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Do what you love — but as pastime or profession?

August 19, 2016
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It is fun to watch someone take an idea that you entertained and make a successful enterprise out of it. If it is a good idea and you don’t act on it, someone else will.

In the late 1980s, my wife, Chris, returned from Chicago with a package of black currant tea. I enjoyed it and became curious what a black currant was.

It is the berry of a deciduous bush common to Northern Europe and Asia. The berry is said to have incredible health benefits — much more than blueberries, the health food of the decade.

Currants have a long history of use as a health food. One article I read stated that they were used to cure “wretchedness” in the Middle Ages.

All that was interesting, but then came the clincher: They are illegal to grow in Michigan.

Being a conservative CPA, I decided this was a chance to grow something illegal without going to jail. A little walk on the wild side.

I called a nursery in Massachusetts and placed an order for 10 bushes. They immediately informed me that they could not ship to Michigan. I sent them a copy of the law and pointed out that the law said I couldn’t grow them. It did not mention selling bushes.

In addition, the penalty for growing them was the state removing and burning them. I asked an attorney friend if I had any risk. He asked what the chances were that a state employee would drive to Cheboygan, find my bushes, know what they were and remove them.

They were banned in Michigan in the past hundred years because it was believed they carried a virus — white pine blister rust — that killed white pine trees. The three varieties that I have are all non-carriers. Just to be safe, I got a license from the Michigan Department of Agriculture to grow the varieties I have.

So today I have 40 bushes. I described the berries as tasting like a combination of a blueberry and a dead skunk. They make great jam, wine and dried fruit. I have actually learned to like them fresh.

So I began to wonder if I could create a viable crop for my farm near Cheboygan. I own 30 acres of brush and swamp across the road from the house that if cleared and properly ameliorated could support the berries.

In 1999, Greg Quinn planted 9,000 black currant bushes on nine acres of land in Clinton, New York. He is now the largest currant grower in New York State. He has created a market mainly through selling the health benefits of black current products.

CurrantC is the name of his juice line.

Why didn’t I, seeing the potential, pursue the development of my own black currant empire? I had the land, most of the farm equipment, am in the southern range for hardiness and loved the idea of the health benefits.

First is the land: Clearing the land and adding tons of cow manure was viable because of a nearby farmer with a brush hog and hundreds of dairy cows.

Second was knowledge: Cornell University has an excellent small fruit department at Geneva, New York.

Third was availability of capital for the clearing of the land and buying of additional equipment, an irrigation system, planting, etc.

Fourth was time: Between my CPA practice, the Small Business Association of Michigan, The National Small Business Association, The Grand Rapids Art Council and breathing, not much time was available. There is a big difference in the time commitment between 40 bushes and 9,000. What would I give up in order to become a berry farmer?

Fifth was varmint control. I am a bit of an animal lover, having grown up reading the books of Ernest Thompson Seton and Thornton Burgess. It is you or them, and getting rid of them is not pretty.

I have a natural affinity for growing things. We have 180 grapevines; 25 apple trees; 30 gooseberry bushes; 20 blackberry bushes; 30 red, white and champagne pink currants; 10 blueberry bushes; and of course 40 black currant bushes. My grandfather told me when I was about 10 that you couldn’t walk through an orchard in June and be an atheist. That applies also to berry patches.

So wouldn’t it be ideal to make your living in something you love? Maybe. Last year we picked about 60 pounds of black currants. This year it was about four. The weather did it. Would be a huge deal if my livelihood depended on selling berries.

As a pragmatic businessman, would I be further ahead investing in computers and software, or a six-figure berry harvesting machine.

So I had the inspiration, the land, the capital and the knowledge but needed to develop the market.

Could I have done it? It appears that Greg Quinn will make it. Maybe I could have, but I am a rather simple person. I enjoyed my career as a CPA and small-business advocate. I was able to retire and devote my time to growing things. I saw people who liked to drink buy bars and people who loved to sail open sailboat stores. They failed. You golfers ever think of turning pro? As they say, don’t quit your day job.

Sometimes a hobby should remain a hobby. Adding the stress of applying business principles to enjoyable side activities destroys the joy in a beautiful crop to share with family and friends.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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