TRAVERSE CITY — William Koucky walks through the front door of a large, chilly warehouse off Cass Road every morning with one purpose: realizing a dream.
The former elementary school teacher and violin maker speaks softly as he navigates a maze of huge bags of canola and sunflower seeds, and speaks about what it took to get his unique business, Grand Traverse Culinary Oils, up and running.
“I’ve had this building for about three years,” Koucky said. “We’ve been putting it together piece-by-piece as I could afford it. Recently, I did borrow some money to jump off. Working capital is what I borrowed money for.”
Koucky’s business takes locally grown sunflower and canola seeds and presses them into culinary oils for sale at grocery stores and restaurants. It is one of any number of businesses in the Grand Traverse region that are fighting to make a profit, but for economic development officials, Koucky’s business warrants extra attention.
The business model of processing locally grown agriculture products to give them added value – in this case sunflower and canola seeds converted into cooking oils – is known in economic development-speak as value-added agricultural processing.
Many economic leaders believe the concept is critical to job growth in northern Michigan.
“Instead of sending product out of the region and then having to buy it back, you take the product, process it here, and sell it here,” said Doug Luciani, president and chief executive officer of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, which recently loaned Koucky’s business about $15,000.
“Others involved in economic development think this is really the secret sauce for the foreseeable future when it comes to economic growth,” Luciani said.
Getting Grand Traverse Culinary Oils started was difficult for Koucky, who acknowledges there’s still a long way to go to make a profit. One of the biggest obstacles is finding locally grown canola that isn’t genetically modified. This growing season he contracted with a Leelanau County farmer to grow canola.
“The farmers won’t grow it without a market and it’s hard to have a market without the farmers,” Koucky said. “When they have to ship it off to a market in Canada they lose interest. You have to pay for the shipping on top of it.
“This year we could only harvest what we really could do for ourselves for the canola, which wasn’t much,” Koucky said. “We got about 10 tons of Canola grown out in Leelanau County just off French Road. I’m an amateur farmer. I love the tractors and I love the whole process, but I’m not a farmer.”
Koucky gets his sunflower seeds from Send Brothers Feed in Williamsburg. The sunflower and canola seeds are shipped to the warehouse and placed in nearly two-story storage bins that were assembled piece-by-piece with no instruction manual. The bins allow for drying and proper storage so the seeds have just the right moisture content when pressed into cooking oil. The end product is sold at Oleson’s Food Stores and Oryana Natural Foods Market.
The manufacturing process also produces high-grade animal feed.
Rob Sirrine is a community food systems educator with Michigan State University Extension. He said a network of advocates, farmers and food processors are working together to help similar businesses make it work as part of the Food and Farming Network. A nonprofit called the Grand Traverse Foodshed Alliance was formed to help manage 12,000-square feet of commercial space off Barlow Road that’s called a food innovation hub.
It’s a place where farmers, food processors and others can share resources to produce value-added agriculture products.
“There’s huge potential, especially in a state like ours where there’s really a great diversity in crops,” Sirrine said.