Marguex Bouwkamp spent 11 years working in the craft beer industry, most recently for Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After graduating from Grand Valley State University in 2005 with a business degree, she says she “fell into” the beer industry and didn’t think she’d ever leave it.
“I started working for a very small craft brewery in northern Michigan called Short’s Brewery and that really led me down what I began to become passionate about,” she says. “The craft beer industry, especially here in Michigan at that point, was just starting to really boom and it was very exciting and something I was eager to learn about because it was really fun. I thought that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life.” Bouwkamp adds that, as a craft beer aficionado, she felt especially drawn to the industry due to her deep understanding and appreciation of the product.
But in January 2019, she made the switch to the produce industry, joining Michigan-based hydroponic grower Revolution Farms as its business development manager. At the time, Revolution Farms CEO John Green was the chairman of the board at Founders and recruited Bouwkamp to work at the farm. Despite knowing far less about lettuce than craft beer, the vision Green sold her was enough to trade in hops and IPAs for indoor ag and leafy greens.
“It’s really about the story,” she says. “How does this farm solve not just a nation problem, but a world problem? He really sold me on the benefits of indoor growing — the land conservation, the water conservation. How do we grow more food in a smaller area? And this whole concept was intriguing to me and it makes you feel good about the work you’re doing every day.”
Once she decided to move to Revolution Farms, Bouwkamp says her first step was to get a grasp of the industry and the overall business model. With hydroponics specifically, she associated the growing method with cannabis before diving into the various crops that can be grown in a hydroponic system once she was offered her current job.
“A lot came from research, but it’s also been a hands-on learning experience and that’s been really incredible,” she says. “This is a small business, so you’re wearing multiple hats. And I’ve had the opportunity to really get down and dirty and do many of the production jobs in the facility and learn as I’m doing it.” Bouwkamp says that, just like learning about beer more than a decade ago, learning about hydroponically grown produce helps her in her job because it instills a passion for the product.
She says that at least from a marketing perspective, beer and produce aren’t all that different.
“Beer brings people together and food brings people together and when you’re providing a really great product in either industry, it’s about making people happy and creating a shared experience,” Bouwkamp says. “It’s something that I enjoy being a part of.”
We really want to dip our toes into herbs and microgreens and focus on new spaces by adding things we aren’t currently growing.” — Marguex Bouwkamp
Once hired, Bouwkamp says her goals were to help Revolution Farms get through a “transitional phase.” She used her combination of sales and human resource experience to come in and take over existing relationships, seek out new ones and implement new practices to help the business grow.
Currently, she is working on forming the farm’s initial executive board, courting new retailers and recruiting for open positions in the company. Most recently, Revolution Farms hired Tam Serage, a 25-year industry veteran who previously worked for Shenandoah Growers in Virginia.
“I hit the ground running from the day I started,” Bouwkamp says.
Continuing the revolution
According to Bouwkamp, the next year will be key for Revolution Farms’ growth. For starters, the business is currently tripling its greenhouse space, taking its capacity from 85,000 square feet to 255,000. The goal there, she says, is to expand relationships with current retail partners such as grocer SpartanNash, but also cultivate new ones throughout the Midwest.
“My role in that is making sure that there’s a home for what we are going to grow,” Bouwkamp says. “We are going to continue to focus on leafy greens. We really want to dip our toes into herbs and microgreens and focus on new spaces by adding things we aren’t currently growing. But we also need to find the right people that are passionate about indoor growing to place in the facility.”
Only one other grower in Michigan, Bouwkamp says, is producing indoor herbs right now — leaving a gap in the market for Revolution Farms to fill. The plan is for a chunk of the new growing space to be set aside for herbs and microgreens.
Aside from seeking workers like Serage with indoor ag experience, Bouwkamp is working on tapping into Michigan’s rich agricultural tradition. In the state, she says, there is a vast number of workers with agriculture skills that are working for field producers or in one of the state’s many ornamental greenhouses.
Additionally, she helped establish a connection with Michigan State University Extension to form an internship program. The program will see two students from the extension working in the greenhouse for a to-be-determined period. The plan is for the interns to work hands-on in the greenhouse and learn the ins and outs of a hydroponic system.
For Bouwkamp herself, the plan is for 2020 to build on to 2019. She wants to keep learning while using this year’s successes as a launch pad to whatever comes next.
“I’m looking forward to taking all of the learning we’ve have had over the last year and implementing them as we build out,” she says. “It’s about paying attention to the things we were able to overcome this past year and map them out. We know what to expect now.”