A farmer looks to put down roots.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the May, 2021 issue
For several years, early on any Saturday morning between April and November, Ryan Padgett could be seen pedaling his bicycle down Pontiac Tr., pulling a cart loaded with heirloom vegetables behind him. He'd follow the Border-to-Border Trail along the Huron River to the Ypsilanti Farmers Market in Depot Town, where a dedicated community of supporters collected their share of the produce of Radicle Roots Community Farm.
Padgett, thirty-five, speaks of soil conditions and seeds the way others might speak of football statistics or stock futures. "There's nothing like the feeling of working for yourself and working for the land," he says. "I have a lot of passions: the preservation of genetics for heirloom crops, contributing to a healthy food community, working outdoors, and carrying on a family tradition. I'm lucky enough to be able to pursue them."
But Padgett is also, in his own words, "land insecure." Radicle Roots is a farm business without a farm. The "incubator" where it started closed unexpectedly two years ago, forcing him to scramble to find growing space.
He allows that the farm's name might have foreshadowed such challenges. "A radicle is the part of a plant embryo that develops into the primary root," he says. "And I might have played on the idea of modern-day farming being a radical decision."
Farming is rooted deep in his family's history: both sets of grandparents farmed in Illinois, one raising corn, soybeans, and wheat, the other livestock. But his parents aren't farmers, and growing up in southwest Michigan, he had never planned to become one.
That changed after he graduated from Michigan State in 2008. The Great Recession was just getting started, and he found few job opportunities in his field, interpersonal communications.
"Like a lot of recent graduates, I got restaurant gigs to pay my bills," he says. On the side, he managed the Grand Rapids YMCA Healthy U program, which taught kids the value of healthy eating and physical activity. And he became
friends with a produce farmer who delivered organic vegetables to the restaurant and took the restaurant's garbage for compost.
"A light bulb came on," he says. "When I heard about farm opportunities in California, I was inspired to 'go WWOOFing.'"
Padgett interned with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms for three years. In exchange for food and education, he raised 20,000 tomato plants, plus lettuce, broccoli, kale, and leafy greens on a farm in Chico. In Vina, he raised and hand-cracked English walnuts. In Boonville, he learned the art of biodynamic production for heirloom varieties and completely diversified vegetables--as well as working on orchards, raising goats and pigs, and making cheese. His final stop was in Willow Creek, where he worked with George Stevens, a seed preservationist who launched the Synergy Seed Exchange.
Inspired by Stevens, Padgett applied to farm incubator programs around the country, with his fingers crossed that he could find one in his home state.
He did. In 2014, Padgett joined Tilian Farm Development Center in Ann Arbor Township. For initial seed money of $600 (later raised to $1,800), Tilian gave a dozen or so new farmers access to fields, hoop houses, greenhouses, a historic barn, equipment, and expertise. Padgett hauled his harvests down Pontiac Tr. to his community supported agriculture (CSA) customers in Depot Town.
But two years ago, Tilian closed so abruptly that Padgett was caught with crops still in the ground. "Unfortunately, the fields and facilities did not produce any food last year," he says. He was forced to suspend his CSA as he regrouped on a smaller scale, putting a hoop house on the one-acre lot where he lives and renting several other small plots around town.
But his customers didn't forget him. "This winter I had former customers call and ask me to sign them up for my CSAs," he says.
Padgett says his specialties are "heirloom head lettuce, tomatoes, watermelons, root vegetables, melons, and winter greens." On principle, he plants only heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.
"In the 1940s, commercial seed companies shifted from offering exclusively open-pollinated seeds to offering primarily hybrid seeds that couldn't be saved from season to season," he explains. "Farmers had to buy new seed every year. And then in the 1990s, GMO--genetically modified organism--seeds appeared. The world has lost between 70 and 90 percent of [food crops'] genetic diversity since the 1940s."
That's why Padgett says he feels "compelled to help preserve historic varieties. Without them the history of food is erased. When I look at a Speckled Head Lettuce, I still marvel that this Dutch variety dates back to the 1600s--and, remarkably, it has somehow survived into the present." He adds with laughter in his voice, "If that story doesn't move you, the superior flavor will."
He can trace his tomatoes' lineage back more than a century. "I get most of them from Seed Savers Exchange and small, regional seed companies," he says, "and I sell to people who understand their value."
One such customer is about to purchase a farm in Milan, and has offered Padgett the use of its fields. They're in negotiations now.
"My goal is to own my own farm property one day," he says. "Farming is much more than making money--and if someone is in it for the money, they need to reconsider their decision quickly.
"Covid convinced a lot of people to try their hand at gardening--and that's great. But YouTube programs promised watchers they could make a half-million dollars by throwing a few seeds on their side lot. People who believe that are in for a rude awakening. It takes a lot of education and knowledge of soil and seeds and weather conditions just to put food on your table, let alone start a thriving business."
He adds, "Organic vegetable farming is essentially an anti-capitalist movement. It challenges the corporate nature of the industrial food system with its focus on feeding the world, rejuvenating the farm community, and promoting environmental sustainability.
"The focus is not on getting rich. But those who stick with it find great rewards in self-reliance. We can feed ourselves and our community, save our own seeds, and save the future. The only laws we have to contend with are nature's laws. That's a great feeling."
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