The New Farmers
Young growers head back to the land.
I don't eat locally grown food because it makes me feel better, though it does, or because I want to support local farms and the local economy, though I do.
I eat locally grown food because it tastes better. Carrots so sweet they're like candy. Potatoes so flavorful that to add salt would be a crime against nature. Plus truly fresh herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme--and cilantro.
Without knowing it, I've become part of a movement with deep local roots. At forty-one years old, Project Grow, which rents garden plots at nineteen city, county, and school properties around town, now has 370 members, more than at any time in its history. And at ninety-four, the Ann Arbor Farmers Market has more vendors than ever, 150, at its Saturday and Wednesday markets.
Even more impressive is the dramatic increase in small farms surrounding the city. Sunseed is growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers on eight acres off Maple Road. Bending Sickle is raising cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, and rabbits on sixteen acres off North Territorial Road. Green Things on Nixon just north of M-14 has thirty acres planted with vegetables, grains, and herbs.
The new farmers are young, in their late twenties and early thirties. They don't come from farm families, and most spent years traveling before deciding to try to make their livings on the land. But stirred by the same combination of romance and idealism that's always fired the young, they share a passionate love of the farming life, coupled with the ardent faith that local food is a pure good.
A central figure in the local farming revival is Jeff McCabe. "My grandparents were hobby farmers," says the lanky former building contractor. "And I had a garden in Ann Arbor until Zion [Lutheran Church] expanded in 2007 and we lost the Project Grow garden there. But I like to think that while the city lost a gardener, it gained an activist."
After attending the first Local Food
Summit in 2009, McCabe and his wife, Lisa Gottlieb, were inspired to start a weekly breakfast open to the public in their west side home featuring local food prepared by local chefs. McCabe describes the Selma Cafe as "a center, a gathering place, and a party with good food and fun. But it was also a place to make things happen. I introduced people who should know each other. And [with its $12-$15 suggested donation, Selma] had an easy cash flow into local food economy."
The cafe's enormous success led McCabe to an even bigger project: Tilian Farm Development Center. "We were looking for ways to regenerate local farming," he explains, "and an incubator for farms seemed like a good idea, so I wrote a grant." With $71,000 from the USDA plus some smaller grants and a $15,000 loan from Selma, three farms broke ground on sixteen acres on Pontiac Trail in Ann Arbor Township in the spring of 2011.
One was Jill and Nate Lada's Green Things Farm. "We knew Jeff through the Selma Cafe 'cause I volunteered there religiously," says Nate.
"At the time we were on a trip around the country," remembers Jill, "and we got a call while we were in Death Valley that 'the farm incubator's started,' and hightailed it back."
"Two months later we were planting," says Nate.
Another was Ben Fidler and Meghan Milbrath's Bending Sickle Community Farm. "I was working on a farm in Grand Rapids, and I'd met Jeff and heard about Tilian, so I applied and was accepted," Fidler recalls. "The incubator was like the Wild West at first. It had an old barn that needed work on dilapidated property. We got it back to productive agriculture."
"Great things came out of the first years," says McCabe, "but it was a two-year program, and the grant ran out." With the loss of its part-time manager, Tilian is down to just one farm-in-incubation, Bill Bass's Honest Eats.
Selma Cafe was a victim of its success. Neighbors' complaints brought the attention of the city zoning department and the county health department, and it closed in April. "It came down to a couple of neighbors," McCabe says. "We probably could have resolved the city and the county's concerns, but we weren't going to shove it down our neighbors' throats."
Selma nevertheless proved too good an idea to die, so Lisa Gottlieb--she and McCabe have separated--reopened it in June serving brunch once a month on Saturdays in the common house at Sunward Cohousing in Scio Township. She says folks at Sunward have been "very welcoming and enthusiastic," and the cafe's been invited to stay for at least another six months.
"Our goal to support the local food movement and local farms has never changed," says Gottlieb. "But we're about joy and community just as much as food."
Green Things Farm wasn't hurt when Tilian's grant ran out. By then, Jill and Nate Lada had already left for their own farm in Ann Arbor Township on Nixon Road.
"Barry Lonik, who does conservation for the township, told us he knew of twelve individuals who owned eighty acres, and eleven of the twelve wanted to sell. So the one guy who didn't want to sell got to keep sixteen acres, and we got sixty-four."
"They wanted to do a conservation easement before selling," says Jill. "That way the property would be conserved for farming forever. We helped write the easement, so we can build barns and our home here."
