The regional patterns of Michigan’s agriculture are not as consistent as those in the midwestern, corn-belt, prairie states, primarily because of more heterogeneous soils, topography (slope), drainage, and climatic characteristics and the state’s location on the leeward side of Lake Michigan and, to some extent, Lake Superior.

WHAT WE GROW (below)
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Source:  State of Michigan - Department of Agriculture

The state divides into two general regions, namely, (1) the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, which has the most farms, the largest amount of land in crops, the highest yields per acre, and the greatest volume and value of crops, animals, and animal products, and (2) the remainder of the state which has poorer agricultural conditions and much less volume and value of farm production

Wide variations in climate, soil types, topography and markets are found within the state. Because of these factors, Michigan farmers find it advantageous to follow types of farming best adapted to the particular conditions within the region in which they live.
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Source: Unknown

    The distribution of farms in Michigan shows about 80% of Michigan’s farms are in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula where soil and climatic conditions favorable for agricultural production are found. The cost to rent an acre of farmland reflects not only the quality of the soil but also the pressures from development, e.g., wind turbine fields, as well as expansion of mega-dairy operations. See below. Keweenaw County has the smallest number of farms, and is closely followed by Crawford.


    In terms of emphasis in production, the following generalized regions can be identified on the basis of major farm products sold: (1) dairying in the southern and central parts of the Lower Peninsula and scattered throughout the rest of the state; (2) beans, soy and dry, in the Saginaw Valley and cash grain, mostly corn and wheat, in many of the central and southern counties of the southern Lower Peninsula; (3) the fruit-growing counties along Lake Michigan in the Lower Peninsula; and (4) nurseries and greenhouses in the three metropolitan Detroit counties-Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb. Small areas of specialization also occur, such as hogs and pigs in Cass County, poultry and poultry products in Ottawa, and field seeds in Roscommon.

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Source: Central Michigan University

What to farm?
The factors determining the selection of crop and livestock enterprises (in effect, the type of farming) on a particular farm may be classified under four headings as follows: 1) physical, 2) economic, 3) personal and 4) biological.  Physical factors largely determine which products may be produced most efficiently in a given area. The economic ones determine which products are most profitable to produce. The personal factors include the likes and dislikes of the farmer. These are important, particularly in the selection of the kind and location of a farm to buy or rent. Biological factors include insect pests, plant and animal diseases and animal pests.

The three physical factors important in determining the best type-of-farming to follow in Michigan are 1) climate, 2) soils and 3) topography.  Farmers have little or no control over climate and topography. A farmer may, however, supplement rainfall by irrigation. Once the farm is selected, a farmer has no control or choice as to the kind of soil on the farm. A farmer may, however, modify the drainage, organic matter content, fertility and acidity and thus improve the productivity of the land he/she owns.  The major climatic factor affecting the selection of crop and livestock enterprises in Michigan is the length of growing season. The rainfall and total precipitation, ranging from about 28 to 32 inches, have little or no effect on the selection of crops and livestock.
    Michigan has a wide range in the length of growing season, which plays an important part in determining the different type-of-farming areas. The crops in Michigan most sensitive to adverse climatic conditions are the tree fruits, corn, dry beans and certain vegetables.
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Source:  The Climatic Atlas of Michigan, Val L. Eichenlaub, et al., 1990. 

The three main reason why Michigan has so many variations in length of growing season are 1) the surrounding Great Lakes, 2) the variation in latitude and 3) the variation in elevation. Of the three, the influence of the lakes and the variation in latitude are most pronounced and important. The influence of Lake Michigan on weather makes possible the fruit area in western Michigan. This large body of water, after being warmed by the summer sun, retains its heat during the autumn. As a result, the autumns are usually long and mild, and hence favorable for ripening fruit and hardening new growth on fruit trees, thus lessening winter killing. After the water in the Great Lakes is finally cooled during the winter, it remains cold until late spring and usually delaying the opening of fruit buds until danger of frost is past. This lake influence is much less pronounced on the Lake Huron and Lake Erie shores because the prevailing winds in the Great Lakes region are from the west.  Michigan extends about 400 miles north and south, and at latitudes 42 and 47, the length of growing season of the northern part of the state is considerably reduced as contrasted with that of the southern part.

