Bar manager Roman Albaugh is heating a pot of lavender syrup for one of the day’s specialty cocktails, peeling orange garnishes with “Top Chef ”-style speed for another.
On the opposite side of the enclosed barn patio, Chef Eric Daily tosses just-picked vegetables onto a sizzling skillet. He’ll add the mix to some frying rice and first serve a bride-to-be and her bachelorette party, then a family with a young baby. And across the pond, Farm Manager Brett Hood (fortuitously a former kindergarten teacher) is coaching young visitors on how to toss seed bombs and the occasional gummy bear into a wildflower field that’s set to bloom in front of a massive corn field, which will become a Motown-themed maze at harvest time.
As a live band sings, “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world,” farm owner Mike Witkop is likely thinking that very thing as he surveys the property homesteaded by his great-great-grandfather, a pair of friendly golden retrievers at his heels.
“It’s great to see the potential I felt the farm had start to come to fruition,” he says. “I want it to have a more sustainable future, so we can keep it in the family for the next 100 years. Agriculture continues to change, just like every other industry, and you have to pivot.”
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Jacob’s Farm is a certified Centennial Farm with a future as both a home for fruit and grain crops and a gathering spot designed to be equally fun for visitors from ages 1 to 100—and in every season. The farm has long been known for its always-clever Jacob’s Corn Maze offered on fall weekends. But through a unique partnership between creative local entrepreneurs, the farm has been re-invented as a year-round entertainment venue where a day might start with stations for making bird feeders from pine cones, like today, then morph into an evening dance party with a silent disco.
A steer skull that graces the wall of the enclosed patio along the original barn pays homage to the farm’s roots. Some 200 head of cattle once grazed on the very spot where today Chef Daily serves his farm-fresh menu. Jacob Witkop homesteaded the property in 1892, the date that appears under the skull, having moved to Traverse City from Bierrum, Holland. Jacob passed it to his son (Mike’s grandfather) John, who eventually sold it to Mike’s father, Hiram. Mike bought the farm from his father in the early 1980s and moved there while still working as a commercial banker. He quickly realized that his grandsons—the sixth generation of potential farm owners—wouldn’t get the same opportunity without a major pivot.
Still, whatever the plan entailed, it had to honor the farm’s roots and Jacob—whose journey from Holland to America is a story in itself.
Jacob lost his merchant ship in the late 1800s when it struck an iceberg and sank off the Russian coast. Penniless, according to the farm’s written history, it took him a year to work his way back home to Holland. Needing to find a new life for his family, he accepted an opportunity to come to America by helping to bring a ship full of hopeful immigrants to the new country. He then found his way to Traverse City, later that year sending for his wife, Pieterke, then pregnant, and their five children.
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Then, farming could support a family. Today, not so, says Mike.
“You’re not going to have 40 acres of property and make a living off it as a farmer,” he says. “You have to have enough scale to justify all the equipment it takes to create a perfect cherry or apple. So, you have to be nimble and say, ‘What are my competitive advantages?’”
The success of the annual fall corn maze validated the draw of the farm’s location—near Traverse City and on the route to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The driveway is almost directly across from the entrance to Rove Estate Vineyard & Winery, and just a few miles from the popular restaurant/market Farm Club.
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Using savvy garnered in 33 years as a commercial banker, Mike studied successful ventures like Disney and did a comparative study of the cost of other recreational outings in the area. While still contemplating possibilities, his friend Nate Crane reached out. Crane, the owner of Rare Bird Brew Pub, knew the Witkop family and had been to parties in its classic barn. He and Troy Daily—a partner in running popular regional events—were looking for a larger venue.
The trio visited Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, Michigan, and using that operation as a model, are working to build a similar concept—and traffic—in Traverse City. They’re planting more fruit trees, says Crane, and are hoping future guests will come to pick strawberries, then stay for a cocktail and something to eat. They planted pumpkins for the fall—an heirloom variety they believe will create a very special patch. The farm already boasts 440 pear trees, 600 sweet cherry trees, five varieties of apples, corn for the maze, saskatoons and strawberries for the picking, and now barley being grown for local beer (served on-site) and a heritage variety of rye for a spirit to be used in future cocktails. The bounty lets both chef and bartenders curate a truly farm-fresh menu, Roman notes.
Over three years, this team of outside-the-box thinkers became equal partners in the farm enterprise and honed their agritourism concept. When they launched last year’s shipwreck-themed corn maze, they added a haunted version as well as a 5K run, wildly popular donuts, pizza topped with local ingredients, live music and cocktails like hot cider with Mammoth Distilling’s spiced rum and cinnamon, cloves, allspice, anise and orange. The initial plan was to operate in seasonally warm weather, but liquor license rules requiring the venue to open every 30 days brought a new creative shift. Guests at well-attended winter events huddled around roaring fires and skied trails carved through the corn maze. Spring brought fests for St. Patrick’s Day and Earth Day—all before summer’s grand opening.
The partnership’s diversity has paid off in numerous ways. Troy Daily also runs events like Paddle for Pints and the area’s Brew Bus. On a typical day now, several beer and wine tour buses might stop by, wrapping Jacob’s Farm into their route, with 40 farm acres affording plenty of room to spread out. Wedding demand is picking up, and there are plans for a second wedding venue, paella dinners in the orchard and a future disc golf course.
“It’s like we’re trying to walk this line between shock and awe and still be a casual environment,” Roman says. “We want to be totally family-friendly, dog-friendly and kid-friendly, so anybody feels they can come out and have a good time and don’t feel out of place at all. We also want to deliver a really high-quality product. As far as cocktails go, I’m striving to have people look at the menu and be like, ‘Whoa,’ and as soon as they take a sip say, ‘This is absolutely amazing. I can’t believe we’re at a farm getting serious craft cocktails.’”
This day, a lavender lemonade cocktail is the unexpected hit, so Nate Crane makes a run to the store for several large bags of lemons to help satisfy demand for the drink made with Mammoth vodka, blueberry-infused honey, lemon juice, lavender syrup and a bit of sparkling water. Troy Daily is troubleshooting at other parts of the farm, taking a break only when his young girls arrive in their matching pink galoshes to make a pine cone feeder to hang on a tree near the playground. Owner Mike Witkop’s retrievers Waldo and Folger are making the rounds, like the true Jacob’s Farm celebrities they are.
“People looking from the outside in might view it as somewhat crazy that we’re living right here on M-72 and having so much activity around,” Mike says. “You could look at it as a lemon—or can we make lemonade? Honestly, we can isolate ourselves, but what we get a charge out of is to be able to walk out and see families having a good time. And our golden retrievers? They love being petted and stealing donuts.”
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Kim Schneider is a long-time travel writer specializing in Michigan adventures, food and wine. The Midwest Travel Journalist Association has named her Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year, and she’s the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.”
Dan Stewart is a documentary photographer, capturing weddings and lifestyle portraits in Northern Michigan. danstewartphotography.com