It’s always growing season at Lakeview Hill farm

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By Ross Boissoneau

Sun contributor

The second story in our series on agritourism and solutions to the farming crisis.

Lakeview Hill Farm is getting ready to celebrate a birthday. On July 6, its farm market will celebrate one year since opening. Chances are owners Bailey Samp and John Dindia will be too busy farming to worry about blowing out candles. After all, farming is hard work.

Not just running the new store, but growing and harvesting crops on around their certified organic produce and cut flower farm while they work to extend the growing season through the use of greenhouses and caterpillar tunnels. “We now have six greenhouses and seven caterpillar tunnels on two acres. A quarter acre is flowers,” says Samp. The flower field now backs up to the market.

Their story is a familiar one. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and farm happily ever after. But it’s not nearly that simple. After all, the two were traveling separately in Ecuador and were introduced on Facebook via a mutual friend. By the time their trips ended, they were in a relationship.

And the farming part? It was never something either envisioned. “I had no farming background going back at least two generations,” says Dindia. Nevertheless, he had a longstanding interest in plant science, and pursued it at Michigan State University, where he put in many hours working on the campus’s organic farm. That’s where he fell in love with working the soil.

Following their return from Ecuador, non-farmer Bailey joined now-farmer Dindia, working at his Spirit of Walloon farm near Boyne City. He decided to pursue further education at the University of Montana, focusing on Food and Farm Systems, and when the couple returned they decided they didn’t want to farm on someone else’s land. They were able to find land for sale on Lakeview Hill Road and built Lakeview Hill Farm from scratch.

That was in 2017, and since then Lakeview Hill Farm has experienced steady, incremental growth. Samp says the growth is attributable to their produce and their customers’ loyalty. “We offer good products and have customer support.”

That’s been the case since they started. They initially sold to restaurants and a couple retail outlets, including Anderson’s in Glen Arbor, Leland Mercantile and Oryana. They also started their own farmstand. Its continued growth is what led to the farm market.

“That kept growing every year. It got so busy and popular Bailey spent half her day running back and forth” to keep it stocked, Dindia says. They started thinking about building a market of some sort, but the cost of construction deterred them.

So, too, did the fact they knew how much time it would take to construct a market building from scratch. “I thought we’d build our house in the winter and it would take a couple years. It took five,” admits John.

When they were driving to dinner one night and saw that the cheery red schoolhouse on the corner by their property was for sale, they jumped at the opportunity. Now in addition to their wholesale accounts and a CSA through MI Farm Coop, they sell through the market. “We’re capturing 100 percent of the retail there,” Dindia says, though he acknowledges there are expenses for overhead and the purchase.

It provides them and others an outlet for various products. “We have local dairy, bread, cheese from Boss Mouse, snacks, dips, chips, jam from Bardenhagen Farm. Dry goods we didn’t have before. Local meat, local produce, Stockist coffee from Traverse City, pastries from 9 Bean Rows,” says Samp.

“It’s growing and exciting to see. We moved the flower field to the market. In the future, we want to have some tables outside.”

Dindia is also quick to credit an often-overlooked entity for their success: The USDA’s Farm Service Agency provided the capital to build the farm. Considering the cost of land, equipment and tools, he says without the low-interest loans they would never have been able to grow the way they have. “Almost everything has been financed through them. My background is in small-scale production. You don’t realize how much equipment is needed to scale up.”

Dindia says that being able to support other local growers through the market is important. So, too, is being able to offer employment to locals who are interested in learning about agriculture. They now have 17 employees. Quite a growth curve when it was just the two of them.

They’re confident Lakeview Hill Farm will continue to grow, and are always looking for ways to improve what they do, especially in terms of expanding the growing season through the hoop houses and greenhouses. “In this area, it’s crucial to find a way to offer produce year-round,” Samp says. “We also want to offer fulltime jobs.”

“Our profit margin in winter is less,” admits Dindia, pointing to increased energy costs for light and heat in the winter. Another challenge: both the growing season and people’s work tend to slow in the winter. “Everything takes longer. You have to put on and take off clothes,” he says.

Despite the challenges, the two are still in love, and also in love with their farm. “It’s been a great experience,” Samp says. With one exception: winters in the camper where they lived until they were able to finish building their own home.

“I had no idea my career would lead to farming,” she says.

Dindia concurs—sort of. When he was younger, he thought he would likely work in construction. “I would be outside and work with my hands. If I’d known it was an option when I was younger, I would have said yes.”