Gust Farm more than 100 years old and still thriving
Story by Vanessa Ray ▪ Photos by Tom Hawley
For more than 25 years, a farm on Mulberry Road in Ottawa Lake has been redefining what family-run agri-tourism means.
Started by Dan and Terese Gust when their oldest son, Nate, was born 28 years ago, Gust Brothers Pumpkin Farm is the epitome of “keeping it in the family.”
“The farm was my grandpa’s,” Dan said. “So, it’s been about 100 years (the family’s) been farming.”
The Gust’s four boys, Nate, Joe, Jake, and Dave, along with their wives, continue to work on the farm.
They also all live within one mile of the centennial estate they grew up on.
“We’re all right here,” Jake said with a laugh.
While the current farm contains a shop, donut building, kids’ playhouse and U-pick vegetables and flowers, the Gusts began their pumpkin farm on an area the size of a small garden.
“This all started from very humble beginnings,” Dan said. “In the beginning, it was all about keeping four little boys busy.”
From the quarter-acre patch planted in 1986 for their first son, the Gust farm has grown into a fall tradition for thousands of families. On any given day parents can be seen chasing their children around the displays.
The farm also attracts photographers, who use the Instagram-worthy back drops for everything from high school senior photos to wedding portraits.
While this is all going on, the family is there, working “their area” of the farm.
THE FAMILY ASPECT
Nate oversees donuts; Jake, the veggies and flowers; Joe takes care of harvesting and Dave looks after the mums and the picking area. The brothers also run the family’s social media accounts and say Facebook, which they fill with aesthetically pleasing photos of the farm, is their biggest draw.
All four of Dan and Terese’s children earned degrees in agriculture from Michigan State and plan to work the family farm the rest of their lives.
“Our dream was to have the boys around, but when they went off to college, we thought maybe they’d find something else they like better,” Terese said.
“But they went away, all got AG degrees, and now all live within one mile.”
Three years ago, Jake branched off and created a U-pick flower garden.
“In 2015 I started with some sunflowers,” Jake added. “I provided people with a jar and, for six bucks, they could cut what they want.”
The idea came to Jake out of nowhere.
“I just thought about it one day,” he said with a smile.
Much like the rest of the Gust farm, the flower garden has grown.
“We now have over 40 varieties,” Jake said.
Jewel toned zinnia’s, pastel cosmos, and deep orange sunflowers command attention from all those who walk through the Gust’s farm.
Beyond being a huge attraction, another thing the flowers have done is extend the Gust’s business.
“Our peak time used to be the end of Sept. through Nov. 1,” Dan said. “But with the flowers, we open earlier.”
That’s not to say the flowers are the only early attraction.
Early in the season, the Gusts focus mainly on vegetables and the U-pick veggie garden, however, once October rolls around, it’s all about the pumpkins.
The pumpkins have allowed the family to capitalize on their working farm.
“With the pumpkins, people like to go in and look at the animals,” Dan said.
The Gusts currently have both cows and steer as well as hogs and make use of older apples and miniature hay pellets, which they sell to guests who in turn, feed them to their animals.
The excitement that plays across children’s faces as a 2,000-pound steer takes an apple out of their hand is one of Dave’s favorite parts.
“Seeing little kids enjoy themselves as they watch a real farm in operation is the most rewarding aspect for me,” Dave said.
WORKING ON THE FARM
The family is also responsible for hiring the 30 or so workers needed for each season.
Jake, who teaches agriculture at Whiteford Agricultural Schools, recruits his students to work on the farm. The Gusts also utilize Monroe County Community College students like Joe Donnelly, who is currently enrolled in the college’s agriculture program.
“Joe is one of our best workers,” Dan said.
The wives: Megan, Katy, Jessica, and Allison, also put in their fair share of time.
“All the daughters-in-law work in the sales barn with me on the weekends,” Terese said.
The sales barn is also full of items created by the family.
Jake and his wife make the candles; Katy, the jam, and Joe brings the beef.
Katy is also a veterinarian, which comes in handy on a working farm.
The next generation of Gusts is already waiting for the chance to take over.
Dan and Terese currently have nine grandchildren, with the oldest nine.
“The grandchildren love being here,” Terese said with a wide smile.
“They’re not quite old enough to work here yet, but soon.”
Throughout everything, being together as a family and getting back to the reason for the existence of the farm, is what the Gusts treasure most.
“We all gather here every evening,” Terese said. “And pick pumpkins.”