Jul 18, 2007Michigan Farm Replaces Squash With Flowers
It was the summer of 2000, and one of the biggest squash crops Barbott Farms and Greenhouse had ever seen was sitting in the field, almost ready for harvest. The Barbott family had a lot invested in that crop and was looking forward to the payoff.
Around the first day of August, disaster struck. Heavy rains and flooding destroyed the squash. About two weeks later, the family was cutting its first corn maze. They sold most of their farming equipment the next year. They were done with vegetables.
The decision wasn’t quite as drastic as it sounds, according to Andy Barbott, who runs the Stevensville, Mich., family business. The switch from vegetables to flowers and agritourism was long and gradual. The flood of 2000 was simply the last straw.
The story starts back in 1989, after a college professor convinced Andy his farm needed a greenhouse. His mother sold flowers out of the front end of that first small structure and Andy grew tomatoes and peppers in the back end. Soon enough, flower sales started taking off and the whole greenhouse was filled with them.
Meanwhile, the produce was struggling. The Barbotts were raising about 400 acres of fall squash and pumpkins and selling most of them to chain stores in Florida, but they couldn’t compete with Mexican product that sold for $5 a bushel.
“I was trying to sell it for $6.50, and had to pay to get it there,” Andy said. “It didn’t take long before we lost most of that market.”
The Barbotts built at least one greenhouse every year. By the late ’90s, they were making more money from flowers than from farming. They invested heavily in their produce, however, hoping it would eventually pay off. It never did.
After the disaster of 2000, they had to find a way to settle their debts. So, they sold off all but 30 of their vegetable acres and accelerated their plans for a corn maze.
About 11,000 people went through the corn maze that first year. At $7 a person, it took a big bite out of the debts the Barbotts had accumulated from trying to grow produce, Andy said.
“We were just ecstatic,” he said. “I had no idea we would have that kind of a crowd the first year.”
The farm’s location in southwest Michigan is ideal for agritourism. Houses are going up all around as people from Chicago move into the area, Andy said.
Barbott’s agritainment activities have grown beyond the corn maze. Customers have two ticket choices: They can buy the farm pass for $4 or the corn maze pass for $8. The farm pass gets them access to Pumpkinville, where they can pick their own pumpkins, ride the farm yard train, pedal tractors and pedal race cars, play life-size board games, romp on the hay fort, visit the animal barn, get a hayride – all that stuff. The $8 pass gets them access to everything in Pumpkinville, plus the corn maze.
The Barbotts haven’t abandoned produce entirely. They still sell squash, pumpkins, cornstalks, bagged corn, specialty vegetable plants and seeds – but flowers are their primary focus.
The farm has 22 greenhouses, covering about 50,000 square feet of space. There are more than 170 varieties of hanging baskets, 200 varieties of perennials and about 10,000 mums sold in autumn. Almost 90 percent of the flowers they sell are grown in their greenhouses. Most of the flowers are sold at the on-farm store, but some are sold to local hardware, grocery and landscape businesses, Andy said.
In some ways, growing greenhouse flowers is easier than growing produce; in some ways it’s not. You have more control over factors like heat and water, but less control over factors like sunlight and air. A week without sun is as bad as a drought in the field. Lack of air movement in greenhouses makes it more difficult to keep flowers dry, which leads to disease and mold issues, he said.
Negative factors can be dealt with, however – except maybe the wind. This spring, 60 to 70 mph winds tore a hole in the roof of one of the greenhouses. The damaged roof will have to be replaced next year, but greenhouse plastic has to be replaced every four years anyway, Andy said.
The Barbotts have found multiple ways to keep their business afloat. Andy is a member of his township’s planning commission and zoning board of appeals. Many township officials aren’t familiar with the difficulties of farming, and Andy felt they needed his perspective. His township has rather strict signage laws, too. It doesn’t allow off-site signs, so Andy can’t put a sign up along the road north of his business. He can put a sign up about a quarter mile away, in the neighboring township – which allows off-site signage – but 75 percent of his business comes from north of the farm, so he’d really like to be able to put a sign up there.
There’s also the Barbott Farms jingle. The business runs ads with local radio stations, and each ad features a catchy jingle that has caught the attention of customers. Some customers walk into the farm market humming the tune, Andy said.
For more information, visit www.barbott.com.