Toy Box Farms participates in a number of farmers markets in Central Michigan.
Photo courtesy of Toy Box Farms

by Enrico Villamaino

2020 is proving to be a distinctly memorable year. And a lot of the more consequential things happening this year are not exactly pleasant. But at least for Toy Box Farms in Durand, MI, 2020 has brought with it a reason to smile.

“We’re celebrating our 10-year anniversary,” explained Bryan Caruthers, Toy Box’s owner and operator. “We’re very proud of that! It’s a milestone for us.”

A native of the Wolverine State, Bryan grew up working on the farm that his great-grandfather founded in Bay City. Bryan spent his youth learning at his grandfather’s knee all the finer points of agronomy in the Midwest. After marrying fellow Michigander Patricia, Bryan took what he described as a “slight detour” and worked as a truck driver for 20 years. In 2010, Bryan finally parked his truck, and he and Patricia launched Toy Box.

Situated on 68 acres, Toy Box dedicates 40 acres to growing sweet corn and popcorn, with much of the remaining acreage allocated to pumpkin and squash cultivation. A staff of four part-time and seasonal employees assist the couple with their operation.

“That very first season, we started by focusing on farmers markets and our CSA program,” Bryan said.

Toy Box participates in a number of farmers markets within a 40-mile radius, including Dewitt’s, Durand’s, Montrose’s, Bath Township’s, New Lothrop’s, Original Owosso’s, At the Farm’s and the Farmers Market at the Capitol. “Farmers markets ended up being a much bigger part of our business than we originally expected,” he admitted.

The CSA program’s mission is to produce high quality sustainable foods for a healthier lifestyle. Said Bryan, “Our products are chemical free and we use environmentally sustainable growing methods. While certified organic protocols allow certain chemical products, we do not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Our products are naturally grown with organic fertilizer. We compost and recycle everything possible.”

Toy Box’s CSA features sweet corn, popcorn, peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, garlic, onions, broccoli, rhubarb, cabbage, beets, lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, kale, radishes, watermelon, cantaloupe, summer and winter squash, potatoes and herbs. Their CSA members come from over a 60-mile radius and can take advantage of two types of shares. A regular share provides enough weekly vegetables to feed two people; a family share is intended for a family of four. Both share options last for a 19-week season that begins in May and ends in October.

“We began that first year with just five subscribers, but as of this year we’ve got over 40 members,” Bryan said. “We’ve been lucky. We haven’t done much in the way of advertising. But our members have been really happy with the program, and we’ve certainly benefited from good word of mouth.”

In 2013, Toy Box acquired a flock of 75 chickens, which are used to produce both eggs and meat. In addition to being made available for sale at farmers markets, eggs and chicken are now offered as optional add-ons to weekly CSA orders.

Three years ago, Bryan decided to try his hand at beekeeping. He purchased a colony and built an apiary consisting of 10 hives. He had two motivations for this expansion. “Honestly, I was concerned about all the problems with bees right now, and I was also looking to do something for the winter market, when things slow down for our other operations,” he explained. Bryan’s honey is a fan favorite at the farmers markets.

As October approached, Bryan shifted his attention toward additional autumnal agricultural offerings. “We also grow 189 varieties of pumpkins. Believe it or not, these are nearly all for decorating. We do have a lot of customers who make pumpkin pie from scratch, but they don’t use our pumpkins! They mainly use butternut squash and Boston Marrow squash,” he said. He clarified that, when making pie, butternut and Boston Marrow are generally regarded as more flavorful and less stringy than traditional pumpkins. “They save our pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns and Thanksgiving displays. The pumpkins are so popular, we had to start including them in the CSA boxes. Now everyone in the family gets a pumpkin.”

Now that the business has completed its first decade, Bryan is eager to tackle new projects at Toy Box Farms.

“Like I said, word of mouth has worked well for us, and we’re grateful for that. But to really expand our customer base, we’re going to try and get the word out even more,” he said. “We’re hoping to take advantage of social media exposure.”

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