A farm’s evolution often correlates to the economic and market forces happening around them. For many, the tough farm economy of the 1980s forced farm owners to make difficult business decisions changing the trajectory of the farm. Many farmers chose between a sharper focus on one or two areas of the farm, versus a diverse farm business.
Yet for others, it was adding diversity and new business entities to sustain the farm. For Terry and Gwen Anderson, new owners of an apple orchard in the 1980s, they chose to consolidate their land by selling some acreage and turning their attention to the orchard and farm market they had just purchased.
“We made more money in the first year of business than we did in the next 10,” Gwen says. “We bought the farm in 1978 after working in partnership with the owner, Orville Trebian, for a couple of years. The 1980s were rough for us, but we made it through by selling some land and focusing on the areas that were making some money, like the farm stand.”
Realizing the potential for success was in the farm stand rather than simply growing more fruit, the Andersons focused on keeping the farm stand successful. Gwen’s off-farm job as a distributer of supplies to other on-farm markets gave her unique insight to how others were positioning their business.
When the next generation, Alan and Amy Laper (the Andersons’ daughter) began working at the farm, the Andersons took the opportunity to again respond to outside influences – this time to the positive impacts of a growing desire to buy local. They used it to propel them into the next phase of their evolving farm business. Using their acreage to grow strawberries, peaches, apples, cucumbers and pumpkins, they can supply their own stand as well as local markets with fresh seasonal produce. The apples, though, are the backbone of the farm.
“We want to plant and raise what we can put through the market,” Terry says. “We haven’t added a lot of new technology or varieties, because we can’t risk spending 3-4 years growing an apple variety that won’t sell. Quality is number one – there is no room for mediocre in the fresh fruit business. Customers only want a perfect apple.”
Today, Anderson and Girls Farm Market and Petting Zoo is a popular destination for school groups, local families and “Up North” travelers. Located on the outskirts of Stanton, Mich, on M-66, the farm market features a variety of fresh fruits, bakery and other farm products, as well as an extensive gift selection, ice cream shop and a treasured petting zoo.
From April to December, the farm stand welcomes hundreds of visitors looking to enjoy a day in the country, buy fresh produce and visit the animals. Like many apple markets, cider and doughnuts are a big draw. The demand for doughnuts can easily surpass their ability to keep up, with 300-500 dozen doughnuts sold during the weekend.
The diversity of the farm market gives each family member the opportunity to focus on their particular area of interest. Terry, the self-proclaimed animal lover, oversees the petting zoo, which is home to a variety of animals including monkeys, goats, prairie dogs, reindeer and other unique animals. He also manages the orchard and is the apple cider maker.
Gwen is the baker and buyer for the gift shop. She starts her day making dozens of fresh donuts, breads and other items for the store. The fresh baked goods tie in well with the fresh cider. Amy is the overall manager of the market, managing all employees and the record keeping, as well as running the ice cream shop. Alan, who also owns a trucking business, works closely with Terry on the orchard work and the tree production.
While the farm appears to have many moving parts, the focus stays on providing families and others a place to build memories and relive childhood moments.
“We have young parents come out with their children because they remember coming to the farm when they were young,” Terry says. “It is surprising how many people we see every year. The petting zoo is a big draw. We have people that come on a regular basis to visit the animals and develop an attachment to them.”
The petting zoo, which started with a couple of goats and a Jersey calf, has become its own destination for families and school groups. Terry’s passion for the animals and curiosity is a gateway for many animals to find a new home. His enthusiasm for new animals is often tempered by his family.
“We can’t let him go on his own anymore,” Amy jokes. “He is always finds something new to bring back.”
Terry’s curiosity stems past the animals to all areas of the farm business, as he continually looks for ways to improve and asks “what if.” Amy, on the other hand, is the more pragmatic one of the group, there to counter the ideas with the more practical and numbers-focused questions.
“Terry is like Walt Disney – always with a dream,” Gwen says. “Amy is like Roy Disney, his brother, who was Disney’s CEO and put Walt’s dreams into reality.”
And like Disney, the Andersons are always thinking about the customer -- what will bring them in and what will they buy. From the right apple variety to items in the gift shop and ice cream flavors, they are always looking for the right connection to their customers.
“We have learned to offer items grandparents will buy for their grandchildren in the gift shop,” Gwen says. “Items like Anderson and Girls sweatshirts are also popular with visitors wanting to bring back a souvenir of their time here.”
One thing they won’t charge for is admission to the zoo. While it takes a lot of resources and time to manage the zoo, they believe having a free attraction is more beneficial to the rest of the business.
Throughout the farm’s evolution, one area has remained constant - their relationship with Farm Credit. From the difficult years at the beginning to the addition of new enterprises, the Andersons have relied on Farm Credit for financing and more importantly, counsel.
“Farm Credit has worked with us through good and bad years,” Terry says. “Mark (Oberlin) is like an extension of our business. He has experience working with others that we can use. He has helped us out a lot and made things easier for us.”
While the Andersons are not sure what the next dream will be, they are sure the orchard and farm market will continue to evolve to meet customer desires while making the most of their resources.
“It’s a balance between what we want to do and what works for us, as well as having the employees and resources to make it all work here,” Amy says. “We will push through the next 8 to 12 weeks of our busy fall season and then start planning for next year.”
To view the article in the online 2019 Fall Partners Magazine, click here.