family background/ Dan is a first-generation tree fruit grower who wants to build on the farm’s family legacy built by his father-in-law, Rodney Klenk, in Western Michigan. He graduated from Central Michigan University, is married to Natalie Norman and is the son of Dan and Dawn Norman.
grower/Sparta, Michigan
crops/Apples and cherries
business/Klenk Orchards

Dan Norman, a young grower from Sparta, Michigan, on February 26, 2018. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)How did you get your start?
Actually, I grew up on a cattle farm. Then in high school I met a super, beautiful girl, and I started going to work for her father during the summers on Klenk Orchards.

I kept on doing that while attending college and every year I’d come back and work for them. I was studying criminal justice in college, not really farm-related, but he offered me an opportunity to farm. I loved the work during the summers, so I started full time in 2015. I’ve been there ever since.

Why farming over criminal justice?
I’d always been around tractors and farming, but the tree fruit industry is completely different from cattle, so I had to learn just about everything. It was that first summer on the farm that I knew I wanted to do it full-time. I enjoyed the work and being outside.

I remember one of the first things I learned was how to prune trees. In high school I was learning Spanish, so I worked a bit with the crews and learned leadership skills.

I just slowly started taking more responsibilities on the farm — learning the basics, such as getting comfortable on a tractor, to getting my applicator license. My father-in-law makes the big decisions, and I’m responsible for daily operations, seven years after I started.

Why do you want to be a farmer?
This was the first type of work that I was passionate about. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs, from the restaurant industry as a bartender, was part of Air Force ROTC and was thinking a military route, but this was the first thing that I was happy doing.

It may be a lot of work and a lot of hours, but I enjoy it the whole time. What I see myself doing for the rest of my life is farming; it makes me happy and you can make money doing it. It’s just a good career.

What projects have you been focused on?
We’re in the process of removing all our old apple blocks that are on older growing styles. They’re big, bushy and kinda ugly trees, so I’m learning how to replant using high-density systems along with all the modern pruning techniques.

This has been a big challenge, but it’s rewarding when you look out at the freshly planted block of apples and it’s just beautiful. It’s a night-and-day difference from what we had.

What growing challenges do you have in your area?
In Sparta we have a lot of lake effect. The weather can be pretty crazy. The biggest thing we worry about is the freezing that happens. We’ll get warmer temperatures in February, and it’ll start to move in March, and then we’ll just get a freeze.

It’s pretty bad, so we use frost fans to try to minimize damage. Other options are burning round bales of hay that are spread out to get fires in the orchard and keep things warmer.

We try to have everything planned out and when cold spells begin showing up we’ll move bales and old apple boxes filled with hay throughout the orchard to light on fire when needed. Pretty much you’re up all night just keeping an eye on things. It’s a stressful time.

What’s helped you most as a first-generation tree fruit grower?
It’s been a trial-by-fire experience. I’d say I put in a lot of hours just doing the work. I haven’t taken any horticulture classes or anything, so I’m just out there working.

I think you aren’t going to truly learn until you do it. You learn better through experience than classes, at least that’s what works for me.

I also work with grandpa Ron, my father-in-law’s dad. He’s about 82, so he’s been farming for about 70 years or so. He’s been a wealth of knowledge to me.

What do you want to do with the future of the farm?
I think one of the biggest things right now is agritourism in our area. We have good crowds in our U-pick, but we’re kinda bare-bones.

We have a tractor that brings people out to the blocks, but I think we could incorporate a lot of other activities and different events to bring people into the farm.

Being just north of Grand Rapids, we get a lot of people who come out from the city and we could provide a good experience for families. I think it could be huge for our business.

I want to incorporate modern farming practices and build up the agritourism portion of the business.

What advice do you have for other young growers?
Patience. I think if you expect too much or expect to be handed something you’ll be disappointed. For me, the biggest thing has been to focus on what I need to do and get it done.

The rest will come with time. It’s very rewarding work and I don’t necessarily believe you need a college degree to be successful. If you enjoy it, work hard and go for it as a career.

-TJ Mullinax