14792 Peninsula Dr. Traverse City, MI 49686
Farmers: Leo and Carmen Ocanas, son Leo Jr., plus around 12-15 other employees, seasonally
Favorite Tool: Tractor
Favorite Recipe: Peach cobbler
Production: 2.5 million pounds of fruit each year.
What do you love about farming?
It's all I've ever known to do and I've always liked a good challenge! They said I couldn't raise a Santa Rosa plum because they come from California, but we've been picking those plums for years! I love the lifestyle. You get exercise every day and you're healthier for it. To this day, my doctor says I'm in perfect shape. I don't take any medications. I love being outside.
What are some challenges? Getting paid! And labor. Over the years I've learned that there's nothing you can do about the weather.
Advice to new farmers: Work hard and enjoy it. It's the most enjoyable thing I can think of, in all the jobs I see.
What are you proud of? We average 38,000 lbs. of fruit per acre. The USDA has told us that's nearly 7,000 more than the best they've seen. I take good care of my trees. I do everything I can for the trees not to starve. I have never had one box rejected from one processor. We have loyal customers.
Future plans: Leo Jr. may take over down the road, but we will always farm.
Dreams of Michigan
By Janice Benson, Taste the Local Difference
Growing up, Leo Ocanas and his family traveled around the country, year round, as migrant workers. Photo by John Russell.
Leo Ocanas’ vision of his future has never changed.
“Farming was always my dream,” he says. “When I was eleven, I picked cherries on the Old Mission Peninsula for Harry Heller. I picked 25 lugs per day for 30 cents a lug!”
Then, another long-ago memory: “My mom said, ‘Look how fast you are! Someday, son, you’re going to have a farm here.’”
Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Leo and his family came to the U.S. when he was just four years old. His mother brought him and his sisters to Texas to live with his older brother, who had served in World War II. His father, Juan Ocanas, worked as a law enforcement officer with the Texas Rangers, but died when Leo was very young.
To support themselves, his mother and siblings were migrant farm workers, each year traveling around the country, following the different crops. It was quite a round trip!
“We’d pick strawberries in Utah, potatoes in Idaho, tomatoes and pecans in Georgia, cotton in Mississippi, vegetables in Massachusetts, and more tomatoes in Florida,” he said.
One summer his family came to Michigan to pick cherries and Leo never forgot it. “I loved Michigan,” he says.
Starting when he was 14 years old, and for many years afterward, he and his mother would spend six months in Massachusetts and six months in Florida picking fruit. During that time, Leo also earned a reputation as talented boxer, and enjoyed competing in boxing matches in his free time.
Eventually he saved up enough money to buy his own house in Florida and he paid for it in cash, something he’s proud of to this day.
While living in Florida, he met his wife, Carmen.
Carmen was born in Arkansas, but lost both parents at a very young age. Her five older siblings, who were migrant farm workers, raised her. Carmen traveled with them to different states, though she was too young to work herself. She attended school while her siblings picked fruit, but helped them pick tomatoes on weekends.
After she’d grown up, met, and married Leo, the two began traveling between Michigan, Georgia, and Florida every year. In Michigan, Leo hauled cherries from various farms on the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula to Cherry Growers Fruit Cooperative, in Grawn. In Florida, he hauled citrus, and in Georgia he picked pecans.
The Ocanas Farm produces 2.5 million pounds of fruit each year. Photo by John Russell.
Planting Trees, Putting Down Roots
By 1978, Leo had saved enough money to make his childhood dream a reality. He purchased 22 acres of land on Old Mission Peninsula to start his own farm. Because he didn’t own any machinery, it took time to work the soil and get the land ready for planting. Over the next three years, he began planting cherry and apple trees; it took about six years for the trees to bear fruit.
Leo was thrilled to start his own business, Ocanas Farm, in a place that he loved—Michigan. He and his family did it all: planting, pruning, picking. They took their fruit to Cherry Growers for processing; he is now a cooperative member.
Little by little, he grew his orchard, too—purchasing a few more acres at a time. Today he has more than 100 acres, planted with apples, sweet and sour cherries, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and plums. He now also grows about twenty vegetable crops, including broccoli, potatoes, sweet peppers, tomatillos, habanero peppers, radishes, and onions.
Next, the couple expanded their marketing efforts.
“In 1988 we started going to the farmers markets,” says Leo.
Carmen is a regular vendor at the Elberta, Bellaire, and Traverse City farmers market. “We’ve developed some loyal customers over the years,” she says proudly. “We pack every quart of fruit very carefully and our customers know that and trust us.”
She says she enjoys talking with her customers and being able to provide them quality produce at an affordable price. And her customers appreciate her, too.
“We’ve had customers bring us hot chocolate or coffee when it’s cold out. We have one customer who is a sweet, older woman who can barely walk, but she comes to buy from us every week. She even sent us chocolates in Florida!” she says.
Leo hires 12 to 15 seasonal employees each year, especially during cherry and apple harvest. He’s happy to be able to provide jobs to these families, and to work alongside his son, Leo Jr., on the farm.
A Mother’s Blessing
Although Leo and Carmen love Michigan, they have not forgotten Florida: Each winter, they head back to their other home to spend time with family and friends there.
“We enjoy it, but we always look forward to coming home to Michigan,” says Carmen. “We love it here.”
Leo beams as he talks about their farm—and accomplishing his dream.
“I brought my mother back to see my farm many years ago and I walked her up to the highest point on our property, which we call ‘Mt. Leo’, so she could see our entire farm.”
His mother was greatly moved by the beautiful land and witnessing her son’s success.
“Mom said, ‘Remember what I told you as a kid about having your own farm someday? Well, here it is!’”
“Yes, Mom was real proud of us!” says Leo, with a great big smile.