LYNDEN, Wash. – John and Dorie Belisle plan to retire in several years and like many longtime small business owners, want to ensure they have a nest egg to fall back on when they hand their 30-acre farm over to future owners.
The owners of Bellewood Acres in Lynden, since 1995, have just about everything you could ask for in a person-friendly farm – 25,000 apple trees with several varieties of apples complete with a u-pick section year round; a portion of land devoted to cucumbers and corn, and a giant pumpkin patch for picking at Halloween.
What they did not have, though, was a massive farmhouse that could serve as a store for their produce and market bistro and bakery, a warehouse, office space for staff, dedicated space for local artists to display their work, or even a distillery.
That all changed thanks to a U.S. Small Business Administration Certified Development Company/504 loan that helped them purchase and build a 14,000 square foot building that they feel sets them on the path to financial sustainability as they enter their golden years.
The Belisles made their dream a reality thanks to the help of the Northwest Business Development Association’s Vice President and Senior Loan Officer Elizabeth Rusnak.
Rusnak worked with the Belisles to help them secure nearly $1 million to construct the farmhouse just over two years ago. Having a qualified U.S. Small Business Administration loan officer like Rusnak made the process so much easier to manage, Dorie said.
“Elizabeth saved me through the process,” she said. Rusnak’s dedication to the clients she serves helped earn her the 2012 SBA Seattle District Office Financial Services Champion of the Year award during last year’s SBA Awards Gala in Seattle.
The Belisles’ old farmhouse was just that – a small house. They would bring out cash registers each day and place them on the carport. The house’s location is off a side street and not near the main road of Highway 539 in Lynden. It was an ok solution for them, but it just did not have that “Wow” factor they wanted visitors to their farm to experience, Dorie said.
The answer to their problems came after a trip to Austria, where many u-pick farms have giant multi-purpose farmhouses, including the one that caught their eye – a farmhouse that had a distillery, and the farmers used leftover apples to make apple brandy or other apple liquors.
Once they saw that they could have multiple product lines created out of one business – a distillery, restaurant, gift shop and space for special events – they knew exactly how to proceed.
Construction on the farmhouse took just over a year and the building has been open for a year. Dorie said the farm averaged profit gains every year they were in business, but since opening the store and the distillery, they are expecting to beat even their best profit projection.
“We won’t have to borrow against our credit line, so that is a success for us,” she said.
They have been marketing their apple liquors to large chain grocery stores and boutique small business markets and shops, all the while staying local and sustainable. John and Dorie are active members in several local organizations such as Sustainable Connections, the Tenmile Creek Watershed Project, Whatcom Farm Friends, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and the Puget Sound Food Network.
“Everything at Bellewood Acres is done with a philosophy of strong community and responsible farming,” according to the Bellewood Acres website.
Rolling out the new product lines has helped increase the number of people they have hired locally. On average, Bellewood has about 45 to 50 employees, but the owners believe that number will go up as the store gains more traction with the community.
Dorie recommends that other small businesses looking to buy property and plan to use financing should shop around and check out different banks. Not all banks participate in the 504 loan, and some offer better interest rates or term lengths than others.
“Don’t be afraid to ask people and get as much information as you can before stepping forward,” Dorie said. “And explore all your options, including the SBA.”
For more information about Bellewood Acres, visit http://www.bellewoodfarms.com.
For more information about the SBA Seattle District Office, visit http://www.sba.gov/wa.