Petoskey, MI

Pulling into Anne and Brian Bates’ farm has a similar feel to pulling into a modern winery. A nice wooden sign that leads to a small winding road toward a good-sized dirt parking area. After a few steps, you’re among a set of greenhouses, lined up with ample space between them. People are working, and it’s hard to distinguish between the owners and the workers who’ve asked to work there — the farm has never posted a job opening, but people come from all over to be part of what’s growing.

I meet Brian and his wife, Anne, with their months-old baby swaddled to her chest. They are all smiles and energy, and the conversation turns immediately to the farm-to-table dinner they are preparing to serve inside one of the greenhouses. I shoot while Brian moves from one thing to another. Days at the farm have different needs. Certain days are for harvesting. Certain days at the market. Today is Tuesday — the day for chores.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Josh Rose: Tell me about this farm.

Brian Bates: We are a salad farm that specializes in high-end complimentary products. Categorically, we’re a direct market specialty crop farm. So everything we sell goes directly to the end user, whether that is an individual, a chef, or a grocery store.

Back in the day, there used to be truck farms. People truck it into town or market. Nowadays the vast majority of food in America gets dropped off at a grain elevator or processor and then turned into a hundred different things.

Here, everything has our name on it, all the way through the value chain until it gets on your table.

How do you divide up the roles ?

Brian: I’m Farmer Brian, and she’s Queen Bee Anne.

Everyone who works here has a call sign: Horseshoe, Hummingbird, Micro One, Micro Three, Worker Bee.

Corey is ex-military, and was like, “Well, if we get walkie-talkies, we’ve got to have call signs.” I was like, “All right.”

The call signs just kind of come to you. Actually, my call sign isn’t Farmer Brian. That’s just my Facebook. My call sign is Lettuce Leader. If they want to be silly, like make me feel insecure, they call me Micro-Manager, since they’re all like Micro One, Micro Two, Micro Three. It’s really one of the most fun parts about having staff. Which is funny, because we started out with the goal of never having staff.

Anne: I make sure that everyone feels free to talk to me. I used to be a residence hall director in art school, and an R.A. in grad school, so I spent a lot of time interfacing.

Brian: She’s got good mediation skills; high empathy levels.

Anne: There have been moments over the last five years where I’ve needed those skills, but it’s very rare. More often than not, I just kind of float, but I’m definitely the beekeeper.

So figuratively, and literally the beekeeper?

Anne: Yeah, honey bees. We started out trying to be a bee farm. Brian started keeping bees in college.

Now we make barrel-aged honey. We get whisky barrels, we fill them with honey, and then we age and bottle it. We won a National Good Food award in San Francisco.

Bear Creek honey is made on the farm. We’ve had as many as 60 hives, but now we have less than that.

We use different flora in each of the locations, so there are three different flavors. Every year is different based on how much rain we get. Different things flower each year, so every year it’ll be slightly different.

We’re definitely on the hobbyist side of it now, though. We’re not making our own queens or anything like that. We would love to become master beekeepers at some point though.

Does this job align with your interests, and are you good at it?

Anne: Growing up, we would visit my grandfather’s farm. He had hundreds of acres and a huge garden. But I don’t know if it was so much my skillset as it was just living life. We always had a garden. It wasn’t anything remotely close to this, but I grew up weeding the garden.

So, there’s this idea of being from the country, and having my mom who grew up on a farm, milking the cows before school. I’ve been around it my whole life, but this is a very different style. So maybe not my skill set, but conceptually, what I’m used to.

Going to art school, I had my dreams set on the West Coast, like Pixar or whatnot. Then, I met him.

In a way, how I grew up mixed with the skill set of art and design, played a role in the marketing and branding.

I went from feeling kind of like a failure professionally, like, “I’m not animating, so am I doing right in my life?” Over the last five years, I’ve learned that this is still animating. It’s just at a slower speed, but there’s still a story that’s unfolding. So it’s almost like a living exhibit, a living document, a living story that’s just ongoing. For me, it’s a mixing of skillset with life that I’ve always known, mixed with new.

I’ve never thought about beekeeping until I met him and he started doing it.

How about you Brian?

Brian: I’m going to say yes, but not in ways that I ever expected. I’ve always been really curious and active. I didn’t know this as a kid, but my parents always called me “Project Boy”.

I always wanted to be doing a project. That’s probably a subtitle for farmer — project guy — because it just feels like there’s endless projects.

I really enjoy that element. I also knew I wanted to be outside and thought I was going to be in landscape architecture. I was like, “Alright, it’s professional, sounds like a good job, and it’s on the straight and narrow.”

So I went to Penn State because it had the number one landscape architecture program in the country. It was a five year professional degree program.

I was all-in. I got Freshman of the Year Landscape Architecture award, and I was like, “Yeah, this is what I’m going to do.” It was all conceptual the first year. Then the second year, you’re just on the computer, and I was like, “This is crazy. I’m going to be on a computer, inside, designing outdoor things, instead of actually being outside.”

