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Producing Excellence

Ben LaCross

Suttons Bay, MI

Leelanau Fruit Company

Products: Tart cherries

Size of Operation: 750 acres

In Business Since: 2002

Farm Credit Partner: GreenStone Farm Credit Services

Working with Farm Credit Since: 2004

The next time you enjoy the cherry on top of your ice cream sundae, you can thank farmer Ben LaCross and his father, Glenn, who not only raise cherries on their Michigan farm, but also own and manage a fruit processing business that takes their tart cherry crop and produces delicious products like maraschino cherries and fruit cake mix.

Ben started farming full time 12 years ago, having grown up helping his father in their cherry orchards and after earning a business degree from Central Michigan University. Nearly two thirds of the family’s 750 acres are tart cherries, which are processed for pie filling, pressed for cherry juice and dried for use in cereals and snack products. The remaining acres are planted with sweet cherries, a fruit crop that is enjoyed fresh by consumers throughout the harvest season. Ben and his wife also operate a 40-acre apple orchard, which they have leased since 2008. “I love the diversification that farming allows me. I can spend a morning in the office working on a business plan, and the afternoon outside pruning cherry trees,” he says.

Ben works closely with his father in managing their cherry orchards, and expects to take over the family operation someday. The family is following an established succession plan to ensure a smooth transition and to protect the assets they have worked so hard to build. One of those assets is a cherry processing company Glenn has been involved with since the 1960s, of which he purchased controlling interest in 1996 with financing from GreenStone Farm Credit Services, which also finances land purchases, equipment and infrastructure for the family. The company processes the LaCross family’s own fruit as well as that produced by other local growers. “We’ve seen good opportunity in expanding our vertical integration,” says Ben. “Being able to grow, process and sell our fruit has added a lot of value to our farm.”

While Ben has only been farming full-time since 2002, he is very involved in the industry, particularly the Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer program. In 2011, he was elected to chairman of that committee, a position that introduced him to Michigan Senator, Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and also enabled him to testify at a Farm Bill hearing. This led to an unforgettable personal experience – in early 2014, Ben was selected to introduce President Barack Obama at the long-awaited signing of the Farm Bill. “Before the introduction, I was able to talk with the President backstage about my farm, and the Farm Bill, and about other challenges our industry faces,” Ben says. “He’s very charismatic and knows how to make people feel important. The whole experience was a little surreal.”

While meeting the President was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Ben looks forward to long years of opportunity in farming. “I’m very proud of what my father achieved through his optimism, tenacity and a lot of hard work,” Ben says. “It’s important to carry on that legacy, and to give my kids the chance to do the same.”

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