Women Farmers Work the Land at Crane Dance Farm

Grace Hernandez

Grace Hernandez › Grace and her husband Michael managed Buxton, a Polyface satellite farm. Her first passion is to ...


After closing down Buxton, a satellite farm for Polyface, my husband and I decided it was a good time to visit other diverse farms. In particular, we wanted to acquire knowledge about raising heritage pigs.

Naturally, we hoped our intentions for a mild winter would lead us to a climate of sunny, warm days. But then we read about Mary Wills and Jill Johnson, owners of Crane Dance Farm. Crossing paths with women farmers raising grass-fed livestock these days is rare. Meeting them was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. So we headed north to their farm in Middleville, Michigan.

As it turns out they live in the snowbelt region of the midwest. During our visit, we could count the number of days we saw sunshine on one hand. Despite the cold, grey days we spent about two fantastic months working on Crane Dance Farm.

Jill and Mary raise 65 cattle, 20 sheep, 100 pigs, and hundreds of poultry. They own 35 acres and rent 100 acres. They are committed to farming not only because they have a passion for raising animals, but they also have an affinity for providing nutrient-rich meat to their customers. Certified by Animal Welfare Association, they’re choosing to be part of the farming solution rather than contributing to the ongoing pathology in the industrial farming model, or CAFO’s.

Crane Dance Farm is unique. Besides being women farmers, Jill and Mary also grind their own grain for their poultry and pigs. They are a closed loop system, which means they have a hand in the breeding that takes place on the farm and they’re always improving the genetic pool. They own one ram, one bull and three boars for this purpose. All animals born on the farm stay on the farm until they are harvested. Poultry is the only exception, as the chicks arrive one day old. They are certified by Animal Welfare Approved for their laying hens and pigs. Being certified by this non-profit keeps Jill and Mary honest farmers. AWA standards are high and many customers feel at ease buying from farmers who can meet AWA standards. Finally, they direct-market their product and they do all their own castrating of their livestock, which we witnessed on our visit.

It’s almost unheard of these days for farmers to grind their own grain. It’s not an easy task. It involves handling large heavy equipment and it takes a good deal of effort to find local sources for GMO-free grains. Fortunately, they own two aged grinder mixers. During our visit they mixed beautiful black sunflowers in the chicken food with Fertrell Poultry minerals, spelt, or rye, barley, or buckwheat, and GMO-free corn, and alfalfa hay. They personally know all of their grain growers which is remarkable. Grinding their own grain is the only way they feel they can control the quality of their feed. We were fascinated by their efforts.

Crossing paths with women farmers raising grass-fed livestock these days is rare. Meeting them was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

In summer during the growing season they day range hundreds of broilers and turkeys and, when available, add a local source of GMO-free whole roasted soybeans. The soybeans provide additional protein for their fast-growing meat birds. Jill has the grinding down to an art. The end result is always different. She likes to vary her recipe with the seasons. After all, if you were a chicken or pig would you want to eat the same thing over and over? These are some very satisfied and tasty animals.

The farmer that grows their GMO-free corn lives 10 miles from the farm, which is almost unheard of these days. With the increasing cost of farm inputs like corn and hay, Crane Dance Farm started storing both. Currently, they have 27 tons of corn in storage and hundreds of round bales. Last year’s drought almost brought the farm to its knees, something they hope to never face again. Storing food sources is sort of insurance for their farm. They plan to be better prepared as the climate continues to change, affecting farmers and consumers across the nation.

Our instincts to travel north to Crane Dance Farm were right on cue. They farrow sows in the barn in bad weather. I treasured watching piglets be born. They have 15 sows on hand with at least 100 pigs on pasture. We assumed freezing temperatures and snow meant pigs would winter inside, but with proper shelter, deep bedding and bales of hay or cornstalks, the swine appeared unfazed by the weather. In fact, they seemed to prefer it!

Jill and Mary do the bulk of their marketing in Grand Rapids, a true foodie town. Every Saturday for the last 10 years they have participated in Grand Rapids’ Fulton Street Farmers Market. Now in its 91st year of operation, the Fulton Street Farmers Market is open year-round. In summer the market is home to at least 8,000 customers on Saturdays. We worked this market with Jill and Mary for five weeks and the temperature was rarely above freezing. We sold thousands of dollars of meat despite the chill and snowfall. Their customers are committed to Crane Dance Farm and we know intimately why – their grass-fed meat is excellent. We can confirm the love and devotion that goes into raising a superior product. We also noticed a fabulous taste difference with their heritage berkshire pork chops. Something we just had to discover for ourselves. Lucky us!

After spending a fair amount of time on Crane Dance Farm, you can’t help but wonder how two women can accomplish all the necessary work to keep their farm lucrative. It takes a lot of hands and able bodies. With the number of livestock currently on hand plus four farmers’ markets a week, you have to know something about pacing yourself. In addition, hiring a mobile processor for the chickens and turkeys is a win-win.

And finally, they have weathered some adversity as women farmers. Mostly resistance from the good old boys who don’t take Jill and Mary’s profession as farmers seriously. In the past, when they have informed service vendors (truck, trailer, tractor, handymen, builders, infrastructure repairers, etc.) that they raise livestock, they’re often asked what kind of horses they raise. Recently, they went shopping for a new tractor, but the sales rep. just couldn’t get beyond dealing with two women buying a tractor. Cash in hand, they went somewhere else.

For Jill and Mary moving beyond stereotypes has been a bit of a dance, but not taking these projections personally has only strengthened their character. These are intelligent, wise, strong women whose contribution to farming is priceless and, in my opinion, should be revered. Over time they have found a handful of mature people who support their vision, men who aren’t intimidated by Jill and Mary’s knowledge and want to see Crane Dance Farm succeed. It’s nice when people can come to the realization that we’re all in this together.

Jill has been on this land for 17 years. She and Mary are devoted to this lifestyle, and it shows. Our experience at Crane Dance Farm was rich, heartwarming, inspirational and deeply satisfying. Crane Dance Farm has influenced our vision in profound ways. We’re so appreciative for the brief dance we shared.

Are there women farmers working the land in your area?

Photo Credit: Grace Hernandez