With help from a federal grant and the city's greenbelt program, Ann Arbor Township paid $323,852 for the easement. And because the young farmers no longer had to compete with prospective developers for the property, "we got a really good deal," says Nate. "We paid $219,000," money they borrowed from his parents and will pay back over the next thirty years.
Jill and Nate are sitting at a picnic table on their property, a long piece of gently sloping land with a stretch of woods and vernal ponds on the east. To keep off the hot sun, Nate wears a blue cap, while Jill wears a straw bonnet with a blue flower stuck in it. He's as dark as she is fair, but they're both very fit.
Born in Connecticut in 1985, Nate came to Ann Arbor at eighteen to study for a U-M degree in restoration ecology. After graduation, "I took a couple of years off and traveled," he says. "I lived half a year in Wisconsin with grandparents and started a farm there growing produce. I had no experience with farming before, and I got the bug--bad."
Jill was born in New Jersey in 1988, and, like Nate, came to the U-M for a degree in restoration ecology. "We met my junior year," says Jill. "Nate convinced me we should buy a farm, and we looked at property in western Michigan. Then Tilian popped up."
They moved onto their own farm last fall. "The first thing we did was get married here on September first," says Nate. "Then we got electricity, dug a well, put in a hoop house and a walk-in cooler--the infrastructure we needed to grow this year."
Of their sixty-four acres, forty are tillable, and thirty of those are under cultivation: eight in neatly weeded rows of vegetables from greens to beans and the rest in grains. They also have four pigs, three for eating and one for breeding, and about thirty goats, the males for eating, and the females for milk. As Nate says, "it pays to be a girl here."
Like most of the new growers, the Ladas pass on some of the risks of farming to sympathetic customers through "community supported agriculture." Green Things CSA members pay $400 per session for a share of whatever they harvest, distributed weekly.
"We've got sixty-five members in our CSA," says Nate. "We've got two sessions, summer and fall--so from May to December--and we're going to add a winter session for January and February. We also sell at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and at the Cobblestone Farm and Dixboro markets. And we sell to restaurants: the Jolly Pumpkin, the Grange, and Tios."
Jill says they picked the name Green Things because "it suits us. But only about half the things we grow here are green, and people at the Farmers Market say we should be called Purple Things!"
With so many diverse customers plus a lot of hard work and luck, Green Things has been in the black every year. "Of course, we haven't paid ourselves yet," laughs Nate.
"But we're rich in other ways," says Jill. "We get to eat really well, and we're our own bosses."
Like Green Things, Bending Sickle Community Farm didn't stop when Tilian's grant ran out: Ben Fidler and his partner and fiancee Meghan Milbrath had already moved to sixteen rented acres off North Territorial Road south of Stockbridge.
Milbrath is heading off to her job as a research associate in MSU's Entomology Department when I arrive, so Fidler shows me the rolling property with its penned cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, and rabbits, and free-range ducks and dogs. After the tour, we sit in the beautifully restored living room of the otherwise ramshackle farmhouse.
"In exchange for fixing up the house, we get rent credit," says Fidler, a lean, laconic thirty-year-old wearing suspenders and a weathered baseball cap. "We started here last April . We worked on the house in May and moved in in July."
Fidler was born in Cadillac and earned a literature degree from EMU, but his heart was elsewhere. "Since I was eighteen, I'd been working in construction. I like physical work and being outside. I got into food my senior year when I was working on a farm--and the poison took."
After graduating, "I worked in California in vineyards, on a farm in Maine, then in Colorado and Northern California." He was working on a farm back in Michigan when he got McCabe's call to come to Tilian, which led to Bending Sickle.
The name comes from Shakespeare's Sonnet 116. "It's a poem about being in love, and I love farming," Fidler explains. "I get some interesting reactions at the farmers' markets. Some people get the reference. Some think it's communist."
Though they have their own vegetable garden and a field of grain for feed, Bending Sickle specializes in animals "because I hate bending over," Fidler says. "In Maine I worked on a vegetable farm and spent from seven until six every day weeding. That's fine when you're young, but I won't be young forever. Plus it's an untapped market. People want meat."
Bending Sickles has meat. "We have five head of cattle for beef," Fidler counts. "We have pigs--three sows and one boar--plus forty or fifty feeder pigs for meat; a flock of twenty-seven sheep, twenty-six ewes and one ram; thirty rabbits, maybe more; 800 chickens; and forty laying ducks for eggs.
Feed is their biggest ongoing expense. About half of the total cost of raising an animal usually goes to feed, Ben says, "but for us now it's 60, 70 percent." To remedy this, they've started growing grain to feed their livestock. "We want to grow 100 percent of our feed. It'll lower costs significantly."
