Brian Bates, farmer and partner at Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, Michigan, gave the keynote address at the annual Northwest Food and Farming Network Farm Route to Prosperity Summit on February 17th of this year. His creative problem-solving and passion for learning put him in a new category of young, emerging, farmers making their way in entrepreneurial agriculture. His infectious optimism and positive approach to his work are refreshing.
We’ll present his keynote address in three pieces over the coming weeks. Please be sure to come back for parts two and three.
PART ONE: On Becoming A Farming
So why am I here? I’m here to share a little about me, a little about our farm, a lot about our food system, why we’re screwed (just kidding!), and why I think small actions make a big difference.
First, a little about me. I am a DMV native (that’s DC, MD, VA) and I am gradually becoming OF Northern Michigan. How many people saw Mr. Palladino’s awesome speech at the Small Farm Conference last month? The idea of being from somewhere, and OF somewhere has really stuck with me. I love it.
I moved to Petoskey 5 years ago. I’m 27 years old. And I’m obsessed with keeping things in perspective.
My wife, Anne Morningstar, and I own and operate Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, and we are entering our 4th season on the farm. We were Petoskey’s first certified organic farm, we grow greens 52 weeks of the year, we produce roughly $200,000 worth of produce and honey on 2 acres and we sell 95% of our product within 11 miles of the farm.
Quick Disclaimer: I’m a bit of a numbers guy. It’s not that I want to snuggle up in a bunch of Excel spreadsheets at night…but I DO think numbers help us keep things in perspective, and remember, I’m obsessed with that.
In my life, I’ve visited farms on 5 continents, visited 23 countries, traveled across 45 states, and sailed across 3 oceans.
In the last 52 DAYS — I’ve visited farmers and farms in Iceland, Arizona, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and I head to Niagara Falls, Ontario on Tuesday.
My carbon footprint has not been light, but I hope, it has not been without intention and with a keen focus on knowledge gathering and sharing. You see, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a farmer. I don’t think I met a single farmer until I went to college. And it was in college that I decided I wanted to make a difference – It’s cheesy, and very college-y, I know. I had the pleasure of studying at Penn State with some of the best scientific minds on the planet – whose job it was to study the planet. I transferred into the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (code for petroleum engineering and wildlife ecology – at opposite ends of the hallway, of course).
It was in this curriculum that I was profoundly devastated at the scale and impact of climate change. I was overwhelmed. My then girlfriend, now wife, and I would binge watch environmental documentaries. Climate change miniseries. Any movie about our imminent destruction and pending disaster.
It’s addicting in a way. This idea that our seemingly prosperous world is on a collision course for catastrophe. Our learning journey culminated in an incredible sense of helplessness. It was incomprehensible, overwhelming. Daunting. We wanted to take action immediately. But action was so hard to take on an issue so big. So at the age of 19, I came up with a maxim for my life: I decided I wanted to make the biggest difference I could in the world in the span of my lifetime. Lofty, to be sure, but remember, I was 19 and in college. This was inspired by a quote that a friend shared with me:
“Your calling lies at the intersection of your passions and the world’s greatest needs.”
I love this idea, and I crave a meaningful life. And I have to say, 8 years later, my maxim hasn’t changed much. Except that, I would say my focus has shifted from the world at large, to my world – my community, my local community, my farmer community, and my role in the global community.
But I’m not a patient guy, and I’m not an engineer, so I wasn’t going to invent a new electric car and I wasn’t going to be satisfied with incremental progress. I needed results and the feeling of accomplishment when I laid down at night. So naturally – I became a farmer.
Please check back for parts two and three of Brian Bates’ keynote address in the coming weeks. You can contact Brian and his wife Anne at their farm on the outskirts of Petoskey, Michigan.