Soils. Soil is a very important factor in determining, not only, the best type of farming to follow but also the productivity and value of a farm. The characteristics of the soil which are of major importance in determining the best us of land are texture, structure, drainage, slope and the degree of erosion.  The soils of Michigan do not occur, generally, as uniform individual types in areas of large extent except on some of the dry sandy pine-plains in the northern part of the state. They exist more commonly in small bodies and in associations comprising a number of soil types which not only differ chemically and physically, but which also exhibit a great diversity in topography and drainage. Michigan soils range in texture from plastic compact clays which are difficult to till and drain to dry sands which, when unprotected, are subject to wind erosion.
    In addition to the mineral soils, Michigan has approximately 5 million acres (nearly one-seventh of the land area of the state) of organic soils (mucks and peats). The organic soils, which generally occur in relatively small separate bodies, range in chemical and physical properties from raw, highly acid peat bogs or marshes to black well-decomposed mucks.

Topography. Michigan has a wide range in topography from the level lands of the old lake beds which range from 580 to 800 feet above sea level to the Huron and Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula which reach about 2,000 feet in elevation.  The topography or slope of the land is an important factor in the selection of the best kinds of crops and livestock to produce on a farm. For example, with hilly land and land with steeper and longer slopes a higher proportion needs to be in grass and legumes than is true for the more level land. With the level to gently rolling land, a higher proportion may be in row crops and grains.  The topography or slope of the land also effects the air drainage, water drainage, soil erosion, and the size and types of farm power and machinery units which can be used efficiently on the farm. Soil erosion is a problem on the rolling and hilly lands. Water drainage is often a real problem in the level loam and clay loam areas. The modern farm power and machinery units are much better adapted to the level and gently rolling areas than they are to the hilly and steeply sloping areas.
    The elevation above sea level influences the climate of some sections of the state to a considerable degree. In the north-central portion of the lower peninsula and in the western part of the upper peninsula where the elevation is 1,200 to 2,000 feet above sea level, the weather is colder in the winter and the growing season is comparatively shorter than it is at lower elevations.
    Largely responsible for our topography, landforms, and our conglomeration of soils were the glaciers which covered Michigan. Six major landform types emerged from the maelstrom of forces that were operative in our state during recent geologic time: moraines, till plains, outwash plains, lake clay plains, lake sand plains, and rock outcrop areas with little or no glacial drift upon their surfaces.
    Glacial end moraines are belts of rolling or rugged hills with intervening swales, swamps and lakes that enhance the beauty of the countryside. Morainic soils, however, consist of materials ranging from boulders to fine clay and silts, with all possible gradations of rock derivatives from coarse gravel to fine sand intervening between the two extremes. Our morainic areas contain much good soil and much that is either too poor or too steep for cultivated crops.
    Till plains, or ground moraine, are gently undulating lands. They are generally fertile, with soils that are predominately clay loams and sandy loams, capable of supporting diversified agriculture indefinitely, provided they are handled properly.
    Outwash plains occupy extensive areas in northern Michigan and constitute the poorest soils, with the exception of exposed or almost barren rock. The sandy hardwood and jack pine plains of the northern half of the Lower Peninsula are typical. These have been the problem lands of Michigan. Forty to 50 years ago large scale attempts were made to clear and farm these lands, but the thin forest humus overlying infertile sand was soon exhausted and thousands of hopeful pioneer farmers starved out and their lands reverted. Ownership records indicate that some of these farms went through the tax reversion wringer two or three times before they finally came to rest in public ownership.
    The lake (lacustrine) plains, which are typical of Saginaw, Huron, Monroe and other counties bordering lakes Huron and Erie, comprise our richest agricultural lands, but they require drainage and careful handling. Sandy areas on the lake plains, with dune lands and ancient beach ridges, are of low fertility and often wet. Like the outwash plains, they help supply our need for wood and vast areas of wildlife habitat.
    The rock outcrop areas of Michigan are most prominent in the Upper Peninsula. There are two types of landforms in this category: the rugged hills and mountains found in the western half of the peninsula, and flat limestone and sandstone outcrops, typical of Drummond Island and certain sections of the eastern half of the peninsula. The rocks are frequently covered with a thin layer of glacial drift and humus that is capable of supporting a vigorous stand of northern hardwood and coniferous trees.
    None of these basic landmarks is homogeneous. For example, in the Lower Peninsula moraines occur in concentric ranges parallel to the shores of Saginaw Bay, Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, but others occur in irregular patterns which seemingly have no relations to the outlines of the Great Lakes. Till plains and outwash plains commonly fill in the space between the hill formations. Lake plains occupy much of the Saginaw River Valley, and the broad belt of flat land surrounding the "Thumb" and extending southward along the shores of Lakes Huron, St. Clair and Erie.
    A large part of Michigan’s northern land has moderate limitations as far as agriculture in concerned. It consists of rugged hills, shallow rocky soils with rock outcrops, rolling sandy plains, extensive swamps, inland lakes and streams. This is Michigan’s public and private forest and recreation land. This is the land that makes Michigan’s tourist industry second only to the automotive industry in dollars-and-cents value. This is the land that was logged and destroyed by fire. This is the land that has come back from desolation as a result of forest management, good forest fire control and intelligent land-use planning. However, not all of northern Michigan is bad, agriculturally. Scattered areas of fair to good farm land may be found throughout this part of the state. Northern Michigan has also produced the major share of Michigan’s mineral wealth: limestone, gypsum, copper, iron, oil and gas. This rugged northern, mineral-laden land has supplied the crude materials for heavy industry in the great industrial cities of the world.

