7881 E. Pertner Rd.
Suttons Bay, MI 49682
Farmers: Jim and Jan Bardenhagen, plus four to six other people helping, including his daughter, Ginger and son, Chris. Throughout the year we hire an additional 11-12 people.
In the summer, we hire an additional 17-18 people.
Jim's Nickname: Mr. Apple or Mr. Potato.
Market Season: The first of July until November.
Products: Apples: GingerGold, HoneyCrisp and Gala. Dark sweet and Balaton cherries, organic and intransition tart cherries, red currants, apricots, plums, and table grapes. New potatoes: white Superiors, dark red Norlands, and Michigan purple. Fingerlings and Russets.
Favorite Tool: Pallet Jack and Electric Utility Cart.
Favorite Recipes: Creamed potatoes with carrots, green beans. Apple Crisp. Balaton Pie.
What do you love about farming? It's a good lifestyle. I like carrying on the tradition. It's accomplishing something. You get to try a lot of unique things, like new production techniques, delivering, packing, and marketing, and it's filled with excitement.
What's challenging about farming?
We're concerned about farming. It's not a real profitable business, but it needs to be to keep farming sustainable. When farmers work 12 hours a day to produce food for the community they should be able to make a living at it. Farmers are willing to bring lots of energy to their work, but it's needs to be profitable as in any business.
Growers often get into a situation, due to the weather and markets, where they might be able to pay operating costs one year, but in another year they can't. As such, its' hard to be debt free. The market prices and weather can have such a financial impact on farms. I have a heart for young farmers as the financial risks are high.
What are you proud of about your farm? It makes us feel good when people comment on how much they like our products. We often hear at church. "I got some potatoes or apples at the Merc and they were fantastic!" We have loyal customers that come right to the farm. We are fortunate to work with foodbanks so that people in need in our area are able to get good fresh produce. The relationships we have with other farmers and our customers is something of which we are proud.
Future Plans: Streamlining our operation and bringing family into the operation. Ginger and her husband as well as my son, Chris and his family may take over the farm someday. We want to pave the way for the future and help develop the local community food system in this region. We also look forward to having more free time to travel!
Produce, Pride, and Preservation
By Janice Benson, Taste the Local Difference
Jim and Jan Bardenhagen put their products where most people buy their food—in grocery stores.
One of Jim Bardenhagen’s favorite times of the week is when he is delivering his produce to customers.
“I value the relationships I have with my customers,” he says. “There’s a trust that develops. When you hear how much people enjoy what you produce, it makes you feel good.”
Jim grew up on the family farm, north of Suttons Bay, which has been in the family since Civil War days. He remembers his grandfather, Elmer Bardenhagen, who raised cattle, potatoes, grain, hay, and straw for many years there.
When his grandfather got older, he sold the farm to Jim’s dad and mother, Vernon and Ruth Bardenhagen, who continued raising cattle until the early 1960s. Vernon also planted fruit trees, strawberries, and cauliflower along with more potatoes, which has always been a favorite family crop.
“Potatoes have been on the farm forever!” says Jim.
After high school, Jim went off to college at Michigan State University and earned a degree in marketing and transportation. From there, he moved to upstate New York to work for Union Carbide. He worked in the Chemicals and Plastics Division, optimizing the company’s delivery routes all across the country.
After a number of years in New York, he was transferred to Charleston, W. Va., where he helped manage Carbide’s railcar fleet. Jim worked on one of the very first railcar identification tracking system in the country, and he also worked on their order entry systems.
He didn’t expect to come back to the farm in Michigan, but in 1978, after some consideration, he made the decision to move back home and farm with his dad. Vernon sold Jim the farm in 1982.
Jim expanded the operation, planting more cherry orchards and over 70 acres of potatoes. He farmed the land for 10 years, selling his produce to processors and grocery stores in Northwest Lower Michigan, as well as down state.
