Change for the Better

Published online: Jan 27, 2022 Grower of the Month, News Tyrell Marchant, editor
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This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Sugar Producer.

Charlie Bauer is a farmer, no two ways about it. As a kid, the fourth-generation Michigan sugarbeet grower fully embraced life on the farm, and he never stopped. Almost the moment he graduated from high school in 1972, Bauer returned to the family farm and went to work trying to improve the operation.

Laracha Farms got its start in 1977 when Ruben and Marian Bauer’s boys (the three sons of Bauer & Sons Farms) formed their own business to continue acquiring land for the farming operation. The name Laracha is derived from the names of those brothers: Larry, Randy and Charlie. Since then, the operation has expanded into one of the bigger farms in Michigan. Today, Laracha Farms annually grows about 2,500 acres of sugarbeets, along with pickling cucumbers, soybeans, dry beans and corn. It is spread across five counties, growing crops in soil that Bauer describes as “everything from the heaviest of the heavy to the lightest of the light.”

A lot of American farms have similar stories of growth, but the uniqueness of each is in the details, the little things that made that expansion possible. For Laracha Farms, curiosity and a willingness to swim in uncharted waters.

“For as long as I can remember,” says Charlie Bauer, “we were the ones who tinkered.”

Charlie Bauer takes a look behind his harvester while harvesting sugarbeets.

Bauer remembers coming home from school as a kid and seeing 20 single-row beet harvesters in the front yard being prepped for harvest. His father eventually invented a machine that kicked the beets off the end of the harvesters’ conveyor belts, eliminating the need for someone to sit at the top and do the job manually. From 1968 to 1984, the family owned an implement business, selling beet harvesters to Michigan growers. And from 1988 to 2008, even while running his own successful farm, Bauer worked as a sales rep for Art’s Way Manufacturing, working with fellow growers to develop machinery that would work best on their individual operations. His name is actually one of three on the patent for Art’s Way’s 6812 sugarbeet harvester.

“It worked both ways, as many things do,” Bauer says. “The farm background helped the equipment business, and being in the beet equipment business helped the farm. It’s just like working in any field: gaining knowledge is always good.”

Bauer points to three major leaps Laracha Farms has made over the years as being key advancements in their success. The first was investing in a self-propelled sprayer, among the first in the area. Second was a self-propelled cucumber harvester, also among the first of its kind. The third came in 2012, when the farm purchased a self-propelled sugarbeet harvest, which predictably and noticeably increased the operation’s harvest efficiency. It’s that spirit of always seeking ways to improve that has allowed Laracha Farms to continue thriving.

“We try to be on the front line of stuff. We’ve had some failures, too, but you don’t know if you don’t try,” Bauer says, before summing up the farm’s ethos succinctly: “We’ve always tried to be innovators.”

Charlie Bauer, right, and his son Adam take a break from harvesting sugarbeets in November 2021.

Bauer is adamant that any success Laracha Farms has achieved is not his alone. For decades, he and his brothers have relied on and trusted each other to steward the operation. Today, his son, Adam, and two nephews, Ted and Chad, are the chief operators of the business. Charlie himself officially retired in 2020, though he’s never far from the farm. He and his wife, Terri, now have five grandchildren, who they love seeing helping on and enjoying the farm life they’ve worked so hard to build.

“This is a family operation,” he says. “I’m only a piece of the puzzle.”

Along with being active in both the equipment manufacturing and the actual farming sides of the industry, Bauer has been extensively involved as a leader in the sugarbeet and larger agriculture community. He was on the founding board of Michigan Sugar Company’s grower co-op, where he served for 25 years, 12 of them as co-op director. He has served on the exeucutive boards of both the American Sugarbeet Growers Association (ASGA) and the Sugar Association. He is especially proud to have been a key member of the committee that, over the course of more than a decade, helped take Michigan State University’s Saginaw Research & Extension Center from nice idea to reality. And though those countless volunteer hours often pushed him far outside his comfort zone, Bauer is effusive in his gratitude to have been a part of it all.

“You learn and get so much more than you give,” Bauer says. “The sugar industry has given me an awful lot of opportunities.”

The fourth and fifth generations of the Bauer family are pictured in this photo being held by Charlie Bauer. From left are Randy Bauer, Chad Bauer (Randy’s son), Ted Bauer, Larry Bauer (Ted’s father), Adam Bauer and Charlie Bauer (Adam’s father). The three cousins (Adam, Chad, and Ted) took over full ownership of the farm from their fathers in 2020.