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Source: Central Michigan University

Economic factors largely determine the kinds of products that are most profitable to produce on a farm. This influence is in the form of prices received by farmers for farm products, costs of production, and types and nearness of markets. For example, two enterprises may be equally well adapted to the physical conditions within an area, and yet not be at all comparable from the standpoint of financial returns per acre.
    The economic factors which are important in determining the kind or kinds of crops and livestock to produce on a given farm are 1) markets, 2) price of land and 3) competitive and supplementary enterprises. Temporarily such factors as the cycles in the supply of different products, periods required for returns on capital investments, and the supply of labor, the size of farms, the supply of capital and whether the farm is tenant or owner-operated may affect the type of farming followed on an individual farm.

. Nearness to large markets is the most important single economic factor affecting the best types of farming to follow on southern Michigan farms. Large population centers in SE Michigan increase the local demand for bulky farm products and for products with a high degree of perishability, like vegetables and milk. Such products tend to be produced near the markets because of lower transportation costs and quicker delivery time. Thus, Michigan farmers tend to produce such products as fluid milk, vegetables and small fruits in season, tree fruits and poultry products.

Price of Land. Farm land prices are probably more the result rather than the cause of variations in types of farming. Once established, however, farm land prices do have an important influence on the selection of crop and livestock enterprises.  Higher priced land demands intensive use for successful operations. Intensive use is obtained by first producing intensive enterprises such as dairy, poultry, fruit, truck crops, dry beans, sugar beets, potatoes, corn and high producing pastures; and second by the handling of these intensive enterprises in an intensive, high producing manner.
    Extensive types of farming, where sheep and beef cattle are the major enterprises, are best adapted to the larger farms in regions where land prices are relatively low. These rather extensive enterprises do not as a rule produce sufficient income per acre to be profitable on the average size of farm in Michigan.

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Source: Central Michigan University

Source: Hart, John Fraser (1991) �Part-Ownership and Farm Enlargement in the Midwest.� Annals of the Association of American Geographers 81 (1) , 66�79.

