Battle Creek-area farm becomes center of multi-faceted business

Scott Stoke and Curtis Whitaker combine their love of travel and hospitality into retirement jobs that don't leave them much time to relax.

They are partners on a professional and personal level and co-owners of Southern Exposure Herb Farm, which sits on 60 acres of farmland in Battle Creek that has been transformed into lush gardens with colorful blooms and refurbished buildings that are original to the farm that was once there.

A staff of eight is supported by a group of part-time employees who water and weed the flowerbeds and floral arrangements and help in the upkeep of the buildings--many of which are used for dinners.

"Scott is the artist and decorator," Whitaker says. "Anything you see here that's beautiful inside or out is Scott. I'm the businessman."

Whitaker is a retired Air Force Colonel and Stoke is an active duty Lieutenant Colonel stationed in Lansing. They have been together for 25 years.

"Scott, myself and his mom bought the farm in 1992 and opened Southern Exposure in 1994. She passed away the next year," Whitaker says. "She was known as the ‘Herb Lady.'"

It was in memory of the "Herb Lady" that the two men decided to continue operating Southern Exposure.

Originally, the trio purchased 160 acres. Over a 15-year period they built 10 houses, each of which sits on a 10-acre lot. The homes surround the 60 acres that make up Southern Exposure. Each of those houses were sold and under terms of agreements between Southern Exposure's owners and the home buyers the 100 acres can't be subdivided for 100 years.

Stoke and Whitaker lived for a time in the first house they built rather than on the former farm because Bernard Jones, original owner of the property asked to stay in his own home until his death.

"He (Mr. Jones) lived for another 20 years in that house," Whitaker says. "We became friends with him and included him in everything we did. The last five years of his life was spent in a 24-hour care facility. Scott and I visited him almost every day."

Although herbs continue to be grown on the property, they are now used mostly in dishes prepared by a chef for theme dinners that take place from April through December. This year's dinners include "The Great Tuscan," featuring Italian-cuisine and "The Charleston," featuring Southern cuisine.

Dinners are open to the public and typically sell out, says Misuk Palmatier, wedding consultant and jack-of-all-trades at Southern Exposure.

In addition to the dinners, Stoke and Whitaker host workshops on topics like cooking and decorating. One of the most popular, "Holiday Decorating on a Shoestring," is being offered on 17 different dates beginning Oct. 30.

Another part of the business actually takes people away from the property. Stoke and Whitaker plan bus trips and overseas excursions which have become some of Southern Exposure's most eagerly anticipated events.

"We have three, daylong bus trips and they always sell out first," says Kay Davidson, events coordinator for Southern Exposure. "We go to a Michigan winery and we always take a trip to Chicago.

"Then there's Scott's 'Junque' Bus Tours. He knows where all of the good antique businesses are from here to Tennessee. We pack breakfast and lunch on the bus and stop at eight to 10 fabulous places and stop at a fabulous restaurant for dinner."

Davidson also handles reservations for the overseas trips. This October, Stoke and Whitaker will be taking their group on a riverboat cruise through Southern France. Trips in 2014 include Tuscany, the Alps and the Riviera; Ireland; and China.

"Every time we go overseas we see an idea for something new and creative and we incorporate it when we get back," Whitaker says.

There's more. Southern Exposure also is now known as a destination wedding venue.

June and September are by far the most popular months for couples to tie the knot, but weddings take place six months out of the year at Southern Exposure and from May through October at least 46 weddings will take place there this year, says Misuk Palmatier, wedding coordinator for the business.

Couples have come from as far away as Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Washington State. The location also makes the venue a popular choice for couples from Detroit and Chicago. By the time Palmatier retires, she says, she's fairly confident she will have coordinated weddings for people from all 50 states.

And all of this has occurred without spending a dime on advertising.

"It's all word of mouth," Palmatier says. "We have people who have attended weddings here who decide to come back and get married here and we've also had siblings who have all been married here. It's such a rewarding job."

The draw, Palmatier says, is convenience.

"There's no stress and they can enjoy planning a wedding," Palmatier says. "The only thing the bride and groom have to take care of is their clothing, the minister, the photographer, the cake and the flowers."

Couples take their vows in one of the many gardens or inside a white tent that is a permanent fixture during wedding season. Whenever possible, the weddings are outdoors with the reception following in a second tent. The wedding party is typically seated at a long table facing the tent.

Palmatier says she is able to accommodate weddings of up to 250 people. She smiles as she says she always has a Plan B because of Michigan's often temperamental weather, but almost never has to use it.

"I'm a lucky charm," Palmatier says. "Plan B is that we have another tent that we don't decorate until one or two hours before the ceremony."

Weddings happen only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

While brides and grooms and other visitors to Southern Exposure frequently ask if there are lodging options on-site or plans to extend the number of months the venue is open for business, Palmatier and Whitaker say there are no plans to offer such an option.

"It's not special if it's open every day," Palmatier says.

Whitaker's reasoning is a bit more personal.

"Scott and I have employees we're responsible for and it is a lot of fun," he says. "I wanted to do something after I got out of the military, but I've never worked so hard in my life."

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek.

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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