At that point I was kind of wrestling with climate change and environmental catastrophe, and designing landscapes that just looked nice seemed to not matter if we’re all just toast anyways. Right?

I read an article from the New Yorker, or New York Times magazine, or something that talked about the tragedy of the American front lawn. I’ll never forget that article. It was just talking about how preposterous lawns are, and articulated it in really clever ways, like how absurd the whole concept is. And that was this big light bulb.

I remember reading that essay and the following semester a friend of my roommate’s stopped by our dorm room and said she was taking a class called “Sustainable Agriculture: Principles and Policy”. I was like, “Whoa. Farming sounds cool.” I didn’t know anything about farming, but was like, “That sounds great.”

Where you were born and how did you get here?

Anne: I was born and raised in Indiana, went to art school in Milwaukee, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and went to grad school at IU (Indiana University) and then we moved here. So I’ve been in the Midwest the whole way through.

Brian: Born and raised in Virginia right outside of D.C.. Thought I wanted to be an architect but, before I applied to college I did a summer camp in architecture at MIAD. I was like, “Never heard of it, never been to the Midwest, whatever.” Booked a ticket, landed in Milwaukee, took the shuttle to MIAD, first person I meet is Anne.

Two weeks later, I’m like, “I’m going to marry her.”

Anne: Thank god he didn’t tell me that.

Brian: I was 17 and had never been so sure of anything in my life. Didn’t go to MIAD, or become an architect, but was like, “Alright, got a future wife.”

We dated long distance for five years. When I went back to finish senior year of high school, she came to homecoming. She could’ve bought us all beer.

Anne: I was a senior in college going to homecoming and prom. I was like, “This is awkward.”

Brian: We wanted to move to Montana, that was the dream. Montana or bust. So, I tried to find jobs on farms out there doing vegetables, and I couldn’t find any.

So being the naïve geography major that I was, I just took the latitude of where we wanted to go and applied at farm internships between Maine and North Dakota and landed one in Petoskey, Michigan. I was like, “Well, never been there, but we’ll go check it out.” It ends up being, just the coolest.

I don’t know if I believe in destiny, but I do think that when you’re not looking for something, and you find something, that makes it more meaningful.

I went to Milwaukee architecture, and met Anne. We moved to Petoskey, just until we could move to Montana. But each thing we discovered about it was so cool and interesting and just jived with what we wanted.

It was more real, because we weren’t trying to make anything of it.

We were driving to the airport in Grand Rapids to fly to Montana for a week because I wanted to go to grad school there. We got maybe an hour and a half south of here, and we weren’t really talking the whole way, which was weird.

I was just like, “Should we just turn around?”

Anne: I was like, “Oh, I’m so glad you said something.”

At the time, we were like, “We’ll go back. Just because we don’t go to the conference doesn’t mean you won’t go to school there.” So, we turned around.

Brian: I said, “We should just stay here. We don’t even need to go check out Montana. We should just stay.” We haven’t been back. This just started to feel like home. Montana never felt like home. We were forcing it.

Tell me about the economics of the business?

Brian: Capital-intensive. Lots of initial startup costs. We probably borrowed 400 grand ($400,000). The land was like 225 ($225,000), the buildings, the greenhouses, and we’ve borrowed as we’ve gone. But I’d say it was probably close to $400,000 total.

There are subsidies for beginning farmers, where you can qualify for $50,000 at 1.7% interest, with little or no experience. We did Kiva loans, crowdsourced loans, environmental grants, credit cards.

Most small farms are more risk-averse, but once we felt we had something that was really working, we were like, “All right, we should probably just put fuel on the fire.” Timing seemed right.

We took on a lot of debt early on, but I’ve been unapologetic about that. I think people that take on debt become better business owners because you have to answer to something every month. If it’s all your own savings, it’s so easy to not pay yourself and not pay your savings back. So, the fact that we have to pay all this back, forced us to come up with a way to make money.

Right now it feels like we can’t stop growing, which is a good thing. But some days, I wish we would just catch up and pay everything off.

The last four years, we’ve grown $100,000 a year in sales. But to do that, we’ve had to build more hoop houses, expand the greenhouse, add new barns, get more tools, get more supplies, buy more packaging, hire more people. Each year, the math still adds up, but it would be so cool one year to take all that money and pay off a bunch of things.

We’ve got enough capacity that I think we can execute a lot with what we’ve got, so I think we’re really close to being done capitalizing. I jokingly called the first year the empire-building phase.

What are you doing that sets you apart?

Brian: Basically, I think we have a modern, hip, millennial-owned business, in an old style industry. I think there’s a strong desire for purpose-built brands, and everything we do lends itself to that.

We’ve taken the path less traveled. Connecting with nature in an era of being stuck on our devices. It’s raw, and your hands are in the dirt. It’s not just a hip startup you can sell to the highest bidder.