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Source: Central Michigan University

Types of farming in Michigan
There are a number of different farming areas in Michigan.  The maps below show two different classifications of farming regions within the state.

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Source: Hill, E.B., Riddell, F.T., and F.F. Elliot. 1930. Types of farming in Michigan. Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station Special Bulletin 206.


Michigan’s 17 farming areas are largely based on the sources of farm income and the prevailing kinds of crops and livestock. The divisions between the areas are not so definite as the boundary lines would indicate. The transition from one area to the next is usually a gradual one.
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Source: Hill, E.B., Riddell, F.T., and F.F. Elliot. 1930. Types of farming in Michigan. Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station Special Bulletin 206.

The most important source of farm income from Area 1 is from the sale of livestock, mostly cattle, hogs and sheep. The other sources of income in order of their importance are dairy products; field crops, mostly wheat, corn, sugar beets and soybeans, and poultry and poultry products. On some farms, truck crops such as tomatoes, sweet corn, squash, melons, cabbage, and potatoes are important sources of income. The major factors influencing the selection of farm enterprises in this areas are the generally productive soils, the relatively long growing season, 150 to 170 days, and the good local and nearby markets. Detroit is about 65 miles to the northeast and Toledo, Ohio, is closeby to the southeast.


The farming in this area is largely characterized by dairy cattle and hogs with beef cattle, poultry and sheep of importance on certain farms. The sources of farm income are about equally divided between dairy products, sale of cattle and hogs and the sale of crops mostly wheat, corn, and soybeans, with smaller amounts from potatoes, mint, celery and asparagus. The major factors influencing the selection of enterprises in Area 2 are the generally lighter but wide range of soils; the relatively long growing season, 150 to 170 days; the local markets of Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and many smaller cities; and the nearby cities of surrounding areas.


This is the most important fruit region of Michigan, the major fruits being apples, peaches, grapes and pears. Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, asparagus, tomatoes, muskmelons and mint are important specialty crops. Dairying is the major livestock enterprise. Farmers in general have a wide choice in the selection of fruit and vegetables crops. Largely because of the lighter soils, yields of field crops usually are not high. The major factors determining the selection of enterprises in this area are the climate, topography and nearby markets. Lake Michigan and the rolling to hilly land combine to make climatic conditions favorable to fruit production. The wholesale fruit market at Benton Harbor and local shipping centers provide good markets. The soils range from sands of low productivity to sandy loams and loams of relatively high productivity. Soil erosion is a serious problem on the more rolling lands.
    This is an area of high land prices and of small farms intensively operated. The farmers who have consistently good incomes year after year are those who have several sources of income. The fruit farmers frequently include apples, peaches and probably one other tree fruit in their farm program. They may also have asparagus, raspberries, blackberries and one other small fruit or vegetable crop.


Area 4 is the most intensive poultry area in Michigan. The farms are small. In addition to the usual field crops of hay, pasture, corn, oats and wheat, special crops of importance are berries, mint, celery, onions and carrots. The acreage of tree fruits is small, primarily because of poor air drainage and wet sandy soils. The livestock program centers around the dairy and poultry enterprises. Dairying has been increasing in importance during the past 15 years, and most of the milk is sold as fluid milk. The major factors influencing the selection of enterprises in Area 4 are: 1) the soils which include level, wet and dry sand of low fertility; level to rolling loam soils of higher productivity; and muck soils; and 2) the nearby markets of Muskegon, Grand Rapids and Holland.


Dairy and general farming predominate in this area. The minor livestock enterprises are hogs, poultry and sheep. Most of the crops grown are the feed crops of hay, pasture, corn and oats. Wheat, corn, and soybeans are the major cash crops. The major factors influencing the selection of enterprises in this area are: 1) the relatively long growing season, which ranges from 140 to 160 days; 2) the predominance of sandy loams, silt loams and loams of medium to high fertility; and 3) the good markets for whole milk. The major cities included in the area are Lansing and Jackson. A considerable portion of the milk goes outside the area to Grand Rapids, Flint and Detroit.


