Leelanau News and Events

Lakeview Hill Farm, Aurora Cellars Land Major USDA Agriculture Grants

By Craig Manning | Dec. 6, 2023

Leelanau County is still a shining agricultural star.

Amidst fears that climbing property values, significant development pressures, and waning fortunes in cherry and other commodity crop farming will threaten Leelanau’s agricultural character in the years and decades to come, the federal government has just made two big investments in local “agricultural producers and rural entrepreneurs.”

Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a series of grants intended to “expand markets for agricultural producers and strengthen American food and agricultural supply chains.” Just three of those grants are coming to the state of Michigan, and two of them are bringing an influx of cash to Leelanau County businesses.

In total, the USDA is sending $530,000 Michigan’s way as part of this grant cycle, with the lion’s share heading for Leelanau. Specifically, both Lakeview Hill Farm and Aurora Cellars will receive $250,000 “value-added producer grants” to expand their sales and take their offerings to the next level.

“It’s a big deal, and a great opportunity for our farm,” Lakeview Hill Farm co-owner John Dindia says of the grants. “We’ve looked at this grant in the past, and we’re part of a growers’ cooperative, MI Farm Coop, which received the same grant last year. It’s one of the bigger USDA grants out there for farms, and it works out great, because the grant is focused on helping us expand our marketplace and really drive direct-to-consumer sales through our new on-farm store and our annual on-farm plant sale.”

Earlier this year, Lakeview Hill Farm took a big step to expand its direct-to-consumer sales, purchasing and renovating the old Pleasant Valley Schoolhouse at 8236 E. Lakeview Hills Road and opening it as a new farm market. Previously, Dindia and his partner Bailey Samp sold their produce out of a smaller farm stand on their property. The new market carries not just Lakeview Hill Farm produce, but also Stockist coffee, pastries and bread from 9 Bean Rows, and basic groceries like dairy, meat, and eggs.

Speaking to the Leelanau Ticker in August, Dindia and Samp reported a strong first summer at the new market. The pair also shared plans to keep the market open year-round and eventually expand offerings to include grab-and-go lunches, community events, and more.

Despite robust summer traffic, Dindia says the “startup costs” of the new market have been substantial, explaining that he and Samp “were more or less banking on getting this USDA grant when we purchased the schoolhouse property in the first place.” Per the USDA release, the reimbursement-based grant will help “offset working capital costs related to sales to new customers” for the first 36 months of operations at the new Lakeview Hill market. The grant also requires a one-to-one $250,000 match from Lakeview, which Dindia says he and Samp will put up in the form of “in-kind labor and in-kind commodity matches.”

“We were really kind of rolling the dice on getting this grant, because I’m not sure we would be able to actually operate this market without the grant for the first three years,” Dindia says, noting that many northern Michiganders see shopping at farm markets as a summer-only tradition. Keeping the new market open year-round is something the USDA grant will help pay for, which Dindia hopes will provide some wiggle room for he and Samp to break that seasonal mindset.

“In northern Michigan, sales are pretty busy in the summer, but especially in the past couple of weeks, it’s really, really slowed down,” he continues. “The grant has allowed us to remain open, so that we can work on building our customer base and building customer loyalty. The goal is that, by the time the grant finishes, we can be open every single week of the year and not have to go to reduce hours in the winter.”

Aurora Cellars, one of the Leelanau Peninsula’s 20-some wineries, is also getting a $250,000 value-added producer grant, which the USDA says will “assist with working capital expenses to expand their market of direct-to-consumer sales of high-end wines through their reservation-only catered tasting experience.”

“We know there’s a consumer who is looking for more than just a standard wine tasting experience,” explains Taylor Simpson, co-owner of Aurora Cellars. “Some customers just enjoy tasting the wines, but for others, it really helps to get a super deep dive into what we’re serving. Offering that kind of experience will allow us to grow the knowledge and appreciation of Michigan wine and cool-climate wines in general.”

While Simpson says the specifics of the new Aurora Cellars plans are still being worked out, she notes that she and her brother – co-owner Sam Simpson – have been talking for years about adding a higher-end, more immersive wine tasting experience. “And at this point, we’re ready to move forward,” she says. “We’ve formulated enough of this plan and this story to get started, and the grant really applies perfectly to what our mission is, which is really to turn our customers into Michigan wine ambassadors.”

These USDA grants aren’t the only substantial government funds making their way to Leelanau-based ag businesses this year. In August, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) announced more than $1.8 million in “value-added and regional food system” grants to 24 Michigan-based “producers, processors, and community development organizations.” As part of that cycle, Farm Club received $100,000 for “expansion of processing kitchen and farm market with produce preservation, bakery, grain mill, pasta, and tortilla production.”

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