Beautiful Farmers: Spirit of Walloon
Growing what you eat means that you’ll grow what you like.
Lucky for us, Rachel Cross and the tight-knit crew at Spirit of Walloon Farm are plant geeks and experiment the year round to grow something new and unusual, something beautiful and delicious, something unique and appealing that thrives happily on the northwest shore of Walloon Lake.
They work to bring the very best vegetables, herbs and flowers to the sunny farmers’ markets in Petoskey on Friday mornings and Boyne City every Saturday.
“Both markets have a great sense of community and camaraderie between the vendors, as well as very supportive regular customers. I love when our regulars share how they prepared their produce,” says Rachel. “We sell to some incredible home cooks!”
Rachel does nearly all of her own grocery shopping at the markets. “Big Medicine Ranch’s exceptional coffee fuels this farm, and is also my go-to for gifts for my caffeinated family and friends. Half Moon Acres has some creative and delicious baked goods, and Farmer’s Daughter is my go-to for fresh, seasonal Northern Michigan fruit.”
This year at Spirit of Walloon’s outposts, you’ll find vibrant heirloom chili peppers, including one that produces fruits in shades of purple, and another with uniquely shaped fruits aptly known as “Brazilian Starfish.” And, because they fascinate Rachel, ranunculus, the beautiful multi-petaled cool-season flower that’s also known as “the rose of spring,” will bless sweet little bouquets from the farm.
The farm also cultivate eccentrics like kohlrabi (cabbage’s cousin) and salad burnet, a fresh savory herb that gets along just fine thanks to its hardy tolerance and handy use in erosion control.
These farmers are smart.
By creatively harnessing the goodness of the sun, which burns a good 170 days annually along Walloon Lake, tapping the deep well of knowledge of a fifth-generation farmer neighbor, and growing what they love to eat, the crew at Spirit of Walloon Farms is committed to growing better, not bigger.
The compact two-acre farm is carefully growing a well-curated market basket, full of 60-plus varieties, nestled along the shore of Walloon Lake north of Boyne City. First planted in 2014 as a ¼-acre garden by John Dindia, a 2013 graduate of Michigan State University who spent summers on his family’s nearby Walloon Lake property, the farm has blossomed into a sustainable year-round business employing a half dozen like-minded entrepreneurs led now by co-owner Rachel Cross, a fellow Spartan. Dindia, a whiz with farm systems, is transitioning out of the business and earning his graduate degree from the University of Montana this summer.
Most of the farm is now located on land owned by Dave Skornia of Lakeside Farms. “He is our inspirational farm host and mentor, a fifth-generation farmer on the lake,” says Rachel. “He has been instrumental in helping us create a farm community around the lake.”
Since moving to Walloon in 2015, Rachel has been warmly welcomed by Skornia and other long-time farm neighbors and has fallen in love with the lake. “It’s wonderful to watch through the seasons. I snowshoe there in the winter, kayak in the summer. I’ve seen loons and otters, and have seen the lake when it was the most incredible shade of teal, plus more beautiful sunrises than I can count.” She grew up in Wexford County and earned her bachelor of science degree in horticulture, concentrating in sustainable and organic horticulture at MSU. As a student, she worked at MSU’s Student Organic Farm and in research labs studying weed ecology, sustainable vegetable production and compost tea production and use.
The Spirit of Walloon crew just christened a seventh hoop house, a plastic-encapsulated growing tunnel that extends the season, plus a transplant greenhouse with a section of heated beds that has been busting with sun-hungry tomato plants since February. “These new growing spaces help us create more favorable climates for our warm-season plants including our farm favorite, the heirloom Cherokee Purple tomato,” says Rachel.
The newest hoop house is an unheated 34- by 96-foot passive solar greenhouse to fill with more tomatoes and cucumbers. That’s the size of a tennis court, plus 20 feet. This tunnel allows the farmers to plant crops during the early part of the season when they would die or fail to sprout in Northern Michigan’s freezing ground.
“We are seeding transplants in the greenhouse from late January to mid-September. Planting in the hoop houses begins in February,” says Rachel. Come time for the opening day at the Boyne City and Petoskey farmers’ markets, crates are full of good-looking vegetables. Then, at the other end of the season as winter winks, growing can continue to supply the CSAs, schools and restaurants that are an important income stream for the farm.
“Thanks to our unheated hoop houses where we grow carrots and spinach in the winter, we are harvesting fresh produce every month of the year above the 45th parallel,” says Rachel. All year, the farm practices serious soil health management by building soil through cover-cropping, remineralizing it with rock minerals, composting from local sources and rotating crops. Bugs and disease are kept at bay by following integrated pest management guidelines which call for working with nature rather than chemicals and pesticides. At Spirit of Walloon you’ll find row covers, insect netting and clay applications that provide physical barriers to unwanted predators.
When the farmers unplug from the fields, they like to head to happy hours and dinner at Palette Bistro or Happy’s Taco Shop in Petoskey (a new pop-up at American Spoon), and Café Sante in Boyne City. “And we can’t wait for Beard’s Brewery to open in their new location! Beard’s has been our regular post-workweek relaxation spot for the past two seasons,” says Rachel.
Spirit of Walloon takes stewardships seriously, too.
They donate weekly throughout the summer to the Good Neighbors Food Pantry in Boyne City, and have donated gift certificates and produce to various fund-raising events over the past two years. Getting kids onto the farm is important, so Rachel worked with Susan Sharp, a retired teacher and now a fellow farmer, to coordinate a volunteer-built hoop house with Boyne City Middle School last year. “We are happy to do anything we can to help inspire some future farmers,” she says.
The Spirit of Walloon farmers are a diverse group of humans, bringing skills and knowledge to the equation that include carpentry, yoga instruction, soap-making and playlist curating. Farming intensely on a small amount of land is a team effort, and hosting a team of motivated and smart employees each season has greatly contributed to John and Rachel’s success.
“Finally, we eat what we grow. Our days are long, but we always find time to cook with and enjoy what we are producing, whether it’s that perfect tomato, or the first pint of raspberries, or a bouquet made just for home. This keeps us connected with our produce and focused on quality. Plus, it’s a pretty great job perk.”