Area 6 is the metropolitan area of southeastern Michigan and contains the major cities of Detroit, Dearborn, Ypsilanti, Willow Run, Livonia, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Pontiac, Mt. Clemens, Flint and many smaller cities and towns. The nearby markets and off-farm work opportunities are the best of any area in the state. The nearby markets are particularly good for fluid milk, poultry and poultry products, vegetables, tree and small fruits.


Area 7 is a major dairy and cash crop area. It is close enough to the large nearby markets to favor dairy production and general farming yet not close enough to have as many part-time farmers as does the area to the southwest. The soils in the eastern counties of the area are level in surface and mostly loams and silt loams. In the western counties, the land surface is more rolling and in some cases hilly and the soils range from sands to light loams.
    Dairying is the most important enterprise for the areas and on many farms is the sole source of income. The number of dairy cows per farm is the highest in the state. There are also many beef breeding herds and steer feeding enterprises in the area. Dry field beans, corn, wheat and sugar beets are the major cash crops. Because of the heavier, wetter soils and late spring frosts the proportion of the land in corn in the eastern part of this areas is considerably less than in the areas to the west and south. Also, more of the land is in hay and tillable pasture.


Area 8 is the leading cash crop area in Michigan. The major cash crops are field beans, sugar beets, corn and wheat. The other major crops - oats and forages - are mostly fed to livestock on farms in the area. The major factors accounting for the type of farming in this areas are the level, generally highly productive soils (when drained); the nearby good markets which favor dairy and poultry; the sugar beet processing plants; the length of growing season which ranges from 130 to 160 days; and the moderated temperatures which favor dry, field bean production.


Area 9 is characterized by many soil types ranging from dry sands to wet clays, and from level low lands to hilly uplands. Large acreages of state owned land dedicated to forestry, parks and recreation are included in this area. Nearly one-half of the farms in this area are part-time or residential farms. This area does not have the good local markets that are found in the more southern counties of the state. In general, about half of the total land is in farms and about one-half of the land in farms is tillable. The major crops grown are: hay and tillable pasture about 55-60%, along with oats, wheat and corn. Livestock in this areas is rather diversified. There are many beef as well as dairy cattle, and the sales of dairy products and those of livestock and livestock products other than dairy and poultry are about equal.


Except for Montcalm County, the major source of farm product sales in this area is dairy products. In Montcalm, 41% of the farm product sales is from field crops mostly potatoes, dry field beans and wheat. Locally, cucumbers, snap beans, onion, celery, carrots and spinach are important sources of farm product sales. Area 10 was formerly the major potato region of Michigan. The major livestock enterprise in the area is dairy followed by poultry and hogs. The major factors determining the selection of crop and livestock enterprises in this area are 1) the sandy loam soils which are comparatively low in lime and intermediate in fertility; 2) the muck soils which comprise about 10% of the area; 3) the intermediate length growing season of 110 to 140 days; 4) fairly good markets, particularly Grand Rapids for milk, and also the local canning and food processing plants.


Area 11 is the second most important fruit producing region in Michigan. It is a relatively narrow strip of land extending from the central part of Kent County to the northwestern part of Charlevoix County. The area contains a great diversity of soil types occupying level to extremely hilly areas. The major factor encouraging fruit production in this region is the favorable climate which results largely from the close proximity of Lake Michigan. The rolling topography which provides good air and water drainage is also a factor related to the location of sites favorable to fruit production. The average length of growing season ranges form 130 to 150 days. The markets are good for fruit and truck crops. Grand Rapids, other nearby cities and Chicago take much of the fresh fruit. Local processing plants, canning and freezing, also provide good outlets for fruit and truck crops. Apples are the major type of fruit; peaches are important in Kent and Oceana Counties.


