Idealistic young farmers face the challenge of making a living from the land.
by Trilby MacDonald
From the February, 2020 issue
Much of Washtenaw County is zoned for agriculture, and the county's rural charms are jealously protected by community groups and conservation boards that limit new developments and buy up development rights to ensure that wide-open spaces will continue to dominate the landscape. While there is no shortage of farmland close to Ann Arbor, farmers themselves are something of an endangered species locally. When agriculture is done right, it's a beautiful thing, nourishing land, body, and spirit. Yet all the value our local farms provide doesn't necessarily generate enough income for those who run them to survive. And even when they are profitable, the long hours, physical strain, and psychological stress of working with a host of variables that are out of a farmer's control can cause burnout. With so much to master, farm businesses are considered by the USDA to be in their beginning phase for a full decade. About ten years ago in Ann Arbor, a surge in demand for local food and new sources of support for farm enterprises caused a spike in the number of young farmers eager to have their own places. My then-husband and I were among them. Some of us have since reached the end of our road. But others are banding together to form a groundbreaking new enterprise that might be the key to their enduring success. And in an unusual twist, one farmer is leaving the security of a job with the city to focus on farming full-time.
Tomm Becker and I started Sunseed Farm in 2009 on rented land on Joy Rd. Tomm had several years of farming experience and took charge of the operation, and I raised kids and played a supporting role with marketing and a small flower program.
We had no money or experience running a business, but we had boundless energy and idealism, the kind of spirit that pervaded the local food scene at the time. Walking into Selma Cafe, a weekly fundraising
breakfast, a farmer felt like a celebrity. Ann Arbor was fertile ground for new farms, with affluent, educated, food-savvy consumers. Hungry for gorgeous food, many even shouldered some of the risks of farming through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), paying cash up front for a share of the crop at harvest.
The burgeoning local food movement was focused on helping more farms get their start. Graduates of MSU's Student Organic Farm fanned out across Michigan and the country, but accessing the capital to acquire land and equipment to start their operations was a huge barrier to entry. Jeff McCabe and others started the Tillian Farm Development Center in 2011 on a forty-four-acre plot of conserved farmland on Pontiac Tr. with a rustic old barn and grassy fields bisected by a dusty two-track. Tillian offered ground, equipment, hoop houses, and guidance to help new farms take root.
Alex Cacciari and Mark Nowak were in Tillian's first cohort. After two seasons in the incubator they struck out on their own, renting a thirty-acre homestead on Warren, a narrow dirt road a few miles north of downtown. Guinea hens and chickens forage freely, occasionally getting into noisy scuffs with Nina, the bossy farm dog.
Banks regard farms as risky investments, but the couple were able to get financing in 2016. Two years later, they put their land into a conservation easement and have gradually built hoop houses, a barn, and a pretty little greenhouse.
The land had been fallow for years and was pretty weedy but fertile. With a lot of TLC, Cacciari and Nowak have been able to grow a cornucopia of vegetables and flowers, that they sell through farmers' markets, grocery stores, the Michigan Flower Growers' Cooperative, restaurants, and a CSA.
New breeds like an ultra-sweet single-serving butternut squash keep buyers intrigued. Flower sales, including new arrivals like fragrant heirloom roses and peonies in a range of show-stopping colors, have shot up. Next season they will begin growing herbs for Arbor Teas.
"Every spring I have a resurgence of optimism," Cacciari says. "A small-scale diversified farm is mutable. We can always try something new. When you're willing to be diverse, you have your insurance policy built in."
Some variables are more challenging to accommodate than others, however. "Competition is real," Cacciari admits. "This is the sad truth. As progressive as everyone is, it is still a limited market."
Nate and Jill Lada were also in Tillian's first cohort. After two seasons in the incubator program, their Green Things Farm business bought a coveted sixty-acre plot of abandoned farmland on Nixon Rd. with financing from Nate's parents. Certified organic since 2016, they sell vegetables through a CSA, farmers' markets, and restaurants; grow a profusion of beautiful flowers; raise Red Devon and British White cattle, and hold festive dinner and music events all summer long.
Having that much land close to town was a huge advantage for a farming couple in their twenties. Or so it seemed. "Ten years in, I realize that I should have looked at the land first," Nate laments. "It's like we adopted an abused child." Despite efforts to diversify, they discovered it's not possible to grow the amount of organic food necessary to support a family on land so degraded. Rehabilitating their soil to make it more productive is still a long way off, and there are many other facets of a farm business that also have to be managed.
By the end of the 2019 season, Jill was done. "I felt like I wasn't meeting my own expectations," she says. She started to look for other work.
Eric Kampe, owner of Ann Arbor Seed Company, knows that story well. "The reality is that my spouse has an off-farm job which floats us," he concedes. "No other business is like this--a car mechanic would never work for years until his business is profitable."
After eight years of running all aspects of his business himself, Kampe is through being a sole proprietor.
