As a youngster, Dave Turk soon discovered his love not only for farming, but also marketing. For more than two decades he’s managed to successfully meld those two passions into a full-time job, despite a series of debilitating setbacks.
While he’s a fixture at the Brighton and Howell farmers markets, northwest of Detroit, he grew up on his family’s farm just over the Michigan state line in Berkey, Ohio. He recalls at age 9, collecting eggs and feeding chickens, geese, ducks and rabbits.
“I had my first little farm stand in the front yard on a card table and found out the people like the fresh stuff,” he says. “I was portable way back when.”
By about 1980, he was working for a lumber yard and spending his free time at the farm. The manager told him to get off the fence, be a lumber manager or go play farmer.
He had two bachelor uncles who were farming and it was a hung jury: one wanted him on the farm; the other didn’t. So at that time, he stuck with the lumber yard a few years longer until he purchased a 17-acre property in Fenton, Mich., just outside Flint.
He started with the Hartland Farmers Market, but soon found the Brighton market, where he became one of the bigger players, especially on the meat side.
“When I got things rolling, I was doing chicken, duck, pork, lamb, goat, as well as a range of fresh fruit and vegetables,” he says.
But then came the year from March 2016 to March 2017. It was a year that saw him forced to sell his farm in a divorce settlement, undergo a liver transplant, a hip transplant and a series of hernia operations. To top it off, he was in a traffic accident that destroyed his trailer and its farm market contents.
It hasn’t, however, dented his desire to farm. “It’s not really been an option,” Turk, 58, says. “I am goal-oriented, and I want to see my projects finished. When I hear about my friends retiring, I don’t know what that would be.”
The sale of his farm was completed while he was on his back in the University of Michigan hospital. It almost put him out of business. But then irony intervened.
One of the his uncles — the one who didn’t want Berkey to farm — left him his 120-acre Ohio farm in Berkey.
Most of it is currently leased for corn production, but he is using about 3 acres and preparing an area of his parents’ farm about a mile and a half away, possibly for sheep.
Inheriting the farm brought Turk back to his roots. He’s started with chickens, ducks and pheasants.
The move from Fenton back to Ohio came while Turk was in the hospital. “I coordinated it from my hospital bed,” he says. “Customers and neighbors loaded my trailers, and friends in Ohio picked up the trailers and brought them back here.
“I didn’t want to abuse my friends, so each one did a small portion, and they all worked together — some loaded, some unloaded.”
It was all done in six weeks. “You can only do that if you’ve got people willing to help,” Turk says. “I was blessed with a lot of help from friends.”
With all the post-operation restrictions on lifting and walking behind him, Turk is swinging back into action. “Now I am able to do a lot of this stuff, so I am hitting it hard,” he says.
Back to his roots
There was no way the Ohio move would end Turk’s long association with Michigan. “I was there a long time, so I have a reputation,” he says. “Otherwise, you have to start totally from scratch. I’m getting old and I need to get moving, so I kept the Brighton and Howell markets.”
He also has the biggest stand at the biweekly indoor Howell winter market. He travels around Michigan in his pickup in search of fresh produce with different sources for different routes.
At the Ohio farm, he has recently completed the newest upgrade to a legendary hen house on the property.
Turk’s grandparents, with their five children, once lived in the hen house while their house was being rebuilt after a tornado demolished it.
Turk is also upgrading a large barn. “I’m not sure what direction I’m going with that,” he says. “I’ve got people that want me to raise a lot of lambs and goats.”
Nearby Toledo has a Muslim population second only to Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. “I’ve been told the Toledo community would love to be able to buy from me.”
Right now, they drive 60 miles to Detroit. “I just have to finish the barn,” he says. “I already have the pasture set up and will electrify the fence. I might get a few lambs this year to start it off.”
During his health problems, he was conspicuously missing from the Brighton and Howell markets, and people were looking for him.
“Quite a few have returned,” he says. “I’m still working on getting my chicken contingent to find me. That’s been a little bit slow, but they are coming around.”
From his new farm, Turk also works a Tuesday farmers market just down the road in Sylvania, Ohio.
He’s getting return business. Proof, he says, his model is working.
He developed that model by trial and error and discovering that each market is different.
“For instance, in Flint you can sell melons year-round,” he says. “In Brighton and Howell, by the first part of September, they have had enough melons,”
A stint at the weekday Fowlerville market in a farming community west of Brighton, found a demand dramatically different from Brighton. “It was the same products, but different buying tendencies,” Turk says. “Brighton’s head count was probably four times that of Fowlerville, but the folks in Fowlerville had chest freezers. They know how to can, and they buy in bulk. A lot of people in urban markets, their idea of a freezer is that little box on top of the refrigerator.”
One of his early markets was at Fenton, just down the road from his farm, and it was there he began developing sales techniques that have served him well ever since.
“I found a lot of Fenton market-goers were older and didn’t eat as much, but still wanted the quality,” Turk says. “I had packaged pork chops in fours, but they only wanted two. I switched to two chops a package and sales picked up. If people wanted four, they could get two packages.”
It was the same with pork steaks, but reducing the packages from two to one. “You have to see who you are selling to and what they want to buy.”
Sometimes, it does take a little persuasion to make a sale. Back in the day, when he worked the farmers market in Flint and regulations weren’t so stringent on sampling, he had a simple technique for his fruit marketing.
“Parents would be afraid to buy anything new because money was tight,” he says. “The marketing had to be directed at the children. When they tried one of those sweet plums and their eyes would light up, there was a sale. The parents found out they had something healthier to offer their children.”
However, today, food safety is an issue. If the state wants to push fruit and vegetables, he says, they need to encourage sampling with more user-friendly guidelines to allow vendors to offer samples.
Turk has two or three growers for everything, depending on the routes. With the exception of the Ovid farm supplying the free-range chickens and eggs, pretty much all his offerings are from Michigan, with sources developed over the years.
Egg production has reached 20 dozen a week, but he doesn’t know where the numbers will peak. “There’s more birds than I’ve ever had, probably 230 to 250 out there,” he says.
Turk keeps going in the face of all his adversity. Early this season, he bought and installed an old school milk cooler on his trailer to keep cheeses refrigerated on the run to Brighton and Howell. Almost to his destination in June, he was plowed into by a driver who was cited for ignoring yield signs. The accident banged up his Silverado, totaled both the trailer and the cooler, and ruined most of his cheese.
Now his carrying capacity is slowing his expansion plans. At his peak in Brighton, Turk employed three workers to handle the customers, and it was all they could do to keep up. For now, it’s just him and one other, but the trade is recovering week by week.
An Ohio farm stand is also in his plans, but he’s not ready yet. “I am not to the size where I can employ somebody to be here,” he says. “I am out gathering produce, and would be too disappointing to people that I couldn’t have set hours.”
Turk says this might change when the farmers market season ends in late fall, as he is selling laying hens from the farm gate to more city residents, who are allowed to raise hens. “The coyote population up this way is increasing, so I am getting a lot of replacement stock orders,” he says.
Looking back, Turk says his first on-farm market at the Fenton property was, perhaps, unique. “I had seven or eight freezers full of meat,” he recalls. “It was on the honor system, and that’s unheard of. People would come in, select what they wanted and leave me the money, cash or checks. Some orders would be $200 and more.”
Recognizing and meeting potential customers’ needs — whatever that may be — distinguishes Turk not only as a farmer, but also as an entrepreneur.
Harman writes from Brighton.