farm to plate

Mom Leads the Way for Her Family of Farmers

By / Photography By Lisa Dunlap | November 20, 2017
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Peter Uhlianuk

The Uhlianuk family tree has deep, well-tended farming roots that began in tsarist Russia before branching throughout southeast Michigan farmland, where three of five grandsons became farmers themselves.

As a young immigrant in the 1920s, Harry Uhlianuk bought 100 acres in Armada to farm not long after arriving in Michigan to work at the Ford River Rouge Plant. By the mid-1960s, he was ready to hand it down to his son, a Roseville principal also named Harry, whose wife, Marlene, started running the farm with the help of her five young sons. Now youngest son George is a partner at Uhlianuk Farm and Greenhouses, and two more sons, Peter and Lee, run their own separate farms.

“I made it eight whole miles in 50 years,” says Peter Uhlianuk, with a laugh. The second of five sons, he and his wife, Yvonne, own a 122-acre Romeo-area farm. He admits that problems can ensue when three brothers and their parents all farm.

“You can’t compete with your mother. If you shut her down and grow better lettuce you won’t get a Christmas present,” he says. “Sometimes we overlap and sometimes we cry like little 6-year-olds and go, ‘Mom, George is selling his green beans too cheap!’”

Peter embraces his location: peach country. After he bought the property in 1989 to reinvigorate a decrepit turn-of-the-century dairy farm, he seized the opportunity to plant a five-acre peach orchard on one of the area’s prized eastern-facing slopes. Yvonne grew up at the foot of Mt. Bruce, New Zealand’s highest mountain, so the pair named their farm Mt. Bruce Station, which happens to be in Bruce Township and includes Macomb County’s highest point.

Another big crop for Peter Uhlianuk is tomatoes. He devotes five acres to his more than 9,000 tomato plants. “I grow every kind of heirloom that’s any good and hybrids, too,” explains the DuPont chemist. He also grows many flowering plants to sell in the springtime.

Yvonne Uhlianuk raises Corriedale and Romney sheep, both dual-purpose breeds as equally strong for meat as for fleece, she says, adding that her lambs get to enjoy the fields and the sunshine. “That’s why people buy lamb from me,” she explains.

For blast-frozen lamb loin chops, boneless leg, rack of lamb, shanks, stew pieces, ground lamb, lamb sausage or lamb pasty, customers can visit the farm and wool store, open Friday through Sunday, or call ahead for Peter to deliver orders to the Royal Oak Farmers’ Market.

From that market stall Peter Uhlianuk can spot his brother George nearby selling plants, flowers and vegetables. Years ago George Uhlianuk opted to leave his position as environmental health and safety engineer at Chrysler to become a full-time farmer when mom Marlene wrestled with whether or not to sell the farm.

“The job I had didn’t have the rewards. The rewards here are incredible. The main thing in life is you have to be happy with what you do,” explains George Uhlianuk, as he looks over his greenhouses filled with seedlings—peppers, basil, you name it—giving a hint of what’s to come as the season unfolds and the fields flourish. “The best part of my job is that I get to make people happy.”

Depending upon the moment in the season, Uhlianuk Farm and Greenhouses sells flowering plants, vegetable plants, fresh-cut flowers, culinary herbs and vegetables. Mid-June through October they’ll cut and sell 1,000 bunches of herbs weekly and 14 varieties of edible flowers, lettuce and freshly cut greens mixed together to create a varied Mesclun mix.

“The mixture changes every week because the season changes,” he explains, adding that such fluidity keeps the work fresh. And he loves creating a rapport with his customers: “Any person who loves plants is a good person.”

Tyler, Marlene and George Uhlianuk

Marlene Uhlianuk can’t exactly recall when the family first started at Royal Oak—the number of years gets lost “because in the business we’re in, our years go by like that,” she says, snapping her fingers—but probably some 40 years ago. She knows they’ve had customers almost that long.

While George Uhlianuk runs the Royal Oak operations on Saturdays, his mother is at the Oakland County Farmers’ Market. On Sundays, George goes to the Birmingham Farmers’ Market, where his brother Lee also has a stall.

Lee Uhlianuk, son number four, settled farthest from the family farm, buying 100 acres in North Branch in 1994 to start Uhlianuk’s Specialties from the Farm, LLC. His familiar sign is scattered throughout metropolitan Detroit markets, hanging at Eastern Market on Tuesdays; Northville on Thursdays; Farmington Hills, Grosse Pointe, plus a few others on Saturdays as the season ramps up; and Birmingham on Sundays.

A prolific farmer, Lee Uhlianuk sells more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomato plants and other heirlooms in the spring before summer changes his focus to selling produce, all the while also selling his handmade twig furniture. “We’re kind of intense up here,” says Lee Uhlianuk. “We’re very, very busy.”

With various fruit orchards—including eight varieties of pears as well as old-fashioned varieties of apples—and a state-certified kitchen for making jams and spun honey, it’s a fairly large operation, he says. Like his siblings and mother, he grows his vegetables all-natural, “no spray.” “All we use out here is sunshine and rain. This farm has been this way since day one. My children can wander the orchards and they can eat whatsoever they want,” he says.

Raising his three young children in this setting is important to him: “I want them to grow up having the farm experience that I had.” And in the process, they’re learning the family business hands-on, like he and his brothers did.

“My mom was the main farmer in our family. She was the one who took us by the hand and said ‘Here, this is how you do it,’” he says. And her boys set forth to do so ever since.

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