Tillers of the Earth: The Steimels

By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

Part five of our Leelanau Farming Family Series.

“…[W]e are all tillers of the earth…We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory, communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself” (Crèvecœur, Letters from An American Farmer).

I cannot help but draw threads from these simple words of 18th-century French emigré and American colonial farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur to the farmers of Leelanau County. In letters he wrote to a friend in England, Crèvecœur eloquently narrates stories answering the questions: What is an American? Who is the American Farmer? What is the American Dream? Crèvecœur carefully and succinctly illustrates education, mannerisms, industry, religion, and farming practices in 18th-century colonial America in 12 letters. The letters form a conversation between the two distantly-located friends. They are lyrical, funny, and sometimes shocking. In many instances, there is an immediate kinship of sorts between what Crèvecœur describes and the local farmers of Leelanau Peninsula.

Interviewing the local farming families of Leelanau County is a pleasure project. The more interviews I conduct, the more threads I pull and connect hen asking questions about their histories in Leelanau County. The threads are all linked through shared family ties and history, religion, farming practices, personal stories, and the belief that hard work pays off. The Steimel Family is one more example of deep ties to both the county and other local farming families.

In the manner of the previous farming families, the Steimels have numerous family ties to many in the area: Herman, Kalchik, Johnson, Rude, Belanger, et al. Analogous to the Schaubs and Hermans, brothers Nicholas and George Steimel arrived into the area in the 1860s from Germany, homesteading shortly after arriving. By the 1881 Leelanau County plat maps, the Steimels held several different properties in and around Suttons Bay.

My interview with Allen Steimel—parents Ralph and Eleanor (Johnson) Steimel—took on a life of its own. My discussion with Al (a direct descendant of Nicholas Steimel) moved from family histories and stories to local farming practices, with the larger part of the conversation focused on the business and future of farming in Leelanau County. While Allen’s parents were part-time farmers, early fond memories of farming are connected to his maternal grandparents, Roy and Martha Johnson, full-time farmers. His paternal grandparents—Howard and Nellie (Borgerson) Steimel—died when he was young.

Growing up on the farm meant spending time with Roy and Martha. Al stated his grandparents were “subsistence farmers.” According to Britannica, this is a “form of farming which nearly all of the crops and livestock raised are used to maintain the farmer and the farmer’s family, leaving little, if any, surplus for sale or trade.” Al urther explained that they lived a good life on the farm; while rich in substance and experiences, there was little money.

The Johnson farmstead was situated high on a hill. There was a farmhouse and outbuildings. One of the outbuildings was an outhouse, as there was no running water. Despite the lack of conveniences, Al spoke warmly of these memories with his grandparents. For Al and his two siblings, vacations were spent at the Johnson Farm. There is a wonderful picture of Grandpa Roy and his grandsons Al and Mark helping feed the farm chickens.

Similar to the Schaubs and Hermans, Al’s grandparents traded eggs and cream at the Lake Leelanau Food Co-op for food staples like flour and sugar. He also shared stories of how his grandparents never wasted anything on the farm. He explained there was not much use for skim milk once the cream separated. So, his grandfather found a use for it. Roy fed the leftover skim milk to their pigs to help fatten them up. Another by-product of cow’s milk was cottage cheese, which, on occasion, Martha fed to the chickens. As with the pigs, the dairy byproduct served to fatten up the chickens.

Al Steimel, a fifth-generation Leelanau County farmer, is the current general manager of The Leelanau Fruit Company, a processing plant opened in 1964 by Gordy Priest. Al began his career at the plant in 1984. At one point, there was about five to six fruit processing plants operating on the Leelanau Peninsula; currently, only two remain.

Al cited several reasons for the decline of the other processing plants: expenses, lack of labor, competition, and geography. The hurdles continue for his plant in 2023. “Geography is killing us as all the customers are south of us,” Al explained. Shipping and other related costs keep climbing. “It has been over ten years since we ran any large volume of…berries.”

At the pinnacle of the Leelanau Fruit Company’s production, they handled more than two million pounds of strawberries in one season; in 2022, there was fewer than 100,000 pounds. This loss in production also applies to other fruit crops. Al cited reasons such as competition from California and Mexico, which enjoy much longer growing seasons and cheaper labor than Northern Michigan. Additionally, “as labor and other input costs continue to rise, most Michigan farmers quit raising berries. The [farmers who continue to produce berries] sell mostly fresh off the farm or to local markets. [The Leelanau Fruit Company] only process[es]…for Michigan-based customers. [Customers] want our berries because they like the quality. The berries mostly end up in preserves,” concluded Al. Allen Steimel, as do all the local farmers, hold a unique position in that they understand the broad view of farming as both a business and a personal life choice.

Al and his wife Marjorie (Kalchik), also a fifth-generation farmer, live on the 155-acre Rude farm which is successful in that it produces apples, sweet cherries and corn, apricots, plums, squash, and pumpkins along with livestock, such as beef cattle and poultry. Personally, I am a huge fan of the Steimel farmstand south of Suttons Bay on M-22, near Blackstar Farms Winery. This farmstand first opened in 1998. During the summer months, the farmstand is loaded with wonderfully fresh produce. Every fall, the farmstand is my destination for gorgeous pumpkins in every color, squash, and cornstalks. Those cornstalks are the reason I first met Al. There is a phone number located in the farmstand. The cornstalks were sold out, so I called the number. Al promptly brought several more bundles of cornstalks as he lives kitty-corner to the farmstand.

The Steimel siblings (Allen, Mark, and Kathy) still own and farm their parents, grandparents (Johnson) and aunt and uncle Rude’s properties. In total, there is more than 300 acres of land. I asked Al, “Why farm?” He responded passionately and unequivocally, “I didn’t want to leave the land.”

Our conversation concluded with the future of farming in Leelanau County. According to Al, “Cherries are not a dying crop.” This statement surprised me as I have heard from other farmers and some vintners that the cherry trees are being ripped out as quickly as possible to plant other crops, primarily grapes. One farmer explained that preferences for crops evolve over time. At one time, the Leelanau Peninsula was a place of potatoes, then peas, then cherries. Al explained that cherries are still a valuable crop for use as dried cherries, in health supplements, pie fillings, and beverages. “Niche and organic farms are the future,” he said. Farmstands and farm markets are important to the area, and will continue to have value in that they offer the freshest fruit and vegetables to the consumer at better prices than most supermarkets.

The next area of focus in this series will be on the group of Bohemian families who immigrated to the Leelanau Peninsula in the late 19th-century. The Bohemian Family stories are another facet of the area’s rich cultural tapestry.