FLINT, Mich. (AP) — The pull of a rope attached to Mike Yancho's office building sends a factory whistle calling into the dry December air, blaring from the center of the 150-acre Grand Blanc Township farm.
"Come on in!" Yancho yells from his upstairs office.
Yancho is one of 12 Michigan farmers and area grocers that contribute to the 6 million pounds of produce the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan has been working to distribute to those considered food insecure — families and individuals uncertain of where their next meal will come from. In Genesee County, the number tops 82,000, according to The Flint Journal ( http://bit.ly/1cs7yyz ).
It's deep in the heart of Christmas tree season and a patron hoping to buy a tree after business hours waits outside Yancho's office. Yancho stands from the desk, Bluetooth in ear and phone ringing, blue jeans and flannel shirt dirt-dusted down to the boot from the morning's work. He walks downstairs, leaving what he refers to as a "disaster" of folders and boxes scattered across the office.
Between directing patrons toward the perfect tree, running a landscape business, tending to pigs and planting crops for the winter, Yancho — general manager of Trim Pine Farms and a retired tool and die maker of 30 years — stays busy.
"I worked two jobs for most of my life," said Yancho, 62. "I like what I do or I wouldn't do it."
Yancho said the partnership started in 2010, just one year after he expanded the farm owned by his father, George Yancho, to grow vegetables.
"They approached us to grow food for them," he said. "It's enabled me to learn how to grow large quantities of food without huge amounts of risks. I can grow, but I don't necessarily have to market."
Two months have passed since Yancho collected this year's harvest to sell to the Food Bank. The 20- to 25-acre spread yielded some 20,000 pounds of watermelon and another 15,000 pounds of winter squash. The farm has also supplied the Food Bank with sweet corn and zucchini in past years.
"It's just about enough to cover my costs of seed and fuel and fertilizer," Yancho said of the portion of vegetables grown and sold at a discount to the Food Bank.
Yancho said climate change has proved detrimental to planting for several years, citing late and early frosts and more droughts and floods as a result of unpredictable weather. An increased deer population in the area has also resulted in a lessened load of crops.
"Each deer could ruin 10 watermelons a night or more," he said. "They probably destroyed about 80 percent of the butternut squash (this year). Huge, huge losses."
Despite the recent dismal outlook, Yancho remains strongly bonded with the Food Bank.
"The feel-good part is enormous when you see the work that they do," Yancho said. "It's really great to know (those receiving food from the Food Bank) get to eat the same food I feed my own family and customers."
And that was the intention about three years ago, when the Food Bank began approaching other farmers throughout eastern Michigan, said Kara Ross, vice president of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
"We're doing a more localized approach to work directly with (farmers) based on what we want for our service area," Ross said.
The approach has meant procuring an abundance of produce for "reasonable prices," said Terry Nix, Food Bank operations manager for product sourcing.
"The food is there. We're just realizing how much there is, and it's a lot," Nix said.
About 200 miles north of Trim Pines Farm, Erwin Styma — co-owner of Styma Potato Farms in Posen — tends to potatoes, grain, alfalfa and soybeans on a farm the Stymas have owned for more than 100 years. This year, they'll donate a million pounds of potatoes to the Food Bank.
"We know it's having a positive impact," Styma said. "It makes us feel great that we can contribute to helping some of these people. A lot of these people could be neighbors. It's humbling when you hear the numbers of so many in need."
Styma said the farm first joined with the Food Bank about 12 years ago. The 2,600-acre lot has since made him realize the direct role in helping fight hunger.
"When these young kids are getting access to healthy fruits and vegetables, there's no doubt they'll be able to function and grow and develop better," Styma said.
The partnership has also benefited the Styma family farm in that potatoes with blemishes or those deemed too small to sell to retailers have been utilized by the Food Bank, Styma said.
"The Food Bank utilizes that and gets it to the people that really need it the most," he said.
Crops that do not meet retailers' stringent specifications used to mean large amounts of wasted food, said Styma.
"These farmers are in a position that no one will buy them," said Nix, adding that food not accepted by retailers can end up at landfills or in "secondary markets" — discount stores and flea markets.
The effort has resulted in a push toward making fresh produce part of the Food Bank's menu, stocking bags and boxes of food with pounds of fruits and vegetables to be distributed at 417 pantries, schools and other sites across eastern Michigan - 197 of which are in Genesee County. The Food Bank has increased produce distribution by more than 1 million pounds every year since 2010, culminating in an anticipated 6 million pounds for 2013.
"It's a great relationship to have with these farmers," Nix said.
Back at Trim Pines Farm, sunlight breaks the thick clouds on a cold afternoon Dec. 11, as Yancho sits with arms folded in his office chair. He's just returned indoors after grooming and preparing a tree for sale to a mother and daughter, when a smile starts at the corner of his mouth and slowly curls outward.
"I feel great, I feel pride," he said. "A person is not a farmer because it's a job. It's an avocation; it's your life's work because you enjoy doing it."
Yancho, originally unaware of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan's goal to distribute 23 million pounds of food by the end of the year to those in need — and that 6 million pounds of that total is measured in fresh produce — holds his smile.
"To know your food is going for the best possible and most needed uses, it's the best you can do."
Information from: The Flint Journal, http://www.mlive.com/flint