Leelanau’s young famers: meet Bailey Samp and John Dindia

By Madeleine Vedel

Sun contributor

Getting to Lakeview Hill Farm is an easy affair: just drive up 641 from Traverse City, take a right on E. Lakeview Hills Road, and when you see the small vegetable stand on your right, turn in. At the end of a short dirt drive you’ll see two hoop houses, one of which is connected by a tunnel to a larger structure still under construction. When I arrived to interview Bailey and John, they were in the midst of packaging their mixed greens in what appeared to be a garage/packing space. I was immediately struck by the arrangement of the building, the hoop houses just a step away, and the fact that clearly, this was all being constructed around carefully thought out plans.

Before Bailey and John purchased this parcel from the Stanek family, long-time cherry farmers in the region, there were no structures in place. “I wanted an empty lot because I wanted a farm design that was really efficient. It’s one centralized building—our main greenhouse production space is attached—rather than having six different outbuildings like most farms. We chose only one, with our growing space around it, to minimize time spent going between buildings. And, we can heat more efficiently if it’s all connected.”

As I sat down to chat with John and Bailey, I learned a bit about who they were and where they came from.

As a kid I got into hydroponics,” said John. “I grew tomatoes and lettuce and peppers year-round. It was goofing around. I was really interested in the plant science elements of it at the time. But when I started taking soil science classes at MSU [where he went for a Bachelor’s in Horticulture] I realized how important soil is, and I shifted gears, lost my interest in hydroponics and fell in love with organic farming and the commitment to it. I became environmentally passionate.

I just finished my graduate degree at the University of Montana in Environmental Studies focusing on Food and Farm Systems this past spring. I wanted to get a more social look at how food and farming systems impact communities and society in a larger sense. I want to do more than farm. I really want to help farmers. I’d love to be an extension agent. This coming spring I’m teaching the vegetable production course for the MSU Ag Tech program at the TC sub campus.”

I grew up downstate outside of Flint and moved to TC after high school in 2007,” said Bailey. “I’ve been living here off and on since then. With my Bachelor’s degree in business, I do all the marketing, the farmers’ market, the outreach, website. I didn’t expect myself to be a farmer. I met John traveling in Ecuador three years’ ago. We came home dating. I went to Boyne to visit him at his farm there, Spirit of Walloon, to help at the farmers’ market, and he came down here. At some point early on I brought up the idea, ‘we could have a farm together some day.’”

They explained why they’d chosen to farm in Leelanau. “We love Traverse City’s community. My [John’s] dad grew up in Petoskey and we summered there, loved it up there. Though I leased my previous farm [Spirit of Walloon] up in Petoskey, I found I was always coming down to Traverse City. I’d always had a bunch of friends here and I really appreciate the younger population, and that there is a year-round market.”

As they elaborate on their goals and farm structure, I am struck by the planning and intellectual effort that went into the purchase and creation of this new farm. John and Bailey have researched and taken advantage of seemingly every grant and loan available to them as young farmers including a Sustainable Forest Management Plan that permits them to benefit from careful management of the wood lot on their property, harvesting the invasive Black Locust, logging where appropriate on a schedule built around growth (on average 15 year cycles). The program is set up to incentivize farmers to implement environmentally sound practices. One of the added benefits is that the quantities of black locust that have been harvested to date is enough to heat the barns and greenhouses through their boiler system and in-floor heating for numerous years.

Other grants they’ve received are: a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Rural Development Grant; Rural Energy for America program which offers a 25 percent cost share grant that helped cover the costs of the solar panels along with grants from REAP [Rural Energy for America Program] and $5,000 from Cherry Republic for renewable energy installation high efficiency gasification wood boiler; funds to build a pollinator habitat and a 550 tree wind break, cover cropping and hoop house through EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). Though the application for an FSA (Farm Service Agency) loan for the initial purchase of the farm didn’t come through, they were able to obtain an infrastructure construction loan (3.5 percent over 40 years) and an operating loan at 2.75 percent over seven years.

Kubota offered loans for the purchase of a tractor. “They’re a pain in the ass to get, but they are worth it. You have to map out everything you are doing, get all the quotes, and then spend the loans precisely as you’ve predicted. You can get an FSA loan for up to $50,000 without farm manager experience, but because of my previous farm management experience (three years minimum) we were able to get more. Our projected budget was 40 pages. Bailey’s degree in business helped. You really have to know what you are doing, and convince them that you’re going to make money on something that’s hard to make money on.”

And those 550 trees? They planted them all themselves. It’s one thing to get the funds to purchase the needed plants, trees, and equipment; it’s another to pay for outside labor.

These are clearly two very focused and self-directed individuals. And they’ve looked into where they might create a niche for their new farm. “Traverse City is a good market, but it is also saturated. We decided to specialize in greenhouse and hoop house production—normally very energy intensive, but as we have the renewables, we feel comfortable with it. We’ll focus on shoulder season and winter crops. This year we planted an entire green house of tomatoes and were able to sell them early in the season. We’re also looking at winter greens and high tunnel fruit production, particularly berries. We’re certified organic and committed to organic production.”

Before planting the farm, they sat down with the produce buyer at Oryana and asked them what their needs were (early season tomatoes, squash, etc.). “We spent a lot of time exploring the market. You have to be creative coming in. There are a lot of crops we’d love to grow, but there are larger farms in the area doing an excellent job of it. We’re planning on growing only about 20-25 crops a year.”

John is effusive as he explains how excited he is to be working with Nic Welty and the MI Farm Co-op. He is hoping to help the Co-op become an important partner for most if not all the vegetable and fruit farmers in the area. “When I was in Montana, I discovered the Western Montana Growers’ Co-op. It was really well established, farmer owned, distributing to all of Western Montana, amazingly efficient. It was clear and obvious. The Co-op got a specific percentage of the margin, and in exchange it picked up produce from the farmers at their farms, and did all the distribution. If we could have that here it would make life so much easier.”

More time on farm rather than out on deliveries, no more competition and fighting for the lowest price, and the promise of new markets to benefit all, such as our local schools, Munson Medical Center, Interlochen Arts Academy, all of whom have quantity and price point requirements that an individual, small scale farmer simply can’t meet. “If the market were there, there would be more farmers to fill it.” John asserted. And on that optimistic note I left them to their very full day, enjoying a beautiful view of Lake Leelanau as I descended Lakeview Hill, a bag of fresh organic salad greens and a couple squash in hand, with dreams of a future filled with abundant local, organic raspberries.