"I have challenges as a grower--weather, crops, poor soil, pests," he says. "But that's only half the battle." Learning how to manage production, marketing, and business management when you never know what nature will throw at you takes a long time, and his has run out.
"Solo farming just doesn't make sense," admits Hannah Rose Weber, owner and sole full-time employee of the Land Loom since 2014. After five years in business at Tillian, she has her systems dialed in, with perfect rows, a bounty of gleaming produce, and delighted customers. But she, too, has reached a breaking point.
"Older-generation farmers were not good land stewards, but they had systems and resource sharing that allowed them to have a livelihood," she says. Younger farmers, particularly of diversified small farms, don't typically inherit land or infrastructure and lack the granges, food hubs, and family labor that older generations rely on to get their product to market. "I am seeing the need to move towards collaboration," she says. So she's joining Kampe, the Ladas, and longtime Green Things employee Michelle Brosius to launch a bold new enterprise called the Green Things Farm Collective.
"We realized that together we could be something greater than we are as individuals," Jill says. "Such a weight has been lifted from my shoulders!"
The partners will unite their popular businesses under one brand, with each farmer focusing on a certain set of responsibilities. Weber, who writes beautifully and loves interacting with the public, will handle marketing. "To separate yourself from the organic products people can buy at the supermarket, you have to sell your story," she says.
The collective plans to increase production and adopt an online ordering platform called "Barn 2 Door." They will begin implementing "no-till" farming and will roll out a full schedule of summer celebrations in 2020.
"Most farmers end up tying up all of their assets into the farm, because they are making such a low wage all their lives," says Nate Lada. When it's time to retire, there are few good options--sell the farm to developers or allow their heirs to take over. But without liquid assets farmers are stuck, and their heirs have to support them.
The genius of Green Things Farm Collective is flexibility. "What we are creating is a model that has a clear transition into business ownership and also has clearly defined ways to leave ownership," Nate explains. "In the short term, Jill and I maintain ownership of the land and the infrastructure but have a perpetual lease to the collective to farm here. In the medium to long term, if this is a successful model, we would sell the land to the collective, and Jill and I would have assets to retire. Built into this is a valuation process so that if anyone wants to leave they can be bought out." Their multimember LLC is the only one they know of that joins together preexisting farm businesses.
The collective can look to White Lotus Farms for inspiration. Located on W. Liberty a few miles from downtown Ann Arbor, White Lotus began as a small organic vegetable farm founded by Lama Traktung Rinpoche (Stuart Kirkpatrick) as a way to support his Buddhist community. One of their members, Trinle Tsomo, is a baker, and the beautiful loaves he turned out of their little oven were an instant sensation. As the bread business grew, they bought a few goats and added a creamery. Then Trinle's wife, Jessica, started a line of Ayurvedic body products.
Business has bloomed since the pivot from vegetables to value-added products. All are marketed under the White Lotus brand, and profits are shared.
Stephanie Willette and her husband, Taik Fountaine, own a diversified vegetable, flower, and animal farm in Grass Lake called Two Tracks Acres. As the couple approach the ten-year mark in their operation, Willette is taking a bold step: she's leaving her job as manager of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market to farm full-time.
"Having an off-farm job was key to this process," she explains. "It allowed us to pay off debt and buy land while we built up our markets and figured out what worked." But between the farm and her city job, she felt "torn in two directions." The couple also have a toddler, further dividing her time and attention. While other farmers are taking off-farm work in the winter, Willette is looking forward to focusing her efforts on her business and her family.
By 2017, Sunseed's CSA had 100-plus shares, fifteen acres in cultivation, tons of equipment, an eight-person crew, and seven hoops. But we were on the ropes. Sunseed was overly reliant on CSA sales, and we paid higher salaries than we could rightly afford. Our farm wasn't powered by grandparents invisibly balancing the books with free childcare. And you can charge only so much for vegetables.
"People don't want to pay [well] for the things that they need, like vegetables, because they consider it to be a right," says Weber. "They pay for the things that they want. That's why flowers are lucrative."
I cofounded the Michigan Flower Growers' Cooperative in 2016 with Alex Cacciari and Amanda Maurmann. I had hoped to move more of Sunseed's production in that direction, but ended up parting ways with Tomm and the farm instead. The farm closed the following year, as did several other small farms that started around the same time.
While there are more ways to buy local food than ever before, farmers are coming up against the limits of the local food market. There are new farmers' markets but none of them is packed, selling CSA shares is a constant hustle, and moving product to restaurants at prices and volumes that are realistic is a challenge. With mass-produced organic food increasingly cheap and widely available at supermarkets, many health-conscious shoppers are happy to look no further.
If small is beautiful, then small farmers may have to be content with reaching a limited market, and there may never be more than a handful that make it. But if the goal is to have a sizable portion of our food grown on local farms, then those farms will have to scale up--and markets will have to open up.
Next month: some innovative strategies that farmers and institutions are using to help expand the market for locally grown food.
[Originally published in February, 2020.]
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