Leelanau News and Events

'One of a Kind': Rothwell Driven to Save Farming

By Art Bukowski | Oct. 27, 2023

Nikki Rothwell feels very uneasy these days.

Rothwell, 50, is the coordinator of Michigan State University’s Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center in the heart of Leelanau County. She’s been there in some capacity for almost two decades, working with countless farmers throughout the region over the years.

And don’t get her wrong, it’s been mostly “amazing.” In addition to research, the station serves as the local home base for MSU’s agricultural extension efforts. That means education on cutting-edge growing techniques, pest and pathogen control, irrigation and other items to help local farmers thrive.   

“The best thing I get to do is work with great growers. The growing community up here is just so fantastic, and they’re so supportive of our station,” Rothwell said. “It’s a beautiful partnership…these growers are really dedicated to being the best growers they can be, and they rely on research to help them do that.”

But there’s a deep sense of foreboding, too, as the farmers she works with buckle under the relentless pressure of today’s environment. Between rising costs and shrinking profits, increased overseas competition, a lack of interest from the next generation and increased pressure to sell for development, farms are falling like dominoes. The region’s agricultural future is at a tipping point.

“It’s been really good over the years, but because of some of the challenges, it’s been sort of a sad space. You see that farms are struggling, families are struggling, real people are affected,” Rothwell says. When a sixth-generation farmer says they can’t farm anymore, that’s heartbreaking for everyone involved.”

Rothwell knows only one thing for sure: No matter what happens, she and her team at the hort center will be right there with the farmers they serve.

“We’re in the trenches with them,” she says. “Whatever that heartbreak or success is that they’ve had, we’re going to celebrate or lament with them…If extension’s done really well, that’s what it should be. This is a team, and we’re working together.”

Rothwell grew up on a cattle farm in Kingsley. At a young age she learned both the joys and the sobering realities of making a living from the land.

“I’ve always appreciated farming, and I’ve always understood the challenges of farming,” she says. “Even with the cattle, I remember when we’d go to sell, you never left there with high fives. They weren’t worth as much as you thought, or things along those lines. There are a lot of challenges.”

She first worked at the hort station while in college. As she traveled from farm to farm with a coworker who educated farmers on various topics, she knew she’d found her calling.

“I could see that transfer of information, and I could tell that it was making a difference. And I was like ‘That’s awesome. I want that guy’s job,’” she says with a broad smile.

After eventually earning a master’s degree in entomology from MSU, she lived in Massachusetts while earning her PhD. It was there she met eventual husband Dan Young, and the two returned to Michigan. She started back at the hort station a few days after her wedding, and the couple also went on to found Tandem Ciders, which they still own and operate.

Rothwell is the face of the extension office, splitting her time between those duties and research. Get her talking and she beams about the value of extension and her joy of helping farmers reach their highest potential. But the conversation quickly turns to the uncertain future of farming.

“If farms are struggling, sometimes the best way out is to sell acreage. And a lot of that is watershed views. If you look at the American Farmland Trust’s areas of concern, northwest Michigan is a huge concern in terms of loss of farmland,” she says. “So that’s what I feel really passionate about, trying to make sure that the guys out there are profitable and they don’t have to sell their farms off for development.”

And it’s not just the farmers themselves she’s concerned with. Agriculture is part of the very fabric our region, she says, and farmland preservation means far more than just keeping families in business.

“We need to work to preserve what we have. Those beautiful watershed views, the orchards, healthy lakes and water systems,” she says. “It’s not that we’re not a welcoming community – we really are. But if we’re supplanting farms with housing, that’s going to be devastating.”

“When you think of Michigan, what do you think? We grow great fruit. We make great wine. Oh man, I love a Michigan apple,” she continues. “These things are tied to our identity here in Michigan. And the loss of any of that farming feels like we’re losing pieces of ourselves. It’s really important to me to keep as many farmers in business as possible.”

For now, Rothwell and her staff remain hard at work helping farmers in any way possible. Advances are happening at a faster pace than ever before, and she wants to get them in the hands of the people that need them most.

“Horticulture has changed so much," she says. "In the past it actually seemed like it was slow to change, but in the last 10, 20 years, there’s been so many things."

For their part, growers in Leelanau County and beyond could not be more happy to have Rothwell on their side.

“She’s been one of the best hires that we’ve ever had at that station in terms of her dedication to the growers. She’s put the growers before herself on many occasions – she’s really one of a kind,” says longtime Leelanau County farmer Don Gregory, co-owner of Cherry Bay Orchards. “She’s done a great job in terms of helping growers identify the problems we have in the industry, and then working really hard to find solutions to them.”

Chris Alpers of Redpath Orchards in Lake Leelanau says Rothwell has built a tremendous amount of trust with growers.

“She excels at taking very technical information and presenting it in such a way that it can be easily utilized by the local fruit growing community, and she has built relationships in a way that makes people in our industry come together as a whole,” he says. “She’s also always the first to answer the call for other things in our community.”

 

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