Most sales are through their CSA. "We really like the CSA, but it's tricky with livestock," Fidler explains. "It takes two years to finish a cow out, and pigs take nine, ten months, so you have to plan far in advance." They also sell at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and the Cobblestone Farm Market.
"Before this year, all the money we made we put back into the farm," Fidler continues. "This year we're breaking even, and breaking even your third year is pretty good for a new business, especially a new livestock farm."
Meanwhile, both Fidler and Milbrath have other sources of income. "Meghan works on honey bee disease, trying to figure out why they're dying," Fidler says. "I've got a job working two days a week at MSU's student organic farm as the livestock manager."
Running the farm, fixing the house, and working two jobs with only an intern in the summer for help means they work nearly all day almost every day. "We're up by seven, out by eight, and in when the sun comes down," Fidler says. "Last year we got away for five days at Thanksgiving, and it was tremendous."
Hopefully things won't always be that hard. "In ten years I'd like to be on a permanent farm," says Fidler, "one that's new from the ground up, just buy the land and build the house, the barns, and the infrastructure. We could sustain on twenty acres. We want to be comfortable, but we don't want to be the next Smithfield. We don't want to compromise the integrity of the product.
"Farming is a way of life, and we love it," Fidler concludes. "We wouldn't do it if we didn't. And we plan on passing it on to our kids someday."
Cathy King knows just what he means. She and her late husband, Ken, left Indian Summer, a vegetarian restaurant on State Street, to start Frog Holler Farm in 1972. "We were idealistic and reading about other folks simplifying their lives," she recalls by email. "We were young and it was fun, and I'm sure we were supported psychically by the mood of the sixties and early seventies that we had both embraced."
They initially thought the farm would be a commune. But that "sort of evaporated as the 'hippies' got older and moved on," King recalls, "and the back to the land movement seemed to be over so we settled into being a family farm." More than forty years later, it still is--Cathy now works the organic farm alongside her three grown sons, Billy, Kenny, and Edwin. After selling at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market for decades, they recently added a CSA by popular demand.
"In the early days we grew what we could scratching in the dirt," King recalls, "greens and kale. What's changed is people like to eat greens.
"Now we grow more of everything so we can have balanced produce for people who shop at our stall. We changed to meet the demand. The farmers market is so revitalized, and Ann Arbor is so aware."
But while it's a rich life, it hasn't made them rich. "We might still be here just because we've been okay with living communally as a family, minimizing consumption and not having a lot of financial security," Cathy says. "The other [people who started farming forty years ago] may be very happy that they are no longer trying to do this! But I know plenty of dumb luck, fortunate timing, and invaluable help from 'old-timer' neighbors got us to this point."
Jeff McCabe helped recruit the new generation of farmers, but he's not going back to the land himself. "I don't have the back for it," he laughs. Instead, two years ago he started a hoop house company.
"A hoop house is a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse that traps heat for growing food in the ground," McCabe explains. "What it does is create a new season, so people are able to grow in winter and spring. They're similar to those used in the floriculture industry but with subtle differences, like the cover is more durable and it's more affordable."
A standard Nifty Hoops hoop house is thirty feet wide and ninety-six feet long, and costs $12,900 installed within sixty miles of Ann Arbor by a dozen or so part-time employees. (McCabe is the only full-time employee and the sole owner.) He says they've put up about fifty so far, will build fifty or more this year, and are planning on 100 next year. Half of the sales so far are within sixty miles of Ann Arbor, including structures at Sunseed, Senna Prairie, Green Things, Seeley, Dragonwood, and White Lotus farms, though some are as far away as the northern Lower Peninsula and central Ohio.
"You vote for your food system with every dollar you spend," says McCabe. "Right now, Washtenaw County has a billion-dollar-a-year food system, and our goal is for 10 percent of the food to come from within one hundred miles by 2020." That's a long way from the 1 to 3 percent local he guesstimates that Ann Arborites eat now. It's an improbably ambitious goal, but McCabe maintains it's achievable--if we add a lot more local farms, and those farmers can make "bigger sales to institutional markets. We're feeding families now, and the next step is more restaurants and food stores. We're already in the People's Food Coop, and Arbor Farms sees local food as a priority."
Expanding the local food economy, he adds, would bring community-wide benefits. "A re-localized system creates jobs. After the recession, a lot of people need work, and farms offer an entry-level position for people left out of the economy."
That's all great with me--just so long as the food tastes good.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the August 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The entities that paid for the the Green Things Farm conservation easement have been corrected.
[Originally published in August, 2013.]