Jul 18, 2007
Southwest Michigan Farm Markets Rely on Chicago Money

Michigan’s southwest corner is often ignored by the rest of the state, which gravitates more toward the southeast side and Detroit. That could be a problem for farm markets and other businesses in Southwest Michigan that rely on tourism, but fortunately for them, they have a not-so-secret weapon two states over.

I’ll give you a hint: It starts with a “C,” ends with an “o” and in the middle is pronounced “hicag.” You guessed it, baby. Chicago. Chi-town. The Windy City. City of the Big Shoulders. Hog Butcher to the World.

I stole part of the previous paragraph from Saturday Night Live. Here’s another fact I stole: Chicago, about two hours away from Southwest Michigan, supplies that region with an endless number of tourists seeking escape from the confines of the city and willing to spend a seemingly endless amount of cash.

That’s the message I picked up on last month, during a bus tour of farm markets and agritourism enterprises in Michigan’s southwest corner. The owners of just about every business we visited brought up their “Chicago people” over and over again.

Great American Publishing, the company that owns The Fruit Growers News and The Vegetable Growers News, teamed with the Michigan Farm Marketing & Agri-Tourism Association to organize the tour, called the Great Lakes Agri-Tourism Experience. The object was for farm marketers to study the techniques of other farm marketers – though “study” might be too serious a word. It was actually kind of fun.

It started the evening of June 12, with an outdoor reception and dinner at Lemon Creek Winery & Fruit Farm in Berrien Springs. The weather was perfect for the occasion, which included hayride tours of the farm’s fruit fields. The Lemon family has been farming the same land for more than 150 years.

The bus tour started the next morning. The first stop was Barbott Farms & Greenhouse in Stevensville. Barbott used to grow primarily vegetables, but is now an extensive greenhouse operation, selling quite a few flowers out of its retail center.

The next stop was Piggott’s Farm Market, part of L.H. Piggott & Girls Family Farm in Benton Harbor. Produce is sold under a pretty pavilion, pleasing to the eyes of the many people who drive by on East Napier Avenue.

Then there’s Tree-Mendus Fruit in Eau Claire, home of the International Cherry Pit-Spitting Championship. You can’t buy the kind of publicity and media coverage the annual contest brings to the farm market.

After a nice lunch at Tree-Mendus, the bus made a couple stops on Friday Road in Coloma. The first stop was Grandpa’s Cider Mill, a new operation with a viewable cider press. As an outgrowth of Jollay Orchards (about a mile down the road), the cider mill hasn’t worked out quite the way the Jollay family envisioned it. Families with young children don’t want to make two stops, and often pass the cider mill by. The customers who do show up are a little older, and the mill has adjusted to their upscale tastes, according to Jay Jollay.

Just down the road is The Chocolate Garden, home of Tina Buck’s famous handmade truffles. She told the tour about Coloma Country, a strategic partnership between her business, Jollay Orchards, two wineries, an art gallery and a few antique stores – all located on or near Friday Road, accessible from I-94’s exit 39. By pooling their marketing resources together, the businesses promote Coloma Country more effectively than they could do individually. The result is more tourists bringing more money to the area, which improves business for everybody.

The tour headed north to Earl’s Farm Market in Fennville. The farm’s u-pick strawberries, blueberries and raspberries also are used in its bakery and pie shop, located in a nice market set off from the road.

The last stop was Crane’s Pie Pantry, also in Fennville. What a beautiful piece of property. Between the restaurant, fruit orchards, corn maze, hayrides – you name it and the Crane family probably does it.

Look for stories about some of the tour stops in future editions of The Fruit Growers News and The Vegetable Growers News.

After each stop, Michigan State University Extension specialists Bob Tritten and Ron Goldy led a discussion of the operation’s pros and cons. Tour participants had plenty of opinions about each stop – good and bad – and hopefully took home ideas that will help them improve what they’re already doing.

See you on the next tour.

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