Dennis Wilcox doesn’t look like a an old-timer, but by the standards of the local food movement in the Kalamazoo area, he comes pretty close to being one. Dennis started working in Three Rivers for Sustainable Greens (supplier to a number of elite Chicago restaurants) in the late 90s, and, at their encouragement, began bringing their salad greens to the Bank St. market to establish himself there. He then started his own farm, Blue Dog Greens in 2002. I moved here in 2004, by which time Dennis had become known for being one of only two certified organic producers at Bank St., and the only grower selling the bagged, mixed salad greens highlighted in his farm’s name, as well as lots of other delicious, very high quality vegetables. Fourteen years later things are a lot more crowded at the market, and a lot has changed for Dennis, but he’s still got a table full of amazing greens and veggies, and plenty of optimism that his farm will continue to find its niche in the local food network. Continue reading “Blue Dog Family Farm”
(For Part I, click here.)
About 90% of Green Gardens’ sales are direct-to-consumer, either through their CSA or at the local markets, with the other 10% wholesale to restaurants, the People’s Food Co-op, and through Sprout Urban Farm’s small food hub in Battle Creek.I ask whether it would be a benefit to Green Gardens to have a larger wholesale outlet close by, one that could take their excess produce, and Trent says “yes, definitely.” Tomatoes were especially abundant this year, for example, and it would have been great to have a place to sell them in bulk, even at the lower prices he gets for wholesale. For a farm of his size, though, the margins are so much better with the direct-to-consumer options that they will remain his focus, and the CSA is the foundation of those, since it provides for consistent predictability in terms of both harvesting needs and income. They’re hoping to grow this portion of their business as they make infrastructure improvements, but still, Trent notes, thinking both about their own operation and those of other vendors they see at the markets, “farmers have to be smarter about how they market and sell their product if they’re going to be competitive. I just don’t think you can keep throwing stuff out on a farmers’ market table and hoping it’ll sell.” They need to “find ways to reach out to people and get them excited about food, get them to come out.” One of the efforts in this direction that Trent and Ruthie are most excited about is an on-farm market they opened this year that anyone can come to, not just CSA members. “We’re doing all the veggies,” Trent says, and “I buy local fruit from other people,” including apples from Molter Family Orchards and The Country Mill. Chicken and (soon) pork come from Green Gardens alum Clay Smith at EarthSmith Food and Forest Products, and a variety of other things ranging from quiche to maple syrup come from other local producers. The goal, explains Trent, is “to be a one-stop convenience shop for people,” so they can get most of what they eat on a regular basis from local producers with just one stop.
Snow flurries swirl along I-94 as I drive out to talk to Trent Thompson of Green Gardens Community Farm, east of Battle Creek, a week before Christmas. It’s been an unusually warm fall, allowing field crops to continue to be harvested far past when they can be most years. Yesterday was a day to get as much picked as possible, so today is the semi-official end of the season, or as close to the end of the season as Trent gets. Several of his hoop houses are full of greens which, along with carrots and other vegetables in storage, will send him every week to the indoor winter market in Kalamazoo. This makes eating a lot tastier and healthier for those of us who try to source as much as we can from local growers, but it also means a lot less down time for farmers after the relentless work the usual spring-fall crops demand. Trent has had only two half-days off since May before today, something a January trip to Florida will only do a little to make up for. But Trent isn’t complaining.
Though I’d met Trent at a dinner Donna McClurkan organized several years ago, and though hardly a week has gone by when I haven’t bought something from his stand at the Bank St. Market, I’ve never been to his farm, either the original one he started on rented land in 2008 or this one, which is on twenty acres that he and his wife Ruthie purchased in 2012. I pull up and park in front of a long low barn sitting perpendicular to a row of six big hoop houses and next to a stately old white farmhouse with a wraparound porch, columns, and shade trees in front. Trent and Ruthie, along with toddler Jorah, will soon move into the main house out of an apartment built off the back that they’ve been renting, just one of many steps forward that they’re taking as their farm grows. Trent calls to me before I can ring the wrong doorbell, and I walk over to meet him where he’s come out of the barn. He greets me with a strong handshake and then we head inside to talk for a bit with Ruthie before he and his feline helper, May, give me a tour of the farm.
At the People’s Food Co-op the other day, a sign proclaimed that they’d sold $540,000 worth of local products in 2014. The bulk of that (I assume) was produce and meat from local farmers, so you can begin to see why Aaron Molter said, as I quoted at the end of the last post, that “the Co-op really, I mean it changed how we do everything.” How? Well, one of the challenges Aaron and Kari talked about was how to “right size with the market,” in other words, how to figure out how much demand there is for different kinds of produce they grow or can grow and how to get their production in line with that demand. This isn’t easy, in no small part because you have to decide what and how much to grow before you know whether people actually want it, or how much of it they’ll want. As a grower, then, you have to find the right “balance of risk and demand” as Aaron says. The Co-op helps with this because they provide a venue that allows growers to figure out what’s working. “It’s a direct link,” Kari says. “I can call in and [ask] ‘how does this look? how did that move? how was the packaging?’” This means they can get “immediate feedback,” unlike with the bigger chain stores they sell to. “And,” she adds, “it’s nice that it’s local,” because that means they “can go into the store and look at it” and so see for themselves how it’s doing. The Co-op makes this possible for many growers besides them, and Aaron is generous with his praise: “the Co-op has done a great job of … developing growers to fit into what they’re doing … and given them an opportunity at least to figure it out for themselves how to sell to other people… I think what they’ve done is so rare.” Continue reading “Molter Family Orchards, Part II”
I leave around 9 a.m. from South Bend, where I’d spent the night, stopping for coffee and a breakfast bagel at the Union Coffee House in Buchanan, then find my way over to M140 which takes me most of the way to my destination: Molter Family Orchards. On the way on this unusually cool August morning I cruise past corn fields, the edges undulating in a shimmery wave from the steady wind that’s coming from the west. After the rains of the night before the air is so clear that you realize most days you only think it is. Clouds slide across an unseen ceiling low enough to make you think twice about driving under them but high enough to make the vastness of the land felt a little, more like what you get out in the far plains and much different than what you get in Kalamazoo, where there are just enough hills to create small, homier spaces. Despite the waving cornfields, this is clearly orchard country. Apples, plums, and cherries all grow in abundance here, roadside stands advertising whatever’s in season, but right now it’s the middle of that short stretch of summer when the peach reigns queen (though as I write this, I digest the sad news that we’ve gotten the last peaches of the summer from our Molter CSA). It’s in the middle of all this that you’ll find Molter’s farm. Their address says Benton Harbor, but they’re right out here under the clouds, surrounded by other farms. Continue reading “Molter Family Orchards, Part I”