From Hobby To Home
7/15/2021
GreenStone hoop house

 

Over the years, the Helsen family has turned their hobby into a full-time business. 

 

“My husband started it, and now I manage it,” Karen Helsen said of Nature’s View Nursery in Coopersville, Michigan.

 

In 1998, Greg Helsen worked full time as a manager at a wholesale nursery, but he was also interested in growing ornamental nursery stock at home. He and his wife Karen started first growing nursery stock in one location, and then moved to another with more area so they could add poly houses, which are greenhouses with a polythene roof. They eventually bought land and transitioned to their current farm in Coopersville.

 

The same year, the Helsens also had another big change – the arrival of their twin girls, Lauren and Peyton. Karen continued working at Bronson Hospital-Kalamazoo as the contract manager in the purchasing department, and after the birth of their son, Connor, she made the decision to move to a part-time role.

 

They increased the number of poly houses and added more container plants, and in 2005, they had an opportunity to buy an already-existing arborvitae farm. Commonly called a cedar tree, these trees are used for residential use and in privacy screening. 

 

“That’s when I came to work here full-time,” Karen said. “Of course, with the kids, it was very busy. Our families really pitched in to help us take care of everything.”

 


Farm home

Currently, the 40-acre farm has 11 poly houses, a stock field of arborvitae, upright juniper, and spruce trees, buildings, and a loading area. They grow flowering shrubs, evergreens, broadleaf evergreens, and more.

 

As a wholesaler instead of direct-to-consumer, they don’t do much consumer marketing for their business. Instead, they focus on their relationships with many wholesale and retail clients in northern Michigan, northern Indiana, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing.

 

“Primarily we sell 70% of our stock to 30% of our customers, and we received a lot of that business through word-of-mouth,” Karen explained. “They know what we grow, we know what they need, and they keep ordering from us.”

 

Like many owners of a small business, Karen has varied responsibilities on the farm.

 

“I wear many hats. I’m the order taker, I do payroll, I do our taxes, I help harvest the plants, I help load trucks,” she said. “But I can’t express this enough – it only works because of our super talented crew. Our nursery manager has been here since inception, and the shortest-term employee has been here for three years. Our employees are invaluable and such a blessing. It’s not mine, and it’s not Greg’s - it’s OUR business - the seven of us.”

 

Family business

Along with taking care of the kids, their family members have also helped them along the way. At first, the nursery stock was field-planted behind Greg’s parents’ house, and then they moved behind Karen’s parents’ house. 

 

“Both our dads – Jerry Moore and Ike Helsen – have passed now, but they were instrumental in helping us,” Karen said. “When the nursery stock was at Ike’s house, he helped sell items at the roadside. My dad was our truck driver for awhile, and I still call our delivery truck my dad’s truck.”

 

Their children, now 23 and 20, also worked on the farm, weeding, potting, planting, and harvesting. Lauren has a nursing degree, Peyton has a degree in interior design, and Connor is studying horticulture at Michigan State University.

 

“We tried to teach them good work ethic, and they turned out to be wonderful human beings in spite of us,” Karen joked. “It’s great to watch them grow, and awesome when they start speaking wisdom and you can learn from them.”

 

Purchasing a dream

When the Helsens decided to expand by purchasing the 40-acre tree farm, they also looked to GreenStone for an operating line of credit.

 

“In our business, it’s very labor-intensive on the front end prepping for harvest. Once we harvest, we don’t get paid until 30-45 days afterward,” she said. “So you receive your last income in December, and then you have to make it through to May until you start getting income again - but there’s still rent, utilities, payroll taxes, and other expenses all of those months.”

 

The Helsens turned to GreenStone to secure enough funds to make it through this time of growth. 

 

“GreenStone was instrumental for getting us going,” she said. “Now we can self-fund through the winter.”

 

They chose GreenStone because of their experience with agricultural lending.

 

“Though our personal credit was good, we were struggling to find a lender, and GreenStone was the only one that understood farming,” she said. “It’s hard to get collateral on trees with a regular bank. GreenStone immediately understood that, yes, there’s value in trees and equipment. Honestly, nobody really ‘gets’ farming like GreenStone does.”

 

Pandemic

During April 2020, the Helsens were greatly affected by the COVID-related shutdown of greenhouses and nurseries in Michigan, but they were still able to sell to their customers in Indiana. When Michigan opened in May, they were greatly relieved. During the pandemic, the Helsens again turned to GreenStone for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, which was designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on payroll.

 

Karen worked with Mitchell Schafer, her vice president of lending out of the Grand Rapids branch. 

 

“Mitch helped us immensely with the whole PPP situation, and he also advised us on other monies that were available during the pandemic,” she said. “I was worrying about what I was going to do. He was super helpful, and he made it really simple. He was very responsive to questions along the way. It really helped us through that time.”  

 

Mitch is originally from the small farming community of Fowler, Michigan, and he started working at GreenStone seven years ago to help people just like the Helsens. The rollout of the PPP loan was an incredibly busy time for him and all lenders, not only because they had clients who really needed them, but also because they had to learn and implement a totally new system.

 

“It was a buckle up and hold on, all hands on deck kind of situation,” Mitch said. “Hopefully, it was a once in a lifetime experience for all of us. We did everything we possibly could to get that money to our eligible customers.”

 

Mitch wants customers to feel valued, no matter the size or scope of their operation.

 

“I don’t ever want someone to feel they aren’t getting the best customer service, because farm size or style to us doesn’t matter – there’s an open door policy and we want anyone to call with questions. Many times we’re a sounding board for thoughts and ideas they have about their operation,” he said. “We’re here to serve all our customers, and the many of these are considered smaller, beginning farmers. Especially over the last year, I think you can see the true roots of a business you’re working for, and I like to think we proved ourselves through the whole process.”

 

Future farm

As the Helsens moved from a beginning farm, to a small farm, to having adult children, they’re also looking to the future.

 

“A cedar tree is a five-to-seven-year crop,” Karen said. “When you’re planting 6500 trees a year on a seven-year crop, thinking about the future is no light undertaking. With our family, our crew, and our financial support system, we have many good options.” 

 

To view the article in the online 2021 Summer Partners Magazine, click here.

 


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