John Bitely’s ‘never give up’ farmer’s mindset saw his Sable Homes through the Great Recession.
By Grand Rapids Press, Mike Nichols
John Bitely always wanted to be a farmer.
Although his career started out with tilling the land for a living, eventually his life took him on a different journey.
In some ways he’s still a farmer, but the crop he’s harvesting now isn’t corn — it’s houses.
As the owner of Sable Homes, a Rockford-based residential development firm, he’s seen many a plentiful harvest in the last couple of years.
“My crop is development. The crop I plant now is the last plant of that land.
“We’re blue-collar housing. We’re the workingman’s home. We do some entry-level, we’ve done high-end — and we can do it, but our main focus is blue-collar housing.
“We also do development, which we haven’t’ done much of for about six years because everything fell on its ear,” he said, referring to the Great Recession and the bursting of the housing bubble.
“We used to be happy with (building) 25 to 30 homes a year. … We’ll do more than 100 homes this year.”
Bitely grew up in Sparta, the son of a part-time farmer. He graduated from Sparta High School in 1983, by which time he was already renting and working part of his family’s farm.
His parent’s work ethic was one of the best gifts he’s ever received, he said.
“The work ethic — either from my parents or my own internal drive — is probably my biggest break,” he said. “Everything has built on everything else for me. It’s not like, ‘Oh, this thing happened and everything else was gold.’”
Although he was accepted to Michigan State University after high school, Bitely decided not to go to college and to focus on farming instead, although he did attend Kent Skills Center to learn more about the mechanics of farming equipment.
“I liked girls and beer better than education, and I knew all I would have done was chase girls and drink beer,” he said. “I was actually mature — or at least practical enough — that I knew I wasn’t going to waste the money attending college for those purposes.”
After high school, Bitely got a job working at his uncle’s seed farm in Sparta called Post Farms. He loved the work, but eventually he began to realize his passion for farming wasn’t paying off for him.
“Farming’s in your blood. You till the land, you grow things, you’re around livestock. It’s a very noble way to make a living. It doesn’t pay a lot of money, but it’s not a bad thing.
“The problem was the timeframe. Farming was becoming very business-orientated. The family farms were dying left and right, and that’s what I was really trying to come into. And as a family, we weren’t wealthy. We had small landholdings.
“As time went on, I had to do something to generate enough money to make my initial stake ever happen. And with that came (the realization): ‘I’m going to work my whole life to have a decent job if I am stuck in farming,’” he said.
“My whole upbringing was I wanted to be a farmer. I loved agriculture, loved working the land — loved all that stuff. And my total focus right out of high school was growing a small farming operation into something I could make a living at. A couple of years into that, it just wasn’t making sense. It’s a tough way to make a living. It was a slow, tough, long haul.”
Bitely took a second job as a truck driver for Burlingame Lumber, which eventually became Wolohan Lumber, in Wyoming.
He left that company and started working for Standard Lumber in 1985. He had to create his job because the outside sales position he wanted didn’t yet exist.
“I (presented) the pro forma to my manager, and it was truly farm-boy written. It was a hand-written pro forma of business available. … My manager looked at it and pretty much dropped his teeth. I think he was shocked at what I had given him,” he said.
The manager sat Bitely down and told him he was too young and inexperienced and, since the job would be paid by straight commissions, he wouldn’t be able to afford to do it.
But since Bitely still had extra income from part-time farming, he pressed upon his boss that he was prepared to take it on.
“It was one of those weird conversations where I don’t really think I knew what it meant at the time, and I don’t think he really had any idea what it meant. … That might have been the big break because my manager believed in me from that day on.”
“Later on, when I left that company, there was me and one other salesman who, every single month, had the number one volume in sales, and I always had the best margins. So they were writing me some big checks,” he said.
“That job afforded me 10 years of education in the building industry, and you can’t go to any college to get that information and experience,” Bitely said.
During his time at Standard Lumber, Bitely got out of the farming business for good. In a way, he said, the time he spent farming was unfair to his then-growing family because it took him away from them and it really wasn’t helping pay the bills.
“Eventually, it came down to: I could make $5 to $7 an hour farming, or I could go out and put siding on a house for $15 an hour,” he said.
“I still have the heart for farming, but it was a commitment to my family. Maybe growing up (meant) giving up the childish hope of wanting to be a farmer for the reality that I could do so much better for my family and myself.”
In 1995, Bitely and his friend, Kelly Powell, now the owner of the farming tourist attraction Deer Tracks Junction in Cedar Springs, started Sable Homes together.
Ever since, Bitely said his No. 1 frustration is when townships, municipalities and states make rules that do not allow him to “grow as nice a crop for (our) parcels.”
The business grew well but then suffered during the Great Recession like most in the construction industry. Bitely believes it was his farmer’s mentality that helped the company survive those slow years.
“When the whole economy was upside down and everybody said you can’t make money building houses … part of the mindset was ‘farmers never give up,’” he said. “It’s that belief that every spring is going to be better.”
Sable Homes was one of the few builders left standing when the bleeding from the Great Recession finally stopped. In its wake, the business found itself facing a pent-up demand from an industry that hadn’t built houses for about six years.
And although Bitely now has plenty of work to keep himself busy, he still has one hobby that hasn’t fully left him and probably never will: gardening.
Farming is in the blood, after all.
“I’ve always got a garden. No one else in the family has interest in it, and most of it I just give away. (I grow) potatoes, sweet corn, strawberries and pumpkins,” he said.
“I probably walk out to the garden three or four times a week just to look at it — just because.”