1 Year Later: Bear Creek Organic Farm Talks New Market, Covid-19

Anne and Brian Bates, owners of Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, fill us in on summer plans, what’s in season and the “grand impact a handful of customers can have” by shopping locally.

One long year after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Michigan, some Northern Michigan businesses have closed their doors permanently and others are still struggling. Yet despite the fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, or perhaps in defiance of it, there are also stories of success and hope. In the March Craft Food & Drink issue of Traverse Magazine, we talk with a restaurateur, farmer, grocer, winemaker, brewer and others who share some of the challenges of 2020, the triumphs and a few goodies you’re going to want to taste this month.

Featured in the March 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Check it out!

bear creek organic farm

In a Jan. 1 Facebook post, you talked about the fear of losing your business. How close did you come?

We were very afraid. The timing was not good. The most important month on our farm is May. The prospect of having a bad or non-existent May was very stressful. To prepare for May, we typically max out our line of credit, credit cards and cash reserves. We did that, but with no guarantee that May would be stable, bad or excellent. Fortunately, we saw a huge groundswell of interest in gardening and were deemed ‘essential’ enough to remain open in an appropriately limited capacity. That saved our season. The rest of the year was below projections, but the gardening excitement quelled our fears of losing everything. I hope to never repeat the feeling of the weeks and months leading up to that point.

What are you most proud of accomplishing in 2020?

Keeping our family, our team and our customers safe. Without a doubt. We handled thousands of customers with an obsessive commitment to safety. And we safely and securely avoided any layoffs, welcomed our second child in June and managed to pivot our sales strategy. It was expensive. It was uncomfortable. And it was challenging. But we did it.

You made a big transition this year going from farmers markets to on-farm sales only and the plan is to continue that in 2021. 

Yes. This was a big deal. Other than keeping everyone safe, quickly converting a storage barn into an on-farm market was our biggest accomplishment. It became the bright spot in our year. And it is something we are very excited to carry forward into 2021 and beyond. We are in the midst of expanding that space, increasing our product selection, expanding our hours and going ‘all-in’ on that concept. And you’ll see a lot more of Anne and Brian in there this year!

Who is someone that had a positive impact on your year? 

Our accountant Olivia at All Seasons Tax & Accounting. This was an incredibly complex year financially. And when everything felt uncertain, we took refuge in the data provided by her. We had to get documents together in record time to apply for PPP, CFAP2, MEDC, etc. Some programs worked, and some did not. But our ability to lean on her to crank out the financial deliverables we needed to successfully apply for these programs was critical. And looking back on 2020, it is clear that those programs kept us afloat. Kept our team employed. And kept us on track for 2021.

What’s available at the farm in March? 

March on the farm brings fresh microgreens, the first edible flowers and some early herbs. The selection is limited but cherished. This is a time when we like to start transitioning our meals from the heartier winter fare toward our fresh spring meals. We’re talking deep freezer hamburgers prepared with arugula micros and a little mint in our water; root crop tacos with micro cilantro on top.

Is there anything else you want to share?

The biggest thing we learned was the grand impact a handful of customers can have on small businesses. Our actions matter. As producers, sure. But especially as consumers. When someone comes to our market before heading to the supermarket, it is an extra stop for them, but it is a highlight for us. When local residents commit to shopping from local businesses, it makes a world of difference. It showed us what a more prosperous local economy could look like. And we want to help keep that momentum going. We wish it didn’t take a pandemic to do so. The fate of local businesses in Northern Michigan is in the hands of our residents.

Find more food and drink articles in the March 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.

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