Questions & Answers with community faces
Charla Burgess (Kramer) (47) grew up just 15 minutes from Crystal Lake—but a much different Crystal Lake than our own, here in Northern Michigan. Burgess grew up in Woodstock, Illinois, which was a little farm town outside of Chicago at that time. Graduating high school in 1991, she then attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in secondary English education in 1996 and her Master’s degree in library and information science in 1998. For two years post-graduation, she was the “Young Adult” section librarian at Moline Public Library in the Quad Cities.
But in 2000, Burgess made a big move—six hours north—when she became the librarian and information literacy instructor for Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City from 2000 through 2012; additionally, she taught literature classes for the Communications Department for a few years. From 2009 to 2011, she also worked as the librarian for Glen Lake Community Schools.
Then, in 2013, Burgess made a major career pivot, taking on farming—which she had been doing for four years at this point as a side hustle/hobby—full time: she raised chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, and bees alongside her vegetable and flower patches. Beyond selling at her farmstand, Burgess had already been working with Crystal Mountain and other commercial accounts, but then she was asked to be the exclusive featured farmer for the brand-new Stormcloud Brewing Company. She collaborated with then-chef John Snyder on seasonal menu items, based on her farm offerings. When life circumstances changed unexpectedly later that year, Burgess credits Stormcloud with being a soft place for her to land.
“They had so many different jobs to do, as a start-up, that I ended up pitching in everywhere,” she explains. “My background as a teacher naturally evolved into a job as the beer education coordinator!”
Still interested in cultivating things literally from the ground up, Burgess started an outdoor garden in the lot between the brewery and Betsie Bay Furniture in 2014, and all of the vegetables that were grown there were used in the kitchen, and the hops were among those used in the beer.
In 2018, Burgess pivoted again when she became the marketing coordinator for Professional Ski Instructors of America-American Association of Snowboard Instructors, Central Division, though she still runs her own flower farm and continues to work at Stormcloud, as well—like many who live in Northern Michigan, Burgess finds that wearing multiple hats and being nimble is part of the recipe for success in a seasonal economy.
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Burgess as she was stocking her farmstand with homemade holiday wreaths.
The Betsie Current: What made you want to become a librarian? What did you enjoy about that job?
Charla Burgess: I always loved researching—following a path of discovery. When I was student teaching, I fell head over heels for helping students in their own research journey. So, I merged the two things and began teaching people how to find and evaluate information. I think it is hugely important for people to be information literate. I loved helping people to become better able to be informed voters, homeowners, students, take care of their own health and home, you name it.
Current: How do you feel like your teaching and librarian backgrounds led you to your new career pursuits?
Burgess: Oh goodness. I love the journey my career has taken! I learned to research. With the resources available in a library, you can learn anything. So learn I did. Anything I was interested in, I would research exhaustively. This included farming. Part of farming for me was creating a self-sustaining homestead—yes, that includes homebrewing. As Information Literacy Instruction Coordinator and NMC faculty, I taught a lot. My job evolution at Stormcloud allowed me to indulge my love for teaching with an audience that self-selects to be there and gets a little bit tipsy in class. How could that be anything but good? Oh, and any good librarian is always thinking about how to remain relevant in serving the needs of their community, and outreach is part of that. That easily translates to marketing. I also feel like farming is a service industry. Most farmers don’t really farm to make a living. We farm to serve others. I have always loved growing things. While I focused on landscaping and flowers, mostly, after buying a house as a 20-something, the birth of my kids really stoked my passion for growing organic food. Partner this with my love for cooking and baking, and I would bring produce, flowers, granola, bread, etc. in to my colleagues at NMC. They began to ask to buy my goods. I am always about following the roads that life opens up for you, so I decided to follow my passion and devote more energy to farming. Hence, the move to Benzie County in 2009, where I found a wonderful farm and ran a vegetable CSA, raised animals, and sold farm produce and baked goods at my farmstand, complete with U-pick herb and flowers. That has changed some in recent years, as my farm had to change to a smaller location, and for now, I am only farming flowers. Customers can get a one-time bouquet by visiting the flowershed, or they can sign up for a weekly subscription, in which I make arrangements for them all summer long. I also make seasonal wreaths, not just during the holiday season, though this is a busy time for that.
Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you?
Burgess: It might be easier to describe a typical week than a typical day, since—working multiple jobs—I have to prioritize the needs of each job and balance those needs. Farming is pretty demanding, though, and tends to dictate the schedule, particularly in this very short growing season of Northern Michigan. One of my favorite days of the week, though, is my flower subscription day. I harvest my cut flowers, many of them the night before, as I work solo, and create arrangements for my weekly flower CSA share subscribers. It’s a day where I feel like I am always racing the clock and bone-tired at the end of the day, but I am surrounded by dozens of bouquets and people are so happy to pick them up. At different times of the year, I work the farm during the day and switch to my PSIA-AASI [ski/snowboard instructor] work during the late afternoon/evening hours.
Current: How has that changed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northern Michigan in March?
Burgess: With workplace shutdowns and temporary layoffs, I have had the opportunity to focus on farming. Farming means working in the field from sun-up to sun-down. It’s demanding. It demands your full and absolute unconditional love. And it gives in return.
Current: Where does the name “Sow She Grows Farm” come from?
Burgess: Ahhh. My dear friend Christina Ryan-Stoltz helped me to brainstorm that! While I was scared to try to restart my farm from scratch after an unplanned move in 2014, she knew that I had to try—that I would always wonder; that I needed to not just prove my capabilities but also to find my center again, in the earth. I wanted a name that would symbolize my evolution, my leap of faith, my passion, my heart: all the things that led me back to the dirt, naturally. She’s also a fellow word lover, so we brainstormed a list of clever turns-of-phrase, and this was one we came up with. She may have come up with it entirely; I wish I had saved that conversation!
Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next? Have you had any collaborations?
Burgess: While I always focused mostly on the growing part in the past, the last year or two has really allowed me to learn more about flower design, and I hope that continues. I had hoped to get more formal, in-person training this year, but then COVID hit. I would love to combine my love for travel into seeking education. Also, I regularly challenge myself to not just do what designs come naturally but to push myself to do something different, to try a completely different approach. I started farming to nurture people’s bodies. With flowers I get to nurture hearts and minds. If I don’t keep pushing myself to grow, I won’t do that nurturing as well. I would love more collaborations! I have loved teaching workshops at Iron Fish Distillery and creating hanging macrame planters with Rock Paper Scissors Designs. The teacher in me would love to do more workshops in flower-arranging, gardening, and wreath-making—I think they all can contribute to our wellness and self-care. I don’t really have an event space, so I would love to partner with the right people.
Current: What is your favorite thing that you sell at the farmstand? What are the top three sellers?
Burgess: My mini flower arrangements. They allow you to highlight the simple, natural beauty of just a few types of blooms. And they are sweet and small and affordable enough to tuck into your bedside tables, bathroom counters, kitchen window sills—all of the places that you regularly see and can get that unexpected burst of beauty in. I also love dried-flower wreaths and arrangements. I grow them all season, then dry them in my flowershed before crafting them into something longlasting for you to enjoy. Lastly, Kokedama balls: building them requires some zen concentration and coordination. I love that they create little mossy growing orbs. Best sellers? Besides my grab-and-go bouquets that are available at the farmstand, my home-baked bread and winter wreaths sell fast! November and December means being out in the flowershed making wreaths seven days a week.
Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Burgess: Much of flower farming and arranging is, actually, fun for me. How blessed am I? I love to be outdoors, moving and exploring—paddling, hiking, biking, two-tracking, camping, skiing, and, of course, gardening. I would walk all day through our beautiful forests, if I could. I help with the Education Foundation Board for the ski/snowboard non-profit that I work for, and we recently refocused on underserved and minority populations last year. In the past, I have organized charitable fundraising events for Stormcloud, including the Adult Spelling Bee, which was a collaboration with The Betsie Current! Just this spring, I also collaborated with you guys this spring for the Benzie COVID-19 Resource Guide. I give free gardening advice to anyone who needs it, and a lot of people did this year. I’ve done trail clean-ups. Just small, small things to try to make my place in the world better. I try to use my business to donate to causes, local charities, and schools: just this week, I donated 10% of my wreath sales and 2021 flower subscriptions to Grow Benzie for “Giving Tuesday.” I use my voice to educate people about critical thinking and information literacy, social equality, domestic violence.
