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While attending Western Michigan University (WMU), Ben Martin discovered a passion for growing chemical-free, nutrient-dense produce. This passion soon turned into an entrepreneurial career choice that led him into unfamiliar territory. Just like growing his crops, Ben knew there was a process for business as well and yearned to learn what that was.
How the SBDC helped
As Ben studied at WMU, he discovered the Michigan SBDC had an office on campus that provided business services at no cost. He quickly tapped into this resource and took advantage of their business training tools and one-on-one counseling. Through the Michigan SBDC, Ben learned the ins and outs of managing a successful business. Working with the Michigan SBDC, he drafted a business plan, developed financial projections, and prepared a loan proposal.
In 2012, Ben launched Soil Friends with support from his longtime girlfriend/partner, Sarah Luetzow. Together, they took his single-person produce operation and transformed it into a farm producing business with 10 acres of crops, 5 greenhouses, a farmers’ market, and a small retail store. This expansion led to the addition of 9 employees and the creation of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. They also secured wholesale accounts with 21 Michigan-based food markets.
Ben Martin had a thirst for knowledge. Early in his studies at Western Michigan University (WMU), he began to research how to grow produce in an environmentally-friendly and chemical-free manner. He started with a small garden next to the meat market owned by his family and soon was producing nutrient-dense produce that not only tasted better but had a longer shelf life as well.
The initial goal of growing produce came from Ben’s desire to simply eat healthier. But he quickly realized the potential of selling his produce to others with the same desire. Following his grandfather’s inspiration, “people always have to eat so the food business is a good choice”, he started selling his produce at the meat market and local farmers’ markets. The feedback was overwhelming as he continuously heard from customers that “these are the best vegetables”.
With demand for his product increasing, Ben out grew the small garden and moved his produce-growing operation to a rented acre of land. At the same time, his thirst for knowledge was rapidly growing and he found himself yearning to know more about how to run and manage a business. While studying for his Food and Consumer Packaging degree at WMU, Ben learned that the Michigan SBDC was in the same building as his classes.
Ben started working with the Michigan SBDC by taking advantage of the business training tools available, which led him to participate in a Fundamentals of Writing a Business Plan seminar followed by the multi-week FastTrac® NewVenture™ (FTNV) program. The FTNV program walked him through the evaluation of his business idea to building a business plan for the concept. After the program concluded, Ben was ready to move his business concept forward and with guidance from the Michigan SBDC launched Soil Friends, LLC, in January 2012.
"I knew there was a way (process) to business but didn’t know what that was,” Ben said. “The Michigan SBDC showed me how to not only launch the business but grow it as well.”
As the business grew, Ben continued to receive hands-on counseling from the Michigan SBDC. He obtained assistance with developing his financial projections and cash flow statement, and in preparing a loan proposal to purchase a farm and equipment. This support allowed Ben to secure approximately $276,000 in capital.
“Working with my mentors at the Michigan SBDC has been phenomenal,” shared Ben. “They provided me with access to valuable tools and continue to help me ‘work’ my business plan.”
Ben also shared that in addition to the support from the Michigan SBDC, the organizational and planning skills Sarah brings to the table have been critical in moving the business from concept to reality.
Since the launch of Soil Friends, Ben and his longtime girlfriend/partner, Sarah Luetzow, have worked full time to grow the business from a one-person operation on a small garden patch to a 23-acre farm with 10 employees and more than $225,000 in revenue. The couple and their three small children live and work on the farm, which includes 10 acres of crops, 5 greenhouses, 1 building that houses their farmers’ market and retail store, and a handful of goats, chickens, and ponies. They also secured a wholesale account for their tomatoes with 21 Michigan-based food markets.
In addition to their passion for growing chemical-free produce, Ben and Sarah believe in building and supporting a strong community. This belief lead the couple to launch of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in 2016 that brings growers and consumers together as shareholders in crop production. They also feature local growers and artisans at their farmers’ market and retail store. In the fall, they bring in organic apples, apple cider, pumpkins, and Christmas trees from local producers as well. Their season runs May through December.