Apr 7, 2007
Go-Getter Family Builds Vibrant Market

For Bill and Michelle Bakan of Maize Valley Farm Market in Hartville, Ohio, just being big farmers wasn’t going to save the farm. They needed to sell something that made more money than corn and soybeans.

Until the late 1990s, they were farming 3,000 acres of field crops, milking 150 cows and operating an agribusiness that bought and sold grain and farm supplies and custom-applied fertilizer and agrichemicals.

“Why change? Commodity agriculture is not very profitable,” Michelle said. “You have to produce a lot to make a little. Meanwhile, land around us was going into development, selling for $15,000 to $20,000 an acre. We wanted to remain in agriculture and realized after attending a few direct farm marketing conferences that a farm market would be our best chance for survival.”

They “tested the waters” for a few years, selling sweet corn out of a pickup truck by the road, graduating to a trailer and then a building and then opening a large market in 2001.

Bill and Michelle delivered a tag team talk on building a successful farm market during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo.

While they advise “defining a niche,” their farm market is into every niche imaginable – and they plan to add a winery this year. They bought an old barn to convert to a farm market, sandblasting the old beams and installing new floors with in-floor heating. New construction blends into old cut stone walls.

They work with Michelle’s parents, Kay and Donna Vaughn, and her brother Todd, and they now hire 15 to 18 employees.

“Maize Valley Farm Market is committed to providing the best in home grown produce,” according to the company’s website. “We currently farm about 1,000 acres including 150-200 acres of fruits and vegetables. Our sweet corn is super-sweet and our tomatoes are homegrown and juicy! We grow our own cantaloupes, watermelons, peppers, green beans, squash and much, much more. New this year, we will have strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.”

Other things they do include: selling Amish meat and cheeses in a full-service deli; running a bakery; providing gift baskets and gourmet foods; operating a greenhouse and selling perennial flowers; running a 21-acre corn maze; giving school tours; sponsoring a balloon lift-off and helicopter rides; giving wagon rides on a 15-wagon train, having a petting zoo with a goat walk – and entertaining folks with a pumpkin-shooting cannon that lofts pumpkins and cabbages a half mile.

Michelle manages the market. Bill works on the farm with his parents-in-law and handles all aspects of the corn maze, tours, and educational components of the operations. He dons “hick clothes” and gives an entertaining talk. Todd is in charge of keeping the greenhouse with all it flowers and vegetables happy and healthy.

While the market is open 10 months a year, the fall season is most intense. Last year, the corn maze opened Sep. 6, wagon rides began the next week, and the annual hot-air balloon lift-off took place Sep. 26, along with helicopter rides. There was another balloon rally Oct. 30.

The petting pasture and kids’ area opened June 18, and summer “Farm Fantasy Day Camps” featured days on the farm for kids.

All this may seem a lot like milking cows, but the Bakan love marketing. Bill loves vehicles, and one of his favorite marketing tools is a 1952 Ford pickup truck that had only 3,500 miles on it. It is completely restores and sells sweet corn at sites away from the main farm market.

Their corn maze this year was done in the shape of a NASCAR racer.

Are they a model of success?

“We think we’re not there yet, but we have learned a few things along the way,” Michelle said. “We are continually changing and evolving our market to suit our customers.”

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