PETOSKEY — What originally started as a small idea continued to grow and grow — much like his crops — for Bear Creek Organic Farms owner Brian Bates.
Bates, who along with his wife, Anne Morningstar, operates the farm located on Atkins Road, was looking to expand his farm to help accelerate business growth and infrastructure.
“Like all of our good ideas, it started out small and just spiraled a little bit bigger and bigger until it became quite a project,” Bates said. “The idea was to just spend $100,000 to expand our barn and build another greenhouse.
“When we started getting quotes back, we realized it wasn’t nearly enough money,” Bates said. “Then we got more quotes and started talking to Farm Service Agency about getting a loan.”
Bates traveled to Lansing last week to present to the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development, and secured an $80,000 Food and Agriculture Investment Fund grant for expansion and construction on the farm.
Bates said later this month he expects to break ground on a $450,000 capital expansion project, which will include more than 16,000 square feet of new greenhouses and hoophouses, an 1,800-square-foot expansion of the farm’s processing facility, improved automation in growing and processing and more full-time jobs.
The end result, Bates mentioned, is “more veggies,” as Bear Creek Organic Farm will be able to grow and provide for their customers 52 weeks a year.
“There’s certain MDARD (Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development) grant programs that are only eligible for certain scale projects,” Bates said. “We’ve never had a project that would even scratch the surface of that, all of our stuff has been piece by piece along the way.
“This is the first time we realized with all the components and with what we wanted to do … we’re trying to expand more part-time jobs into full-time jobs and add more workers, if we wanted to bundle it together it’d have to be a more cohesive project. In the grant world, they (MDARD) love supporting bigger projects.”
The Food and Agriculture Investment Fund grant Bear Creek Organic Farm received was one of 11 grants approved across the state for food and agriculture projects by the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development.
“Michigan’s food and agriculture industry isn’t booming because of a couple mega-companies,” said Gary McDowell, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “It’s booming because of the thousands of small and midsized operations that bring new, innovative ideas, products and technologies to the table.
“The hurdle that some of these businesses have, however, is securing enough capital to grow and stay ahead of the curve,” McDowell added. “These grants are designed to do exactly that. These relatively small, targeted investments help protect and create local jobs in both large and small communities across the entire state.”
According to a Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development press release, the project will create five new jobs and will allow the Bear Creak Organic Farm to invest in new technology and ensure Food Safety Modernization Act compliance.
Bear Creek Organic Fam was launched six years ago and since then has grown to be a recognized leader in the farming, food and greater business community.
“We’re super excited we got this (grant),” Bates said. “It’s important to note this is a project that’s designed to benefit the community, not to make us richer. It’s all performance-based and you only get the funds once you complete everything and hit all your milestones.
“Everything needs to be built, done, inspected and useable before they release a single dollar,” Bates said. “They’ll send on-site reps to do site visits and measure our progress and make sure we’re hitting their benchmarks. That’s the only way they release those funds.”
Bates said the project is expected to be completed by October of this year.
“Sixteen thousand square feet of greenhouse and hoophouse space is huge,” he said, “because … a major bottleneck and limiter to growth is, since we’re growing all perishable crops which are harvested fresh, for us to extend the season earlier in the spring and later in the fall or winter requires us to have crops in greenhouses and hoophouses.
“If we’re filling them all up now and we’re running out, the only way to grow more is to add more space,” Bates said. “We’ve seen a lot of our growth come from local sales, sales to local stores and these investments in infrastructure are important for serving our local community.”
Bates said guests of the farm — particularly during their annual spring plant sale which this year begins May 16 — will see the project on full display.
“Hopefully this will be the last year where we’ll be doing a lot of moving to make everything fit,” Bates said. “Hopefully next year it’ll be a more streamlined shopping experience.”
The additional 1,800 square feet in barn space will help accommodate increased capacity to wash, pack and process lettuce and vegetables and increase storage space.
“We also want to make it possible to access all the greenhouses from the barns without having to go outside,” Bates said. “Because we’re growing 52 weeks a year, sometimes you’re harvesting greens in a 65-degree greenhouse, then you’re walking into minus 20 outside. It’s not great for workers or for crops.”
Bates said he believes the expansion project is the appropriate size and scope for what the farm already does.
“We’re not taking this money and trying to get into a new business,” Bates said. “We’re just trying to expand on the core enterprises that are working really well for us. We want to serve more people for longer and we want to grow into the future. That’s our primary objective.”
The Food and Agriculture Investment Program provides financial support for food and agriculture projects that help expand food and agriculture processing to enable growth in the industry and Michigan’s economy.
Projects are selected based on their impact to the overall agriculture industry and their impact to food and agriculture growth and investment in Michigan.
Along with Bear Creek Organic Farm, Cherry Republic Inc. of Glen Arbor and 9 Bean Rows of Suttons Bay also received grant support via the Food and Agriculture Investment Fund.
Follow Steve Foley on Twitter @SteveFoley8