Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, David McWilliam (’92) wanted to be two things when he grew up: a pilot and a farmer.
Decades later, he’s succeeded at doing both. He is an international pilot for Delta Air Lines and runs Eden Ridge, a 10-acre organic farm in Brighton, Michigan, that donates much of its produce to feed the local community.
“I am happy with the balance,” David says. “I love my job. I fly internationally now to Asia, and I get to explore some great cities.”
When he isn’t flying, David is driving his tractor, weeding the fields or packing produce with his wife, Sherry (Pauling) McWilliam (’92), and their two children, Alex, 16, and Amelia, 13, on their family farm.
“I love farming, being outside and the manual labor part of it,” David says. “It is not unusual for me to go out early in the morning and come in late.”
David and Sherry are both pilots who earned bachelor’s degrees in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle and met while working as flight instructors at the Daytona Beach Campus. Neither one had a farming background, so when they bought the farm in 2013, they had to learn along the way. Eventually, they started donating the surplus produce that they grew, and an idea began to take root.
“We knew we wanted to use it to help the community in some way,” David says. “Then we got volunteers from church to help out, and it kind of took on a life of its own.”
A Passion for Aviation and Agriculture
David and Sherry share a passion for flying. When they met in 1992, Sherry was a flight training manager at Embry-Riddle, and David was one of the instructors she supervised.
“We had a really tight-knit group,” David recalls. “It was when the economy was not good for aviation, so we were instructors for a few years, and we became good friends.”
David’s marriage proposal to Sherry made the local news, when he hired an airplane to tow a banner that publicly popped the question at Embry-Riddle’s 1996 airshow and alumni reunion.
“It was all a big surprise,” David recalls. “Halfway through the airshow, we got permission to fly the banner by.”
The couple married in 1997 and moved to Atlanta, where David worked as a pilot for Atlantic Southeast Airlines, and Sherry was chief pilot at a flight school. Later, David was hired by Delta, and when Delta merged with Northwest Airlines, David seized the opportunity to move home to Michigan.
They bought the farm in 2013, in part because their daughter rode horses; and they began planting everything from tomatoes and cucumbers to melons and pumpkins.
“A lot of it was trial and error,” David says. “One of the biggest challenges is that we do everything organically and non-GMO.”
Organic pest control methods are more labor intensive than non-organic, he says. They also use hoop houses, which are similar to greenhouses, to extend the growing season until November.
As the farm began producing way more than their family could consume, David and Sherry decided they wanted to share the fruits of their labor.
“We just felt very strongly, that since we were blessed with this land, we should give back to the community in some way, if we could,” Sherry says.
Bridget Brown, director of Food Secure for Livingston County at Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, says the McWilliams’ farm helps feed approximately 850 families who receive assistance through the local Shared Harvest Pantry. Produce prices can pose a significant barrier for struggling families, who are trying to balance nutrition and affordability, she says.
“Dave and Sherry McWilliam help make fresh, healthy vegetables more accessible. They’ve made a real and lasting difference in the lives of our families,” Brown says.
Since 2014, Eden Ridge has donated about 12,300 pounds of food, most of which consists of mainstream fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries and melons. Dave and Sherry farm 2 acres of their 10-acre property, which is also home to two horses, three cats and 10 chickens.
“On average, we donate 3,000 to 4,000 pounds a year to the food bank,” David says. “The rest goes to a roadside stand, which is donation-based only, so those in the neighborhood that need it can take it for free, and others can donate something. All of the donations offset the cost of the farm.”
Sherry says David is definitely the one who is most passionate about the endeavor, sometimes working outside from dawn until dusk.
“I enjoy it in smaller doses,” says Sherry, who is also an instructor of Holy Yoga, a Christ-centered, faith-based style of yoga. “It’s always busy, between the job, the kids and the farm.”
The couple also operate another unique nonprofit. Joining with three other families in 2016, they bought an old Michigan lighthouse that had been abandoned for 40 years and are in the process of slowly restoring it. David discovered the North Manitou Shoal Lighthouse on Lake Michigan on a Boy Scout trip.
“Sherry kind of gets dragged along on these crazy expeditions of mine,” David says. But Sherry says, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the McWilliams’ farm at edenridgefarm.com.