Jan 10, 2023EXPO bus tour: Beyond the cookies and cider
The weather was cooperative, the doughnuts and cookies were fresh and amazing, and the cider was hard and delicious.
The Great Lakes EXPO Farm Market Bus Tour featured six stops in the Grand Rapids area for 112 attendees on Dec. 6, the day before the annual expo. Although many of the participants are directly involved in farm market/agritourism businesses across the country, interested fruit and vegetable growers were also on hand for the tour, along with Michigan State Extension representatives who prompted discussions after each stop.
The bus tour was sponsored and presented by Fruit Growers News, Vegetable Growers News and MSU Extension.
Jones Farm Meat Market
This family-owned and -operated U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected meat butchering/processing business is on its sixth generation of operation. Bus tour participants visited the different stages of the butchering process, from the kill floor (not on a slaughter day), cold storage, smoking equipment, and various steps of processing, including making ground beef, cutting pork bellies into bacon and packaging cuts of meat.
Sarah and Karl Jones led the tours of the facility, which can process up to 40 beef carcasses a week. USDA inspectors are on site on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when animals are slaughtered. The meat market has a system to ensure that customers receive the processed meat from the animal they dropped off.
Hanulcik Farm Market & Orchard
The third-generation Hanulcik Farm Market & Orchard has been selling its produce since 1936. Customers can buy packaged strawberries, peaches and apples or pick their own starting in mid-June at the Iona farm. The 4-week strawberry harvest is followed by eight weeks of peaches starting in late July, followed by apples in mid-September through October.
The 3.5 acres of u-pick fruit features dwarf apple trees, which allow easier access to visitors.
Owner Alex Hanulcik was involved in wholesaling and at one time produced up to 100,000 bushels of apples a season, but now focuses on direct-to-consumer, with 2,000-3,000 bushels. He grows 32 varieties of apples and has plans to expand over the next few years, with live entertainment and food trucks, apple slushies (this sparked a discussion of how wildly popular the slushies are), smoothies and frozen products. He said direct-to-consumer sales are rewarding and he enjoys engaging with customers, who usually have a lot of questions.
Denny Farm Market and Bakery
Owners Craig and Kim Denny started the business as a sweet corn wagon in their front yard, and the business has grown into a full-blown farm with 40 acres of vegetables and three greenhouses for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. An in-house bakery features pies, cookies and doughnuts.
The store is packed with custom-made jams, sauces, candy and other foods. The store was built in 2012, and Kim Denny said they planned extra space for equipment, but the retail space soon expanded into that area.
A sign of times with rising prices, she said, was their decision to raise the price of cookies from $1 to $1.35 each. But that hasn’t slowed sales, particularly when they’re sold by the half-dozen and dozen and customers get to mix-and-match from the 12 cookie varieties.
Kim Denny said they added you-pick flowers recently, at 75 cents each, and that has been popular.
Swisslane Farm/Dairy Discovery
Swisslane Farm was started in 1918 by the Oesch family, which has operated it since; of the 54 employees at the dairy, 11 are members of the family.
The site has two distinct sides: Swisslane Farm, the family dairy, and Dairy Discovery, which serves to educate schoolchildren and adults about agriculture, cattle and how milk ends up at the store. Renee McCauley, Dairy Discover executive director, led the group on the tour, which included a stop to watch cows being milked by a robotic milker.
The cows have access to several of the milking stations and choose whenever they want to be milked, although McCauley said it tends to be on somewhat of a regular schedule. She said it’s a stress-free experience for the cows. While they eat, the machine attaches the milking equipment and removes it when done. The machine then washes the udders, sprays them with sanitizer and dries them off. An automated “pooper scooper” moves manure from the pen.
While the emphasis is on educating the children about agriculture, McCauley said the tours are also a chance to educate the teachers and parents/chaperones.
“Farmers do what we can to protect the environment, because we’re probably more concerned about the environment and the surrounding area, certainly more than (the general public) gives us credit for,” McCauley said.
Heidi’s Farmstand and Bakery
Heidi’s Farmstand and Bakery opened in 2006, but the Blough family has been farming in the area since 1949, with cattle, a dairy, corn, soybeans and wheat. The farm market is designed as a way to give the next generation a way to expand the operation and strengthen ties to the community. Three cousins representing the third generation run the market as a partnership. Twin brothers Aaron and Ben Kaeb, who focus on retail and farm production, respectively, were on hand during the tour.
The market building is a former workshop for a farm across the road, Ben Kaeb said, and now houses a retail floor with plenty of cooler space and bulk bins of a variety of apples and squash during the winter, although greenhouses allow some vegetable availability in the winter. Display cases show a variety of baked goods from the in-house bakery.
The corn maze is elaborate and features different themes throughout the years.
Red Barn Market
The tour wrapped up at the Red Barn Market, which has a little bit of everything: a café/ice cream shop, cheese, tons of gifts, a book corner, jigsaw puzzle swap and the bus tour favorite, Painted Turtle Cider. The business is at the Kropf Family Centennial apple farm, and was opened in 2014 by Roger Kropf and his daughter, Barb Roth. The Roths, Barb, Aaron and their son, Noah, operate the business.
Aaron Roth is focused on making cider, which features apples grown on the farm, as well other Michigan fruits. All steps of the process are handled in-house, except for the apple pressing, which is handled by Riveridge Produce Marketing in Sparta, Michigan.
The Red Barn Market is home to numerous events throughout the year, and Barb Roth often promotes what the market has to offer through Facebook Live posts.
— Chris Koger, Managing Editor
Top photo: This chalkboard scene greeted participants of the Great Lakes EXPO Bus Tour at Denny Farm Market and Bakery. Photos: Chris Koger
Second photo: Sarah and Karl Jones at the Jones Farm Meat Market discuss the business, of which Karl represents the fifth generation, before leading bus tour participants through the different stages of meat processing.
Third photo: Alex Hanulcik tells tour participants about plans to expand food and entertainment at Hanulcik Farm Market & Orchard, including apple cider slushies, which other market managers on the tour agreed is a guaranteed seller.
Fourth photo: Craig and Kim Denny talk about how Denny Farm Market and Bakery has grown over the years.
Fifth photo: This automatic milking machine at Dairy Discovery, which cows visit when they want, ends the process by cleaning the udder, spraying sanitizer (seen in green) and drying it. Dairy Discovery is a non-profit educational outreach program at the Swisslane Farm dairy.
Sixth photo: Ben Kaeb, who operates the farming side of Heidi’s Farmstand and Bakery, talks with David Parr of Parrfection Produce, Monticello, Wis.
Bottom photo: MSU Extension Community Food Systems Educator Garrett Ziegler (from left) introduces Noah, Barb (on chair to address tour group) and Aaron Roth at the Red Barn Market.