This week we’re going to be highlighting one farmer’s success story set in Northern Michigan; That hails straight out of the small town of Onaway. If you’re a fan of maple syrup, juicy tomatoes and tried and true produce, Then Gary Shepherd is a name you’ll want to know. He is the owner and operator of Bonz Beach Farms and for over the past 5 years has managed to turn a happenstance plot of land into something beautiful and productive. Now a booming staple in the small community of Onaway; Gary takes pride knowing that what he cultivates is nourishing his friends, family and neighbors. In this article we’re going to map out the inner workings and events of how the Michigan native came to create the huge success known as Bonz Beach Farm.
Gary was born and grew up in Hemlock, Michigan on one of the largest dairy farms during the time. With over 100 heads of cattle producing dairy throughout the year, Gary is no stranger to the concept of farming. As Gary so concisely put it “Farming is in my families blood.”. Something you’ll get the whole picture on soon enough.
Career-wise Gary is a retired veteran of General Motor’s with his time there spanning over three decades. During his career he always had a garden in the back yard and with that couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t have a taste for fresh, homegrown produce. Interestingly enough it never occurred that one day he may be the proud owner and operator of a successful farm. In fact, this is where the story gets really interesting.
Gary actually wasn’t really thinking farming at the time and was just looking for some land he could use as storage spot. He had no intentions of farming when he stumbled across the future home of Bonz beach Farms. The people that operated the farm before actually had foreclosed on it and afterwards the bank had gained possession of it for quite some time.
Typically the story ends up being that the farmer forecloses on the farm, however when Gary stumbled upon this land the opposite of the norm occurred. The bank that had gained proprietorship of the land had actually just foreclosed on the land itself, following the same suit as the owners before had. Gary was at the right place at the right time and from my experience the most substantial things in life are just that way.
(Gary’s own Sugar Bush brand maple syrup is a Bonz Beach favorite and a staple in Gary’s line of fresh produce.)
Soon after acquiring the land, Gary noticed that there was an over abundance of maple trees, and without hesitation started to tap them that very first year. The initial tap consisted of a little over 60 maples and produced right around 30 gallons of maple syrup. In the short span of just five years he’s expanded his operations to massive heights. Just this past winter he’s tapped a whopping 4300 trees and has produced an astonishing 1,320 gallons of syrup. His maple syrup is renowned as one of the best in the state and shows for itself as a standalone staple of the farm.
(A close up portion of the mechanism Gary uses to tap the sap needed to make his signature syrup each winter.)
In addition his abilities to grow vegetables are top tier as well and aren’t anything to gawk at. Even though his syrup production takes away a good 3 months of the beginning of the growing season; he still manages to pull off the production of a wide array of robust and delicious vegetables. This year he’s going to take an idea he had the previous year and refine it. Basically what he had done was host his own market right out of his garage. This year he’s going to polish that idea along with bringing someone else into the fold that has a wide array of specialty foods. This shop will help promote his brand, connect customers with other growers and above all else give him the time he needs to tend to his farm. Too many weekly trips to the local farmers markets in the past had stunted the time he was able to spend on growing and this will make up for some of the earlier months that were previously occupied with tapping. It’s actually quite ingenious if you think about it.
(Looking quite pleased with a double fist-full of fresh beets; ready for the market!.)
Gary’s growing aspects really took off when he looked into the NRCS-USDA grants that are available to many of the U.S. farmers or would be farmers looking to get a leg up. He became interested in the hoophouse side of life after he had gotten in touch with Brian Bates, another grower out of Petoskey that swears by them. You may have read about Brian and the things he has accomplished through getting his own farm off the ground and if you haven’t yet, it’s greatly suggested. (see link at bottom of the page)
(The inside of Gary’s 30’x96′ hoophouse. Clearly being put to excellent use.)
Brian illuminated to Gary on the value of hoophouses and how they can really make or break a farm in this type of climate. From this interaction Gary was thus inspired by Brian’s systems and overall gorgeous Farm. Gary extends a huge amount of credit to Brian in the refinement process of his own farm, and has modeled some of the systems that have been so successful. Gary has learned a plethora of valuable information through shadowing Brian and he even let Gary buy multiple tomato sets from him to get his own hoophouse started. Last year was an extremely successful year for Gary and this year is looking even better! The cucumber and tomato plants in Gary’s hoop house are over 10’ high, reaching past the purlins! Gary also grows kale and chard as well as field crops such as winter squash, beets and sweet corn. At this rate it’s safe to say that Bonz Beach Farms future is looking pretty bright to say the least.
(Just look at those tomatoes! These are the results of what a little bit of know how, elbow grease and of course the proper tools can accomplish.)
Things are started to come full circle and his vegetables and syrup production reflects that. He goes on to say how before these individual growers started there wasn’t a very good selection of produce in Onaway. “Food Desert” was the term he used to be precise and that’s actually became the norm in their town, as well as many others around the state. Other farmers in Onaway and all around Michigan who share the same vision are working to change that. More of these “Deserts” will become oasis’s if we can just get more local farmers involved and on track with this process. This is something Jeff McCabe and all of us at Nifty Hoops stand by and it falls greatly in line with what Jeff McCabe hopes to accomplish through his company and beyond. In this land of industrialized farming, GMOs and Pesticides; Movements like these are a well welcomed and invited scarcity.
Gary first heard Jeff speak in Petoskey and was very impressed with Jeff’s vision that is moving closer and closer to becoming a reality. After seeing Brian’s Nifty Hoop Gary saw the enormous value in having a hoophouse of his own and followed Brian’s lead. His own Nifty Hoop was constructed on July 12th, 2015 and to our great pleasure is being put to excellent use. In our interview, Gary spoke fondly of Niftycon(see link at bottom of the page) and the opportunity it makes available for growers to meet face-to-face and build long lasting connections. He loves that it helps farmers frame a network and ultimately learn from each other. This is unprecedented and everyone benefits from the healthy competition that is created through their thriving farms. We really love seeing this happen and plan on continuing to be a key player in the driving force that has become a movement of sustainability and ecologically-friendly agriculture.
(Bonz Beach Farm– beautiful)
One of the things Gary finds the most joy in is waking up in the morning to a thriving farm lush with fresh veggies, Cascaded in the warmth of a peaceful morning sunrise…
(A special shoutout to Gary who took the time to allow me to interview him. We really appreciate your support and love the direction you’re taking Bonz Beach Farms! Thank you!)
-Kaili J. Ponder
(Link to Brian Bates web page Bear Creek Organics)https://www.bearcreekorganicfarm.com/pages/about-us
(Link to more information on what NiftyCon is)http://www.niftyhoops.com/?s=Niftycon+