The Land: Farming, community go hand-in-hand for the Van Sickles.

June 7, 2016
Larry Van Sickle

Larry Van Sickle

The Land series on local agriculture is brought to you by House of Flavors Restaurants in Ludington and Manistee: Bringing Something Sweet to the Lakeshore:

By Allison Scarbrough. Editor.

ELBRIDGE TOWNSHIP — Larry Van Sickle has been farming asparagus most of his life, and the 73-year-old has observed many changes over the years in Oceana County’s biggest agricultural industry.

One thing remains constant for Larry, however, and that is his dedication to the community he loves.

Oceana is the largest producer of asparagus in the state, producing approximately 20 million pounds per season. Oceana is likely the largest asparagus county in the nation based on acreage, boasting 6,000-7,000 acres of the green veggie and approximately 70 farms. Michigan is the second largest producer of asparagus in the U.S., second to California. This week the county celebrates the National Asparagus Festival.

the land title ocpWith the season winding down, Larry and his son Lance continue to work long, hot days to harvest the popular vegetable on their 400-acre farm.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he says taking in the view of his gorgeous asparagus fields. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Just like in most occupations, technology has made its impact on farming, Larry says. Most of the equipment, such as tractors and sprayers, are computerized now. Any computer-related jobs on the farm Lance handles, he says. “I’m not tech savvy. I’m one of the old guys.”

Daughter-in-law Stephanie, Lance’s wife, is the farm’s bookkeeper.

Lance serves his community by serving on local fire departments. He is captain of the Walkerville Fire Department and assistant chief of the Crystal Township Fire Department. He also is a bus driver for Hart Public Schools. Stephanie serves as an emergency medical technician (EMT).

“When the whistle blows, nothing gets done around here,” Larry says with a laugh. But he doesn’t mind, because his son and daughter-in-law are helping the community. Being active in the community is something he is passionate about. “All of my family is community-minded.”

Larry served 16 years on the Oceana County Board of Commissioners and 20 years on the Hart Public Schools Board of Education. As a school board member, he had the opportunity to proudly hand all four of his children their diplomas during their graduation ceremonies.

Larry and Lance Van Sickle.

Larry and Lance Van Sickle.

He chairs the Oceana Department of Human Services Board, and he also serves on the Northwest Michigan Health and the West Michigan Community Mental Health boards. “I really enjoy it,” he says.

While things may get a little hectic with the farm and his community activism, Larry is never too busy to share a laugh. His sense of humor is one of his defining qualities.

VanSickle purchased the farm in 1963 from his parents, Lloyd and Maxine, who bought the land in 1940. He also raises cattle and a variety of crops. At one time also raised pickles there.

Oceana County’s sandy loam soil is what makes it the ideal growing location for asparagus, he says. Most of his asparagus is sold to Todd Greiner Farms, which is the biggest asparagus producer in Oceana County. Greiner’s operation is the second largest producer of both fresh and packed asparagus in Michigan.

asparagus oceana van sickle vansickle“I’m definitely not one of the big boys,” VanSickle says.

His farm produces 3,000-4,000 pounds of asparagus per acre. He hired 15 migrant workers this season to pick the vegetable. Last year, there was a labor shortage that had a devastating impact on Oceana’s asparagus industry. This year, fortunately, workers are easier to find.

Larry’s twin teenage grandsons, Payton and Aaron, are helping pick this year, along with some of their friends.

With the popularity of fresh foods, Larry has witnessed a trend of fresh asparagus taking over the market. “People prefer fresh over frozen,” he says.

VanSickle, an “old timer” as he calls himself, has seen many changes in farming, but one thing remains the same — his loyalty to the farm and his community.

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