From Farm to Office, and Back
By 1987, however, it was becoming hard to make the farm’s economics work. Jim was putting a lot of money into his crops, but it was difficult to compete with larger, commercial farms downstate, which had the economies of scale working for them.
So he took a job as the director of the MSU Extension Office in Leelanau County. It was a great opportunity to combine his experience as a farmer with his marketing expertise—right in the county where he was raised.
But he continued to grow cherries, and also planted apple trees.
Jim served as director of MSU Extension in Leelanau County for 20 years.
As he neared retirement, he started thinking about farming full-time again, and began transitioning his farm operation—from selling mainly to processors, to selling more to farmers markets and grocery stores.
In 2007, Jim retired from MSU and began the next, busy stage of growing his farm.
He got involved with the local farm-to-school movement and became one of the first farms to sell potatoes directly to the Traverse City Area Public Schools.
With his passion for seeing a vibrant local food economy, he stay involved with many of the committees, including the Regional Food and Farming Network.
Jim and his wife, Jan, were regular vendors at the farmers markets for several years, as well, selling their apples, potatoes, table grapes, red currants, apricots, and other fruit.
Bigger Markets, Unique Products
When the farm-to-school movement in our region became strong, Jim expanded in other ways to boost his direct wholesale capacity. He purchased a mechanical apple line that washes, buffs, and sizes the apples. He also purchased washing and grading equipment for his potatoes.
The Bardenhagen's farm was one of the first to sell potatoes directly to the Traverse City Area Public Schools.
And he began planting raspberries and seedless table grapes.
Their plan is working; Jim and Jan no longer go to the farmers market so they can focus on the wholesale market.
“Due to our volume, I felt we needed to put our products where most people buy their food, which is in the grocery stores,” Jim explains.
He makes most of the farm’s deliveries himself.
“I have a route that makes sense. I understand the importance of knowing my customers, and those deliveries help me keep that connection.”
Jim presently sells his produce to The Leland Mercantile, Hansen’s, The Bluebird of Leland, The Covered Wagon Farm Market, Sugarfoot Saloon, Cherry Capital Foods, Tom’s Food Markets, Oleson’s Food Stores, The Market Basket, Burritt’s Fresh Markets, The Fruit Dock, The Ugly Tomato Farm Market, and various other farm markets. He also sells to Trattoria Stella, Benzie County Public Schools, Leland Public School, Glen Lake School, Suttons Bay School, as well as to the Fresh Food Partnership and food banks in Benzie County.
“We’ve looked at what we can do that’s unique. Some of our specialties are fresh black sweet cherries, organic tart cherries, Balaton cherries, Gingergold and Honeycrisp apples, table grapes, red currants as well as gourmet potatoes, such as white Superior, red Norland, Michigan purple, and a number of fingerlings and russet varieties.”
New Seasons, New Potentials
Jan has been right alongside Jim. She grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and, like Jim, her father had a love for potatoes. He grew them for Snyder’s Potato Chips of Berlin. Jan worked for 25 years in nursing; she brings her warm, service-oriented approach to the farm operation.
“They call me the “go-for”, because I go for parts that keep everyone going!” she laughs. Jan helps on their packing lines, provides food for the crew during harvest, and does most of the farm bookkeeping.
They both talk about cherry harvest as a fast-paced but very special time of year.
“It’s quite a venture!” she says. “It’s a family gathering, no matter who’s here. We’re very focused and everyone pitches in and does what has to be done.”
Even after all these years, Jim sees new potential with each new season.
“We’re carrying on a tradition,” he says. “The work is never done, but you’re accomplishing something. Farming is multi-faceted, from growing, to packing, to distribution, and it’s filled with excitement!”
Before retiring from MSU Extension, Jim put his farm into farmland preservation through the Leelanau Conservancy and the Federal Farm and Ranch Preservation Program. “It will be a farm forever, so now it needs to make money from only sustainable farming!” he laughs.
Someday, Jim says, he’ll retire. But you can be sure that, one way or another, he will always be helping his family with farming as much as he can!