So many people are so far removed from growing food. The fewest people in American history are involved in growing food, so anything we share on social media is basically mind-blowing. People go into the tomato tunnel and are like, “What the hell? This is crazy.” Or we’ll post a photo of a field of lettuce, and people are like, “That’s the most lettuce I’ve ever seen.”

In the scheme of things, it’s really irrelevant, but we as a society live a life removed from many parts of life, not just food production.

I don’t think we’d have the business we have without Facebook. How else are you going to reach this many potential customers, and tell them exactly what you want to tell them, basically free?

The first couple events, all we did was post it on Facebook. Our plant sale, which is now our biggest event was just a Facebook post, but all these people showed up. Facebook has also given us a real digital feedback loop with our customers. People used to do focus groups, but all of this data and information is right at our fingertips. We were just young and willing enough to leverage it and build a customer-driven business.

Most farmers say, “I was born a potato farmer. I’m going to die a potato farmer.” And they have to find ways to just push potatoes.

Whereas if tomorrow, our customers said, “We’re never going to buy lettuce again,” we would just stop growing lettuce. We’ve built a poll-based business. It’s all driven by customer poll. Some chef was like, “If you had this flower, I’d buy it.” So, I grew some and told all the chefs.

I think that ability to be responsive has shaped our success.

What’s your philosophy on hiring people?

Brian: One of our goals is to never post a job. So far, we’ve had to turn people away. We’ve had people as far as California working for GoPro, say they want to quit and come work for us. Like, “I got a golden parachute from GoPro. I want to come work from you.” It’s nuts.

This is hard work. It’s not super glamorous. While interning and volunteering on farms, I saw a lot of people with really romantic ideas of what farming was. They quit within a week, literally.

Almost everyone that works here, helped out in some capacity first. Either through the local college, volunteer hours, or an internship.

We had a student from Anne’s animation class. He was really rowdy, not great in the classroom, but wanted to try farming. We were nervous.

We asked him, “Why do you want to do this?” He was ex-military and was like, “I feel like I’ve ruined enough lives. I just want to be part of something that’s building and growing.” I was like, “Alright. Done.”

Now, he loves it, and on days when I think something’s too hard, he’s like, “Don’t worry. Nothing here has been as hard as the best task in the military.”

What’s your philosophy for managing people?

Just follow the Golden Rule: Treat people the way you want to be treated.

A great mentor told me, having employees is a “come-along”, not “go-along” business. So, it can’t be like, “Go do this.” It has to be like, “Come with me. We’re going to do this.” So, I’ve tried to honor that as much as possible.

There are days where I should be in the office, but I’m trying to make people feel like if we all do this together, we’re going to be successful.

I care a lot about people’s values. It’s not always money. One person wants to work 10-hour days, 4 days a week. Another wants to be able to hunt on the farm. If that’s what they value, we’ll work with that.

We also give everyone 10 shirts, buy them new shoes every year, and we always have snack bins. We were starting them at $12.50 an hour and now it’s $16.50 an hour. The plan is that we all get a salary of 40 grand, and I’m going to make mine the same as theirs. “We’re all in it together.”

What’s the bummer of the job?

Can’t get away. Single biggest pet peeve I have. We’ve done it, but it’s stressful. We’re worrying the whole time and end up coming home early. We came home from Hawaii early.

Just being able to get away for a week in the summer. I just don’t see how that happens. We’ll get there, but it’s just hard to picture it right now.

How do politics and the economy affect what you do?

Brian: I would say we’re incredibly aware and we sometimes see macro level conversations affect us immediately. We were pricing out a new greenhouse, and they put the steel tariffs on, and then costs went up 30% within a week.

All these tariffs hurt farmers more than almost any industry in the country, manufacturing and farming. There are some really great farmer groups on Facebook that are helpful.

I think our biggest concern is that we live in a seasonal community where a lot of people come up here who have extra money, they’re on vacation and feeling good. If anything changes to make fewer people feel like that, that will affect us. So we talk about trying to brace for that. It’s one of the reasons that we’re trying to pay off a lot of debt this year.

The next couple years, we’re going to see some kind of downturn. It’s inevitable. That’s okay. We just want to make sure we’re as resilient as we can be. It’s just a reality of life in a small town.

By the way, we also have an employment shortage. Nowhere around here can you find workers. Everyone’s hiring, and it’s pushing wages up, but we were already way ahead of the curve in local wages. So I feel really comfortable that our people aren’t going to jump ship.

How fulfilling is this job?

Brian: The most. In every way. But it’s important to make sure that we’re not trying to pay ourselves in fulfillment. That’s the trap so many small market farmers fall into, especially if they’re doing it as like a second career.

I think the other fulfilling thing is seeing the fruits of your labor every day, each month, and each year, and that was something I always struggled with in architecture. Here, we are educating and feeding people.

I want people to see farming as a legitimate professional career. I’m not doing this because I was born in a straw hut putting twigs in my mouth all day. We have a business that is involved in food production, and we run it like a business, and we do so unapologetically.