Mar 18, 2019Processed products, online sales spur success
The gentle curving of Lake Huron around the Thumb region of Michigan puts Port Austin on the tip of a peninsula, and summer tourism is big.
“A lot of people from the metro Detroit area come up here in the summer,” said Nancy Empkie of Empkie’s Farm Market outside of Port Austin.
The visitors wanted fresh sweet corn so the Empkies started growing it in 1993. They wanted fresh vegetables so the Empkies started growing them in 2000.
The visitors also wanted unique products like the Empkie’s melon variety French Orange. “It’s a French melon – an heirloom variety – and crossed with a muskmelon,” Nancy said. “It has the French melon’s flavor, but it holds up better in the field. Customers know we grow them, and they ask for them.”
Most of Empkie’s sales have traditionally been on the roadside, but with a location off the beaten path and a seasonal customer base, getting into processing, marketing at grocery stores and taking their products online has expanded their markets. Nancy and her husband, Paul, are the fourth generation to operate the Empkie farm. They began Empkie’s Farm Market with the help of their sons, Scott and Brian and daughter, Jen.
Sweet corn has always stayed number one and took a big jump up when the Empkies started freezing their own corn for retail sales in 2011.
They rented a kitchen in a nearby high school technical education center, were licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) and passed inspection. “They came out and watched while we were processing sweet corn,” Nancy said.
The Empkies eventually built their own kitchen facility on the farm. “We knew sweet corn wasn’t going to pay for it,” Nancy said. “We already grew tomatoes and peppers, and decided to start making salsa.” They also started to make jam.
This change brought new regulations. “Since salsa and jam are shelf-stable products, they are regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” Nancy said. That meant the operation had to become a Federal Canning Establishment (FCE).
“We had to send reports to the FDA on how we planned to make salsa and jam,” Nancy said. “A food scientist had to go over the reports to make sure the process produced a safe product. When FDA concurred, MDARD came in and watched the process.”
The Empkies eventually received the FCE. “There are a lot of records,” Nancy said, so MDARD can audit the process.
The frozen sweet corn and salsa and jam are sold straight off the farm and through local grocery stores.
“The local stores have been so receptive,” Nancy said. “They gave our sweet corn good shelf space at eye level. They gave our salsa and jam good shelf space, too, when they started selling them.”
The Empkies have also started selling salsa and jam online. “Sales aren’t knocking down the door, but they’ve been growing,” Nancy said. Their daughter, Jen, processes the online sales from her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Jen also updates the farm’s website.
Nearly all vegetable production is outdoors. Transplants are started in a greenhouse. There are also a couple hoophouses for early tomatoes.
Brian does a lot of the farm work.
Jen and her husband, Danny, help out at Saturday farmers’ markets. Brian’s wife, Trina, has an off-farm job, but also helps at the Saturday markets.
Scott and his wife, Mercedes, live in Indiana, but help on the farm any time they are home. And, the Empkie grandchildren are always eager to help when they visit the farm.
The main farmers’ market is the Port Austin Farmer’s Market.
“We turned four of our hay wagons into farm market stands,” Nancy said. “It’s simple. We get the wagon loaded and away we go at 10 miles per hour to town. Paul takes off the drawbar off at the market.”
A common theme at farmers’ markets is you’ve got to like people and enjoy talking to them. There’s also a tremendous public response when customers realize they’re talking to the people who actually grew the food.
“They want to know the farmer, and they want to talk to the farmer,” Nancy said. “They have a lot of questions.”
The experience from the licensing and food processing inspection process lets the Empkies attest to how safe the country’s food supply is.
“For the most part, we’re a family business,” Nancy said. “It’s small scale but it works well for us.”
Above: Sales to summer tourists are a mainstay for Empkie’s Farm Market near Port Austin, Michigan, said Nancy Empkie, left. Her daughter, Jen, right, processes the online sales for Empkie’s from her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo: Dean Peterson