Fritz Farms Combines Technology with a Passion for the Land

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Jason Gatlin, standing, and Ben Fritz, seated, have completely mechanized the paperwork on this farm near Fulton.

By Sue Moore

The biggest problem with technology is when things break down and you try to fix them yourself, you can’t, says Ben Fritz, farmer from Fulton.

Fritz and his father, John, who died in 2003, have been on the cutting edge of technology in farming for years. Four years ago, Ben brought Jason Gatlin into the organization to support his growing technology needs on a farm that has 20 employees and over 10,000 acres under cultivation in Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, and Calhoun counties.

Gatlin took the numerous challenges of integrating technology with agriculture head on. Some challenges were migrating to electronic field documentation by using sub-inch global positioning systems (GPS) and employee training in the new systems. A major project was getting rid of the mountains of paper lying around in the offices and stacked clear to the ceiling, by developing a paperless, document management system.

Today the record keeping is all on a networked computer system, tracking everything down to the inventory of parts to be ordered each day to keep all the machinery running smoothly.

“Because we rely on our computer systems to keep the businesses running, we perform live offsite backups of our systems for disaster recovery purposes,” says Fritz.

Fritz started using GPS five or six years ago. It was an efficiency thing.

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Ben Fritz displays a painting of the family barn that once hung in the Hide-A-Way bar before it was redecorated. Scott Plankenhorn, the owner, brought it out to the Fritz Farm as a gift. This particular barn still stands on 38th Street and has the tallest peak of any barn in Kalamazoo County, Fritz said.

“Not only did we become 15 percent more efficient in the use of fuel and the amount of hours put on all the equipment, but we also see a savings in seed and fertilizer costs by utilizing variable rate plantings and applications,” Fritz says. “The world population keeps growing and farmers are charged with feeding the people. Just a few years ago the national average was approximately 130 bushels of corn per acre and now it’s close to 165 bushels per acre. The U.S. is the best place to keep up with this explosion as we have the best soil, due to glaciation. Brazil is close behind.”

The next thing in farming he believes will be the use of drones to scout fields for nitrogen deficiency, irrigation on the property, and weed pressure in the field.

As with most new technologies there are new issues to be addressed because insurance companies don’t know how to factor in the liability and the privacy component.

“The whole thing is coming fast and furious,” says this 41-year-old farmer who is the seventh generation of Fritz family farmers who originally moved to Wakeshma Township in the 1840s from Pennsylvania and Ohio. His grandfather, Gordon Fritz, purchased the property on the corner of 38th street and W Avenue in 1952, where the homestead stands today. Ben spotted nice stands of maple trees and knew the land would be fertile.

Today, the far-flung operation feeds 10,000 hogs from farrow to finish, grows commercial crops which include corn, soy beans, hay for haylage for the local dairies, specialty wheat, and seed wheat. This specialty crop has good wheat berries and is sold to a company from England to produce specialty breads. They also grow green beans and non-GMO seed soy beans.

Ben’s father, John, just loved farming and Ben isn’t far behind in his passion for the land.

“Dad used to advise not to get too far ahead of yourself. (He would say) we are just tenants of the land for a short time, take care of the land and take care of it right. And we do!” Fritz adds.   “You’ve got to love the land and improve it all the time.”

Knowing when to take the grain to market isn’t an easy task.

“You almost need a crystal ball to figure out when to sell grain and sometimes the crystal ball has a lot of cracks in it,” says Fritz.

His mantra is just don’t get greedy and settle for a profitable margin.

“It all comes down to fractional figures in Michigan,” he says. “The sun, heat, rain, and fuel costs must all be taken into consideration. We don’t want to be wasteful and we want to keep improving the land all of the time.”

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