Even as rural Michigan places go, New Era is itty bitty, but the outsized role agriculture plays in its identity helps keep its name recognizable and its dot on the map. Less than two miles north of the venerable cannery in the center of town is another long-standing institution equally responsible for anchoring the place in southern Oceana County’s agricultural landscape: Country Dairy. Perched overlooking Oceana Drive, the county’s commercial backbone, the consumer-facing dairy is where you’ll find Rob Rudat.
A few months into his presidency of the Oceana County Farm Bureau, the fifth of six Rudat boys finds himself ideally placed from several angles: comfortably near his childhood stomping grounds, along a busy road well-traveled by cheese and ice cream fans, and at a convenient balancing point roughly midway between Oceana’s old guard and young bucks.
His farming career started right out of high school, at a local dairy setting the stage for his first six years at Country Dairy. Then he changed gears and moved on to the Hart Co-op, running sprayers and doing retail sales for another four years — until his old boss lured him back down to New Era.
“I’ve been back about 13 years now,” he said from across a table in the retail operation’s dining area, busy with a lunch crowd even on a January weekday. “I run the crops and the mechanical side of the farm,” he added — behind the scenes but still at the heart of the popular destination.
The farm side is a third-generation dairy, milking 425 head there in New Era and another 650 near Montague. The crops Rudat maintains are scattered across the same region of southern Oceana and northwestern Muskegon counties, squeezed in among the apple and cherry orchards more representative of the area.
“I’m the only cattle guy on our board,” Rudat said — “a great board,” he noted, rooted in the county’s dominant specialty-crop sector: tree fruit and several vegetable crops, most notably asparagus.
With that dynamic team at the ready, Rudat looks forward to community outreach activities this year, and focusing on bolstering Oceana’s membership rolls.
“Our membership numbers are not huge in Oceana County,” he said, but interest in the organization seems lively and resurgent. “We’re reaching out to more past members to better understand why they left.”
Rudat cites a father-and-son pair (hay and asparagus) who recently renewed their memberships after drifting away from Farm Bureau for longer than they could recall.
What brought them back? Continued frustration with some of the same issues that have been vexing Michigan farmers for decades: burdensome regulations, inadequate labor and the latest threat to farmland itself.
“The H2-A wage increase is a huge issue here,” as is the influx of solar farms on otherwise productive farmland along the county’s southern tier.
“I don’t know what the right answer is,” Rudat said, but the topic’s definitely heating up and has members and non-members alike motivated to take action toward keeping Oceana’s eye-popping farmscapes under cultivation, not shaded by solar panels.
Even with the high visibility of its ag sector and a relative lack of tourist destinations (compared to counites farther north, anyway), public perception and outreach focusing on the non-farm community remains a high priority.
Rudat is interested in the county Farm Bureau organizing an event featuring a panel of representative farmer members hosting an audience of key community leaders — from outside farming — to help explain issues, build bridges and affirm the major role agriculture plays in the local and regional economy.