Editor's note: This article was published in the Record-Eagle's Momentum '19 special publication. For more stories from northern Michigan's economic engine click here to read Momentum in its entirety online.
TRAVERSE CITY — Northwest Lower Michigan is a breadbasket for fruit salad and tossed salad goods. It is ripe with garden after garden of tasty treats.
A road trip through Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau and neighboring counties will take travelers through a senses-pleasing patchwork of apple and cherry orchards, peach and pear orchards, corn fields, potato fields, blueberry, strawberry and raspberry patches, and vegetable gardens seeded with tomatoes, broccoli, parsley, lettuce, zucchini, asparagus and more.
Al and Lynn Bakker for three decades have plucked untold bushels of apples from their orchards at Bakker’s Acres near Suttons Bay in Leelanau County. They grow varieties including the prized SweeTango, grown in only 50 or so areas in the world — including five in Northwest Michigan — because of restrictions put in place by those who developed and patented the apple at the University of Minnesota.
Other area orchards that grow the SweeTango include Cherry Bay Orchards in Suttons Bay, Evans Brothers Fruit Company in Frankfort, Lentz Farms in Honor and Interwater Farms Inc. in Williamsburg.
“There are a few others in southern Michigan, too, south of Ludington,” said Al Bakker.
Bakker said he is looking forward to enjoying another growing season similar to the one his farm experienced last year.
“Last year was a real good year,” he said. “No hail. No frost to speak of. It was a little dry, but we have a real good irrigation system. One thing about this coming year is the peach crop might be small due to that Polar Vortex we had in January. That might be a problem.”
Besides the popular SweeTango, the Bakkers raise and sell several other types of apples, too. They also grow cherries, pears, peaches, plums, raspberries, rhubarb and more. Located at 2677 North Setterbo Road, the Bakkers sell their produce to area grocery stores, restaurants, packing houses, the Traverse City Farmers Market and at their own roadside stand. Their business long has been affiliated with Cherry Bay Orchards.
“I started working for Cherry Bay 40 years ago,” said Bakker, who attended Michigan State University’s Horticultural Program in 1979. “We’re looking forward to a good year.”
Bud’s of Interlochen is just one of many area restaurants to take advantage of the freshness and quality of locally-grown veggies and fruits to be featured on their menus.
“Absolutely, we try to use as many (locally-grown) products as possible,” said supervisor Amanda Fouchey. “That just makes sense. We have contact with a number of local farms, especially during the summer (harvest) seasons. We couldn’t be happier with what they provide.”
Fouchey said one of the local farms they “do a lot of business with” is Zenner’s Farm Market of Kingsley.
And while the extended Zenner farming family grows and sells many products, its hydroponic tomatoes have become an annual grocery-list item for a many area restaurants and other food businesses. The 6,000 or so tomato plants — beef steak, cherry and heirloom — are grown in eight hydroponic-fitted green houses.
“No acid rain, no pollution,” said Rick Zenner. “We’ve been doing it this way for about 30 years. The tomatoes are all grown inside, under a controlled environment.
“We have quite a few local customers — Oleson’s grocery store, Cherry Capital Foods, Amical restaurant in Traverse City, to name just a few — probably 30 or so retail and wholesale in all, if not more. We all work together, you have to.”
And while Zenner did not want to say how many bushels or pounds of tomatoes his farm grows each year, he did say “it’s a lot.”
Even local school districts stock their food pantries with locally-grown fruits and vegetables to serve their students.
Tom Freitas, director of Food and Nutrition Services for the 10,000 students in 16 schools of the Traverse City Area Public Schools, said his district takes advantage of a fairly new State of Michigan program (developed in the Traverse City area by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities) that returns 10 cents to the school for every 20 cents it spends on its locally-grown products.
Freitas said TCAPS recently saw a return of about $24,000 through the program called 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids and Farms.
“We’ve gotten our apples, cherries, blueberries and other produce through the program,” said Freitas. “We get a lot of our items from local producers, but we also get them from some producers in southern Michigan. For us — our (school) district — and the local farmers, it’s a win-win situation.”
10 Cents a Meal is a state-funded competitive grant pilot reimbursement program for schools to improve daily nutrition and eating habits for children. It allows schools to purchase local fruit, vegetables and beans, and invest in Michigan’s agriculture.
According to the Michigan Department of Education, invoices show participating schools purchased 80 different fruits, vegetables and dry beans grown from 112 farms in 34 Michigan counties last year, including many in the Grand Traverse County and northwest Lower Michigan regions. The department said interaction between schools and local farms also contributed to the success of local food processors, distributors and food hubs.