Friday, September 19, 2014

Montage Market in Allegan (Michigan) specializes in the local

By Zinta Aistars
Published by SW Michigan's Second Wave Media
September 18, 2014

Allegan (Michigan) is a small, quiet town of about 5,000 hardy souls, tucked up against the Kalamazoo River. Approaching the city on M-89, one of the first signs of entering downtown is the truss bridge, built in 1886, that crosses the river and leads into the center of the city. Take a quick left after crossing the bridge onto Brady Street, and the first to draw your eye are the brightly colored umbrellas over sidewalk tables outside a specialty market. 

Montage Market, located at 137 Brady Street, is owned by Dan and Marcia Wagner. The couple also own one of Allegan’s most popular restaurants, The Grill House, and a catering service and banquet hall inside a renovated grain silo called, aptly, The Silo. They opened Montage Market in spring of 2010, and the store has done a bustling business since.

“There aren’t many places like Montage,” says Monica Reich, manager of the store. “We offer many unique Michigan craft beers and wines from Michigan wineries, but we also have a deli with fresh items daily.”

The historic building where Montage Market is located was built in 1890, originally the Wedge Office Machines location. The Wagners gave its historic value and charm extra attention, keeping that sense of a grocery store from a day gone by. The store even has its original wood floors, polished to a fine sheen.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hard cider business is one way this family farm keeps changing

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
September 18, 2014

Diversity at Schultz Fruitridge Farm means more than 20 varieties of apples, grapes, peaches, asparagus, and more. Bill Schultz talks about the latest innovation for the farm: turning its apples into hard cider. 

The air is crisp, the skies blue with plump white clouds, and a hint of a chill in the breeze hints at the coming fall. It’s apple season. 

During the months of September and October, Schultz Fruitridge Farms at 60139 County Road 652 in Mattawan is busy with its apple harvest. With 20 varieties of apples, they are one of the most popular U-pick places (or buy apples in their on-site shop) for the greater Kalamazoo community. Pickers move through the apple orchards with rosy cheeks, as if blushing in reflection of the ripening fruit.

Honeycrisp, Gala, McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Red and Yellow Delicious, Ida Red, Roma, Goldrush and more, all beckon from the acres of orchards. The Schultz family farms 250 acres of fruit and apples are only one of their many fruit and vegetable crops. 

There are vineyards of grapes, peaches, asparagus, blueberries, cherries, pears, pumpkins, squash, sweet corn, but if that’s not enough to whet an appetite, sweeten it with maple syrup and honey. On a separate ranch located in Schoolcraft, called Gravel Canyon Bison Ranch, the Schultz family raises bison for meat. 

“What makes us successful, what keeps us here so long when other farms aren’t,” says Bill Schultz, third-generation farmer, “is our diversity. When one crop fails, another survives.”

Bill Schultz is operations manager at the Schultz Fruitridge Farm, and he’s never considered any other occupation. The family farm, he says, is his passion. It has to be, he notes, because farming is hard and unforgiving work. “And you can have one night of frost or bad weather and lose an entire crop.”

That concept of diversifying to survive is one that crops up regularly in farm plans as the family gathers to assess their future. Sometime around 2012, the Schultz family started talking about another way to branch out: hard apple cider. 

“It’s value added,” says Schultz. “I did some traveling a few years ago, and I found really good hard cider in the United Kingdom, way better than ours in the United States. So I thought, why not us? Why not here? If anyone should be doing hard cider in this area, it should be us.”

The idea for a microbrewery was born, and the family named it Texas Corners Brewing Company, or TCBC. Brewing the hard cider on the farm and adding their own apples, they developed three flavors: Apple, Apple-Dry, and Apple-Cherry, priced at $5.50 for a 16 oz. bottle at 6.4 percent alcohol.

“These are not sissy beers.” Schultz smiles. 

By 2014, TCBC is brewing 1,500 gallons of the hard ciders on the farm. But why not add a tasting room? Why not a restaurant?


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Second chances for the two- and four-legged

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
September 11, 2014


Dogs that no one wants are getting a second chance when they are trained by incarcerated inmates at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. The trainers teach dogs what they need to know to find a home. Zinta Aistars has the story.

Jim Derks plays with Jesse
When the Lakeland Correctional Facility door opened, Jesse stood for a moment taking it all in: the blue sky, the fresh air, the road ahead. He wanted to run and run and run, until his lungs near burst with exertion. Sure, he was still on probation, but life was an adventure waiting. 

