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Josh Stoltz: Feeding Benzie, Growing Community

Questions & Answers with community faces

Local boy made good, Josh Stoltz personifies what makes Benzie County unique and special. He ditched the big-city freeways and sprawl for his native woods, lakes, creative characters, and community dynamic. Through his work with SEEDS After School program at Benzie Central, and now as the executive director at Grow Benzie, Stoltz is a local change-maker. But he and his family endured a roller coaster year in 2014. SEEDS ran out of funding in June. In October, he and wife Christina tragically lost her teenage son, Isaac. This community immediately rallied around the Stoltz-Ryan-McKinnon family and offered them light in the darkest of hours.

In this heartfelt interview, Stoltz describes why he loves Benzie, why he returned here, and what impact he hopes to grow in Benzie.

The Betsie Current: What are your hopes and goals for Grow Benzie in 2015? How might the organization change in the future?

Josh Stoltz: My number one goal is for Grow Benzie to become a household name in this county. Everyone eats, so my biggest hope is for folks to know that Grow Benzie is their resource for all things related to local food: where to find it, how to grow it, what nutritional value it has, when canning or preserving classes are. Grow Benzie provides this information. We offer classes and events, community garden space, and a state-certified incubator kitchen to help local entrepreneurs to start their own business or to utilize it as a classroom for teaching families how to prepare a healthy meal. Hive Minded is a 10-week after-school industrial arts initiative, giving local students the opportunity to build bee boxes while earning scholarships. Bayou on the Bay is a blues & zydeco music picnic that we’re planning in Frankfort as a fundraiser for August 29. These are two new ideas we’re rolling out this year, all of which will be promoted regularly through our updated website, social media, and local media.

Current: The local food movement has a strong foothold in Northern Michigan. What are hopeful signs that you see for local food in Benzie?

Stoltz: We love to eat! Go to any family reunion, holiday party, church potluck, or a community dinner this winter at Grow Benzie, and you’ll experience a lot of people and a lot of food. There’s warm food in crockpots, a veggie tray, and—if you’re lucky—Uncle Roger will bring smoked meat or Aunt Bev will bring homemade pie. You’re guaranteed deviled eggs and cheese. So the fact that we connect ourselves with food is a great start in Benzie, but when you add the notion that every one of us is either a farmer, home gardener, hunter, fisher, or have a family member that’s one of these, it seems Benzie County was made to be on the front page of USA Today for representing local food movements. We already know the importance of eating healthy and buying locally. Grow Benzie is simply providing the support for us to get better at it.

Current: Of what accomplishments are you most proud from your work with SEEDS After School program at Benzie Central?

Stoltz: Geez. I could list a hundred students’ stories that our SEEDS team played a role in and should be proud of. One of the most significant impacts our work had in the schools was with the creation of “Pride of BC.” It’s a student-led initiative comprised of high schoolers interested in promoting positive self-awareness and tolerance amongst their peers. They meet regularly and host different events, but their flagship is their stage performance. They write their own skits, dances, and monologues to perform in front of classes and schools in hopes of sparking inspiration to those in need and being the change rather than talking about it. What started as an anti-bully group has turned into much more and has directly impacted hundreds of students’ lives. While SEEDS programs ended at Benzie Central, Pride of BC is still going strong.

Current: You and your family have endured an excruciating and trying few months. We mourn the passing of Isaac and remember him fondly. How have you found strength through this period?

Stoltz: We miss Isaac terribly. It is an unbelievable loss. My wife, Christina, is an inspiration. The love she has for Isaac and me is infinite, and to witness her courage to continue shining on is a lesson of strength and hope for everyone. We have so many good reasons to be alive. I referred to the gathering of folks at Isaac’s celebration service as “my tribe,” and it’s that network of people—and so many others that weren’t able to attend—who have held my wife and me in their hearts. Food, money, cards, visits, phone calls, texts: unbelievable. They say if we can make it through this, we can do anything. I believe that and try to follow through, “paying it forward” every day. Grow Benzie is providing me a place to harness this endless community spirit, through my work of organizing volunteers and resources.

Current: You left this region to study at Central Michigan and have lived in Arizona and Florida. Why did you return to Benzie? What did you miss while away?

Stoltz: My return was only going to be temporary. After closing my [sales and marketing] company in Miami and working in the oil and gas industry for a year, I bought a school bus that I named “The Future” and brought it back to Benzie to convert it to run on recycled veggie oil. My plan was to chase the sunshine around the country and sell deep-fried ice cream at festivals and events, maybe do some writing or make some movies. After being home for a summer, though, I recognized the magnet that had repelled me away in my 20s was the same energy keeping me around in my 30s. Family, friends, and neighbors provide unconditional love and support to me and each other here, and I felt unlimited potential within this web, knowing I always had food and shelter. Plus, I fell madly in love with a girl I had known since attending Platte River Elementary with her in the ’80s. Now we own a home in Frankfort, I’m involved with organizations that are important to me, and I’m surrounded by woods and water. In the same time it took for my morning commute in Phoenix, I can cruise up M-22, circle one-third of Crystal Lake’s shoreline, cross the Platte River, visit Dad’s house in a cedar swamp, two-track 20 minutes through the backwoods of Honor spotting deer and critters, and arrive at my Ma’s house for warmed-up leftovers while I fix my Jeep in the garage with my stepdad. I love this county.

Current: How would you spend your ideal winter day in Northern Michigan?

Stoltz: I wake up at 6 a.m. smelling the bacon, eggs, and potatoes my wife has prepared for me. My coffee thermos is full, and the truck is warmed up. By 11 a.m., I catch my limit ice fishing after spending quality time both with friends and by myself. I arrive at Grow Benzie to clean the Inbox, make some phone calls, and catch up with staff as we graze on some of the veggies we’re growing. By 5 p.m., there are five new volunteers signed up to donate their time, 1,000 views on our latest video, and Mario Batali called to confirm our meeting time to discuss The Big Idea. I head home to pick up my wife and dog for a snowshoe into the Elberta Bluffs, we fill up on the chili she’s been working on all day, and then arrive at the Frankfort vs. Benzie basketball game for an overtime nail biter. Afterward, we meet up with family and friends somewhere, stoke the wood stove, and play euchre and music. I snack on some venison jerky and smoked fish out by the bonfire before heading home on plowed roads to our cozy abode. Honestly, I’m already doing most of these … living the dream, right? It’s how I Grow Benzie.

Check out all that Grow Benzie is doing at www.growbenzie.com. Donate to the Isaac Julian Memorial Fund at http://bit.ly/1AK6oxd.

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