This area is largely a dairy and potato area along with a high proportion of part-time farming. The major crops are 1) hay and tillable pasture, 2) corn 3) potatoes and 4) oats. The major livestock enterprise is dairy. Dairy product sales were the most important source of farm income in all the counties in this region except for Antrim and Charlevoix Counties where crop sales ranked first. The major factors accounting for the selection of crop and livestock enterprises in Area 12 are 1) the sandy loams and the dry deep sandy soils; 2) the relatively short growing season of 80 days on the eastern side to 130 days on the western side and ; 3) the greater distance from major markets.


Forestry is the major land use in this area. The farming is limited in extent and is largely confined to the local isolated small areas of well drained sandy loams and clay loam soils. This area is composed largely of soils of very low agricultural value and is at a further disadvantage because of the shorter growing season, 80 to 110 days. Considerable acreages of land in this area are owned by the state and federal governments and dedicated to forestry, parks and recreation.


Livestock is the major source of farm product sales in Area 14. Sales from livestock and livestock products (mostly cattle) other than dairy products and poultry slightly exceed the sales of dairy products in most counties. Crop sales, mostly potatoes, are of major importance in Presque Isle County.


Area 15 is a small portion of the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and contains portions of Chippewa and Mackinaw Counties (the Chippewa County Clay Plains). The soils are dominantly level, productive red clays. One of the major soil problems of this area is inadequate drainage (i.e, the soils are wet). The length of growing season ranges from 130 days in the west to about 140 days in the eastern part of the area. Sault Ste. Marie is the best local market and provides an outlet for a limited amount of whole milk and fresh eggs. Local creameries and cheese factories provide markets for the remainder of the dairy products. The major crop is hay and tillable pasture, which occupies about 65% of the tillable farm land.


The major farm products for Area 16 are dairy and potatoes. Fairly good outlets for market milk are provided by the cities of Menominee, Stephenson, Hermansville, Iron Mountain, Escanaba, Gladstone; the many smaller towns and villages in this area and also by cities immediately outside this area such as Munising, Marquette, Negaunee and Ishpeming. Cheese factories also provide relatively good markets for dairy products. Area 16 is characterized by a large proportion of well drained limy sandy loams and loams. The growing season ranges from 100 days in the north to 150 days in the south.


Area 17 comprises most of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is a large area and has, therefore, considerable variation in soils, climate and markets between different parts of the area. The length of growing season is on the short side, ranging from 80 to 140 days. Considerable acreages of land are owned by the state and federal governments and are used for forestry, parks and recreation.
    Locally, there are some good farming areas in the region. The intervening spaces are mostly "wild land" and contain few if any farms. Farming in the region is largely restricted to the land that has the better soils, without too many stones or excessively steep slopes and where drainage and land clearing costs are not excessive.
    The locations of the better agricultural communities are as follows: Luce County, around Newberry; Mackinac County, around Engadine; Schoolcraft County, around Cooks and in the Garden Peninsula; Marquette County, around Skandia and Champion; Dickinson County, around Iron Mountain; Iron County, the Iron River-Crystal Falls area; Baraga around Baraga, Skanee, Pelkie and Covington; Houghton County, around Chassell, Tapiola and Hancock; Ontonagon County, the Ewen and Ontonagon areas; and in Gogebic County, around North Ironwood.
    The major sources of farm income are from the sales of dairy products, cattle, poultry and potatoes. Potatoes are of particular importance in Houghton, Iron, Dickinson and Schoolcraft Counties. The larger cities of the area provide an outlet for the sale of fluid milk from a small number of farms. Other dairy products are marketed through local milk condenseries, creameries and cheese factories. Most of the potatoes are shipped to out-of-state or to southern Michigan markets.

Parts of the text above have been paraphrased from C.M. Davis’ Readings in the Geography of Michigan (1964).

This material has been compiled for educational use only, and may not be reproduced without permission.  One copy may be printed for personal use.  Please contact Randall Schaetzl ( for more information or permissions.