Jesse is a dog--a boxer. About a year-and-a-half in age, he is large, weighing in at 63 pounds, and still full of puppy exuberance. Jesse is a graduate of the Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan, or RPSM, a nonprofit correctional companion program that pairs homeless, abandoned or unwanted dogs with inmates at the Lakeland Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Coldwater, Mich.

The dogs live with the inmates inside the prison for 10 weeks as the inmates retrain them to become exceptional, well-mannered pets, ready for adoption. 

When Carol and Jim Derks of Kalamazoo picked up their new dog, he came with a letter. The letter was written by one of the two inmates who had worked with Jesse for 10 weeks. It was addressed to Jesse’s new owners, and it was full of affection:

“Jesse is great. You couldn’t ask for a better companion. He loves attention and he loves to include you in his activities. For example, if you give him a squeaky toy, rather than go off by himself to play, he’ll bring the toy to you and put it in your lap as if to say, 'Play with me.' Be on the lookout for his array of facial expressions. Once you see them, you will be laughing your heart out … Jesse will surely be missed by all of us at Lakeland, and he will remain in our hearts long after he’s gone. We hope you enjoy the newest addition to your family. God bless!”

The two-page letter describes in detail Jesse's favorite activities, his eating and sleeping habits and various idiosyncrasies, his learning experiences and amusing misadventures. Another two pages attached to the letter list detailed explanations of the commands Jesse has been taught: Sit, Down, Stay, Up, Front, Finish, Swing, Stand, Drop It, Heel. 

“I found Jesse on a website called Petfinder,” says Jim Derks. “We had two rescue boxers prior to Jesse, but both had died some time ago, and we were ready for a new dog.”

The Derks were taken with what they learned about Jesse online, and they watched a video to learn about the RPSM training program Jesse had just started at that point. 

“We loved the photo of Jesse,” the Derks say. “We decided to adopt him on that one photo.”

The Derks decided to fill out the application for Jesse’s adoption. A volunteer from RPSM soon arrived to interview them, to check that their home and lifestyle were right for Jesse, and that the Derks understood how the adoption process worked and would provide a good home for the dog. 

“We had to answer a lot of questions,” Jim Derks says.

“I work from home,” Carol Derks adds. She runs a graphic design business called Derks Studio from their residence. “That was helpful, so even though there was another applicant ahead of us to adopt Jesse, we were chosen first.”

The Derks were sent weekly updates from the inmates about Jesse’s progress in training, and after they picked Jesse up at his foster home in Constantine upon his graduation from the program, Jesse was still on a period of probation to ensure both he and his new family adjusted well to his new life.

Keeping a close eye on dog adoptions, Sharon Albright is an RPSM volunteer and member of their board of trustees. She jokingly considers herself a “foster failure.”

“That’s what we call foster parents who fall in love with their foster pets and keep the dogs themselves.” She laughs. She has failed as a foster parent once with an RPSM dog and twice with two other rescue dogs.

The RPSM program, Albright says, was founded in 2007 to help cut down on euthanasia rates in area animal shelters. By 2008, the companion program with the prison was in place, run entirely on donations and costing approximately $285 per dog for the training program. 

“By now, we’ve saved about 500 dogs,” she says, and while the rehabilitative value to the inmates is harder to measure, “We have a long waiting list of inmates who want to be involved with the program. These are people who are considered by many as throwaway people, just like these dogs. We’ve received heart-wrenching letters from many inmates, telling us what the program means to them.”

With 28 inmates currently working with the dogs, two per dog, the RPSM program is a highlight at the prison facility. Inmates and dogs live together throughout training in a barracks-style room. 

“Trainers only live in this area,” Albright says. “But other inmates get to meet the dogs, too. The dogs wear bright yellow vests for their first two weeks of training, usually muzzled, so everyone knows they are still getting acclimated.”

Dogs chosen to participate, Albright says, are usually 6 months old or older and of larger sizes. They usually come from the local animal shelter or brought in by animal control.

“We watch them closely for signs of aggression, and we choose dogs who show a pleasant personality.”

Jesse, for instance, says Albright, had been turned in to a shelter because he was “too much dog.” His trainers worked to calm his hyperactivity and teach him to obey his owner’s commands.

“Inmates in this program have to earn their ...