Putting The “Grow” In Grow Benzie

Josh Stoltz has a lot he wants to do.

Seven months on the job as the first full-time paid executive director of Benzonia nonprofit Grow Benzie, the 39-year-old Stoltz is immersed in everything from examining ways to provide a broader outlet for farmers’ produce, to promoting Grow Benzie’s farmers market and incubator kitchen, to getting more of the community farmstead’s heirloom tomatoes into the kitchens of local restaurateurs.

That’s just a start.

He’s hatched new fundraising ideas including the Aug. 29 Bayou on the Bay event in Frankfort, “connecting Louisiana to Benzie County” via food and music and including nationally recognized blues and zydeco bands.

And he’s reached out to community and potential partners, restarting a monthly newsletter and joining boards and programs, including being the first volunteer for Healthy Harvest, a new alliance between local Rotary clubs, Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan and farmers, with a mission to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste and distribute to community members in need.

“He’s a great resource, as far as ideas,” said Bonnie Smith, president of the Grow Benzie board. “And he just knows how to get things done; it’s amazing. His capacity to build coalitions and partnerships is probably going to be one of the strongest elements that he will bring to our organization.”

Stoltz most recently was SEEDS’ after-school program’s site coordinator for Benzie County Central Schools, where he supervised staff, designed events and led after-school activities for students.

He made connections that continued into his job at Grow Benzie. One of his first activities was to help board member Mike Zielinski, director of operations at Benzie County Central Schools, launch an idea developed by Zielinski and former Grow Benzie part-time executive director Deb Query: An after-school industrial arts program teaching carpentry and woodworking skills to high school students, by building wooden boxes in which bees reside and make honey.

Kirk Jones, primary owner and founder of Sleeping Bear Farms and St. Ambrose Cellars in Beulah, is purchasing the boxes produced in the “Hive Minded” program. Sleeping Bear Farms raises bees and manufactures and distributes honey-based products; honey is also used for St. Ambrose meads and wines. Proceeds from the bee box sales will go toward next year’s lumber purchases for the Hive Minded program, Zielinski said.

Grow Benzie’s mission is to foster self-reliance through education in agriculture, nutrition, job training and life skills. And strategic planning was on a list of items with which the board charged Stoltz, Smith said. Stoltz wrote for an $8,000 grant, awarded in March by Rotary Charities of Traverse City, that has two parts: Training for the Grow Benzie board, and a survey Stoltz expects to launch this summer that will reach numerous parts of the food system – including farmers, food processors, retailers, restaurants and food pantries – and help Grow Benzie assess community needs and learn how it can be valuable resource.

Stoltz said the results of that survey and others, like a Benzie Sunrise Rotary Club food security study, can help inform the six-year-old organization’s role and forward progress.

Sunrise Rotary past president Kris Thomas, who spearheaded the study of access to healthy, nutritious food in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties, said a central conclusion was that “if we’re going to be able to feed our low-income neighbors, we have to have a vibrant local food system.” Grow Benzie’s efforts to improve the local food system mesh with that, she said.

For example, Grow Benzie wants to bring local foods to bear as a source of people’s nutrition and health, as well as teach people how to use those foods. Stoltz envisions Grow Benzie becoming “an entire campus of education, from soil up to serving,” as well as a food hub where farmers can sell and potentially process products, and connect with restaurants.

He’s discussing the idea of having chefs come early to Grow Benzie’s weekly farmers market and aggregating local produce for them, serving as a “one-stop shop” for items that they need readily or in smaller quantities than they can get through a food distributor.

Restaurateurs often don’t have time to visit numerous farms, and having them come to Grow Benzie and meet with vendors before market is an idea with merit, said Mark Coe, manager of the Farm to Freezer program for Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan and board member of the Benzie-Manistee Farm Bureau. Coe has talked with Stoltz about some of his plans and also sits with him on the board of the Grand Traverse Foodshed Alliance, a nonprofit which is helping develop a Traverse City “food innovation hub” housing food-related ventures.

Stoltz doesn’t have a formal farming or agriculture background. But Coe said “he learns, and he seems to understand the needs and the programs that he’s developing,” does research and asks questions.

Rob Sirrine, community food systems educator with Michigan State University Extension and president of the Foodshed Alliance, said Stoltz brings a passion to his job and “always comes to the table with a lot of creative ideas. And he’s reaching out to everyone and making connections, rather than trying to do it all alone.”

Grow Benzie hopes to not only add value to the community in numerous ways, but also boost visibility. That can be a challenge, Sirrine said, “but having someone dedicated to that is huge.”

Outreach includes Grow Benzie’s website, where Stoltz this summer plans to launch a blog and where videotaped classes in areas like planting seeds and gardening will be posted.

“One, we want to archive our educational components of Grow Benzie, as a resource,” Stoltz said. “Number two … we’re reaching a different demographic. With technology being everywhere these days, a lot of folks don’t have time to attend a class … but if they can see a one-minute video of how to plant something, or a five-minute video on how to cook vegetables, they’ll be a lot more engaged. I just want to be as broad as possible for our neighbors, in terms of engagement.”

He’s helping design new advertising and promotion of Grow Benzie’s farmers market and state-licensed incubator kitchen, through a two-year, approximately $47,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant awarded last year. Efforts include Benzie Bus wraps, signage, print ads, and classes.

Continuing this year are tours of Benzie County farms, in partnership with the Benzie Conservation District. Each event features one farm and a taste of that farm, like a June tour featuring asparagus and a July event featuring cherries. Grow Benzie’s role is emphasizing food; Stoltz has brought ideas like sample recipes for asparagus and a pie-baking contest at the Grow Benzie kitchen, said Aime’ Merizon, outreach coordinator at the district.

“It’s real collaborative, and enjoyable,” she said. “He’s easy to work with.”

Stoltz is also marketing to local restaurants the 33 varieties of organic heirloom tomatoes that Grow Benzie produces at its greenhouses. Some 4,800 pounds could be grown this year, quadruple last year’s 1,200-pound crop, Stoltz said.

Another charge: Looking at ways to create sustainable revenue and rely less on the grants that are a major part of Grow Benzie’s approximately $130,000 budget.

“There’s so much to do. He has a huge job,” said Grow Benzie’s Smith.

But, she said, “he’s like an octopus. He can get those arms and hands out and research and reach, and pull things together.”


Amy Lane is a former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered energy and utilities, state government and business for nearly 25 years.