It’s perfect for me.”

Five years into it the farm is covering its costs, not counting the time Kathleen and Thomas put in, and “we eat like kings.”

“Why did people stop farming?” wonders Kathleen. “Is going to a grocery store and waiting in line worth it? Is it rewarding? The most frustrating time in my week is when I have to go to town. Here, I know what’s on my table hasn’t traveled further than across the path from my barn.”

Becoming enmeshed in Cedar life is a multi-generational affair, as Kathleen’s parents agreed with their daughter to open a Polish Arts Center right beside the local landmark butchery, Pleva’s Meats. The Arts Center is a second location for the family who opened their first in Hamtramck decades ago.

I call it the Pier One of Poland: things for the house, food, cookies, amber jewelry, Polish stoneware, wood carvings, a lot of folk crafts,” Kathleen tells me as she shares that she is also offering Pisanki egg decorating on spring weekends at the center, and is lending her skills to organizing the yearly Cedar Polka Fest. To keep the center well stocked, Thomas makes weekly trips downstate, making good use of these occasions to drop off their pork to be sold through the Polish Butcher shop in Hamtramck.

To learn more about Kathleen, Thomas, and their farm family, schedule a farm tour, reserve a half or whole pig, or purchase a few ducks, you can follow them and send them a message via Facebook: Facebook.com/PolishHeritageFarm.