Dancer Creek Farm: A Glimpse Inside the Small-Scale Agrarian Life
By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter
Dexter has been known as a farming town for most of its life. While it has been a few years since the city has held that association, a growing movement in the area has people discovering or perhaps rediscovering the richness and rewards of farm life and the community it brings.
“I'm particularly grateful for the Dexter community for its farming heritage has and for the generosity of the people,” says Colleen Dauw of Dancer Creek Farm.
Wife and husband team of Colleen and Casey Dauw are new to farming. Neither had any experience when they moved to their 20-acre parcel in 2016 and broke ground for Dancer Creek Farm.
“The property didn’t have any buildings or any home on it,” recalls Colleen. “This was not what you would consider tillable land, but we used our mind’s eye to creatively think of what it could become.”
With three kids, one on the way, and two dogs, Colleen and Casey lived in a 31x8-foot camper for five months on their property while their house was being built. During that time, Colleen set about clearing the land. She used goats to get rid of the brush and poison ivy. After the goats, Colleen followed up with a chainsaw and backhoe. “Slowly, it began to open up,” she says.
Colleen and Casey are examples of a new generation of farmers with smaller tracts of land and a source of outside income. Casey is a urology surgeon with Michigan Medicine. Colleen was an oncology nurse, leaving the profession upon the birth of their fourth child and devoting herself to the farm.
Ask Colleen about farming, and she’ll tell you about the community. She first experienced the power of the farming community soon after they had cleared the land.
“People saw what we were doing and were curious,” says Colleen. “We got to know some of the farmers. They probably looked at us a bit sideways but were remarkably gracious with their knowledge and experience.”
This was a big boost for the young couple. “They were encouraging, and I can’t say enough about that,” adds Colleen. “They wanted to see the community’s farming heritage continue even if it was with newbies like us.”
Dancer Creek Farm raises livestock. The poultry is sold through Colleen’s company, Washtenaw Meats. The hoofed meat goes to customers who come to the Dauws for a share of pork, goat, or lamb listed on their website, https://dancercreek.eatfromfarms.com/
Colleen formed Washtenaw Meats with business partner Sarah Schloss with the idea that farmers working together as a community are much stronger than working individually. Washtenaw Meats is a collective that provides partner farms assistance in marketing, distribution, and processing logistics. As a collective, the group increases its market influence. Washtenaw Meats are sold at the Dexter Mill or online at https://www.washtenawmeats.com/
But selling their livestock, while vital, is not the only harvest the Dauws get from farming.
“There's a grit and hard work component to farming,” says Colleen. “There's a spiritual element of stewardship, where we are in a place for a time, and it’s a blessing to care for it well. Farming combines our love of caring for people and raising a family.”
When asked how farm life benefited kids, Colleen listed off things such as working outdoors in the fresh air, taking responsibility for a living thing, the sense of accomplishment from hands-on work and boosting mental health. But Colleen also described a more profound element for kids in farming.
“We are in a culture where the idea of death is not well discussed,” she says. “I don’t apologize for exposing my kids to the circle of life. We do butchery on site here. My kids learn to care for something well, watch it take its first breath, and often watch it take its last. It's really healthy for kids to understand that there are things bigger than themselves.”
Colleen sees more and more people are returning to their roots, literally.
“There is a whole generation of new farmers who see the value in honoring a place and wanting to work that place for the benefit of their own lives and also for their community,” says Colleen. “They come from broad, diverse backgrounds, and farming provides a greater sense of connection in real, tangible ways.”
Even folks who don’t have acres for farming use what space they have to add a touch of agriculture to their lives.
“We had a big increase in sales of vegetable gardening supplies at the beginning of the pandemic,” says Keri Bushaw, owner of the Dexter Mill. “I suspect because a lot of people had more time and couldn’t go anywhere, many of them turned to small-plot activities.”
Whatever the reason, it stuck. Keri says the demand continued this past spring and summer again. “We also sold a lot of baby chicks both years,” she adds. “A small space can sustain and produce more than people think. It’s been interesting to see people have more time available and how they turned it into something they enjoy.”
But if you’re entertaining any thoughts of getting into small farming, it comes with a caution.
“It’s a bit disingenuous to say anybody who likes working outside and likes working with animals or is a hard worker should go out and farm,” says Colleen. “There are bills to pay, medical issues with the animals, and food to put on the table.”
Making it financially viable for small farmers is a nut Colleen wants to crack, which is why she founded Washtenaw Meats. The supply/demand dynamic for locally-sourced food is growing. Hopefully, it will continue to develop into established economic maturity for the entire community on both sides of the plate.
So, while not as apparent as in its earlier years, Dexter’s agrarian lifestyle continues. But lest anyone gets carried away by romantic notions of rustic splendor, Colleen mixes no words. “Farming is hard and often frustrating work,” she says, but in the same breath, adds, “But we feel very blessed for this life.”
Photos: Doug Marrin