Current: How have you seen Benzie County/Northern Michigan change since you first came up here? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Burgess: When my ex-husband brought me to Michigan when I was 19 to his family cottage on Old Mission Peninsula, I knew that I had found “my place.” The woods and rivers, the lake. I had always planned to move to Wisconsin when I grew up, but I fell in love with Michigan, and the family ties here sealed the deal. It took nearly 10 years, but we finally made our way here from Illinois. I moved to Benzie, because I just found myself traveling here whenever I could to enjoy the trails and rivers. This place called to me. I also had a purpose—to farm—and I was attracted to the vibrant and supportive farm community that is centered here, from Grow Benzie to farm-teachers like Bernie and Sandee Ware. Since that time, the area has exploded! I am completely biased, but I half-jokingly call it the “Stormcloud effect.” It’s really game theory. You have a handful of people, businesses, and organizations committed to creating community and culture and collaboration year-round, and that draws people in, creates vibrancy in a community, which in turn draws in more organizations adding to that momentum. I just hope that we balance our workforce, housing, and transportation infrastructures, so that we don’t fall into the trap of many tourist areas, where the people who work in them to serve the tourists cannot afford to live in them.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your jobs?
Burgess: It really relates to my answer to the above question—we need more employers paying a living wage, offering benefits and perks, so that they support the employees that support them with their work. It can be hard to attract employees without those things, particularly without much affordable housing or public transportation. It can be hard to find your niche in some of the small towns here. Groups can be insular. That’s why I loved my other role at Stormcloud as membership coordinator; I loved matching new people to the area who joined up with people that I thought they would hit it off with. Some stellar Stormcloud trivia teams were created that way! I love creating those connections. What I love the most, of any job, though, is bringing people joy through flowers. I love growing the flowers and creating the arrangements, sure, but I really love hearing from my customers how much happiness they get from my blooms. As a customer put it this fall, “This year, this hard year, your flowers gave me faith that there is still renewal. There is still beauty to be thankful for.”
Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area? What else does Northern Michigan/Benzie County need?
Burgess: Affordable housing, better public transportation, liveable wages and benefits from employers.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Burgess: Green Point is my favorite go-to hike, but nearly every day I frequent one of those many fantastic hiking trails along M-22. Woods and beach and dunes: what could be better? I also love local music festivals and Fall Festival/Frankfort Beer Week. There’s a soft spot in my heart for the deep sense of community in events like Stormcloud’s trivia nights, Gong Show, Ugly Sweater Party—all of those wacky events planned for the off-season, to keep locals happy and engaged, to keep the community vibrant. Part of what drew me to Frankfort/Benzie is that, for small towns, there is always something going on! We are also blessed in having some great dining, and you can’t beat the best date-night location of Rock’s Landing or an apres-ski/bike ride at Iron Fish.
Current: What does your perfect December day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Burgess: Winter is for reading by the fire, baking, discovering new music, planning the next growing season, and seed ordering. A perfect day would include all of those things, along with snowshoeing or skiing and catching one of those painfully beautiful winter beach sunsets, where the high-contrast colors and the cold wind steal your breath.
Visit “Sow She Grows Flower Farm” on Facebook, or @sowshegrows_flowerfarm on Instagram to learn more and see inventory. Winter wreaths are available at the flowershed Thursday through Sunday into December. Summer flower subscriptions are also available for holiday gift purchases at https://sow-she-grows-flower-farm.square.site/ During the growing season, bulk and/or custom orders are also available for weddings, baby showers, memorial services, and much more. Call 231-352-6998 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.