Kate Long won’t plant the first seeds at her new Deer Tracks Farm in Ann Arbor Township till next year. But she’s already got a gaggle of potential customers for her organic vegetables–as well as volunteer workers.

“Whenever I tell people I’m a farmer, they want to know how they can help me,” she says, sounding a little surprised. “They want to get their hands dirty.”

It’s a great time to be starting a small farm in Washtenaw County. Demand for food grown nearby is exploding. Stores and restaurants, co-ops, buying clubs, and families are making extra efforts to find local food–and paying substantially more for it.

This isn’t just a trend–it’s the local food movement. Its members are so enthusiastic that they literally go looking for farmers–and even offer tax dollars or free labor to help get them started.

Long, now thirty-two, was an organic agriculture student at Michigan State when a group of officials from Ann Arbor Township visited her class to promote the township’s small farm initiative. They helped her find ten acres of land to lease, and they plan to tap the township’s open-space millage to purchase the development rights to the property. That would make it possible for Long to buy it in a few years at a much reduced cost.

She’s planning to grow a wide variety of vegetables, plant fruit trees, cultivate flowers for cutting, and keep beehives and egg-laying organic chickens. Through the system known as “community-supported agriculture” (CSA), she’ll ask customers to pay up front for shares of whatever she grows. Though she won’t plant her crops till spring 2011, she’s already selling shares in the first harvest; the buyers will literally provide her seed money.

Long is part of the movement too. “I want people to come out to the farm,” she says. “I want to have educational workshops so that people can learn canning and preserving. I want to have workdays. I want it to be part of a larger community.”

Long doesn’t come from a farm family–she grew up in Livonia. She’s part of a new generation of farmers whose motives are more ethical or political than economic. Overwhelmingly college educated, and substantially female, they’re on a mission to reconnect the land and its fruits with consumers.

In the minds of its most enthusiastic proponents, the local food movement is going to transform the agricultural landscape–away from monoculture crops sold into the international food system and toward a patchwork quilt of smaller farms producing a huge variety of natural food sold directly to a growing community of “locavores.”

It’s a dream that seems to be starting to come true–if you look at Long’s unfolding story and the explosion of local food activities and organizations. But even under the most optimistic locavore scenario, the vast majority of Washtenaw farmland will still be planted in commodity crops sold on global markets. And those farmers, too, love the land and believe in their work.

A hungry market

“Ten years ago most of the farmers sold off roadside stands,” recalls Judy Radant, a Chelsea resident since 1948 and a culinary arts instructor at Washtenaw Community College. “Now they have many other outlets.”

A CSA is like a roadside stand with really committed customers. Community Farm of Ann Arbor, near Chelsea, was one of the first to try the CSA model locally–and twenty years later, it’s still one of the largest and most successful. Today, it’s estimated that there are more than two dozen CSAs in this area–including ones specializing in meat, dairy, bread, frozen foods, prepared foods, and winter greens.

They–and their customers–want to escape the industrial agriculture deplored in books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and films like Food, Inc. The locavore gospel sees the conventional food system as rotten to the core–driven solely by profit, producing food laced with harmful additives, using methods that are inhumane to animals and destructive to the environment. It holds that foods grown nearby and eaten in season are healthier for people and the planet.

You can see the movement in action every Thursday morning in Chelsea, where foodies gather for the “Yellow Door” breakfast. Area cooks volunteer to make dishes from local food products–and dozens of people show up to donate $10-$12 apiece to consume them. It’s a taste-good, feel-good event–participants support local food suppliers while sharing a healthy meal and avid conversation with like-minded folks.

The actual yellow door is the entrance to Todd and Janice Ortbring’s home on Harrison. On a wintry morning, the sizzle and warm smell of sausage, hash, pancakes, and porridge fill the house. The ingredients are supplied by a hodgepodge of area farms–Back Forty Acres, Tantre Farm, Four Corners Creamery, Westwind Milling Company–plus a rotating cast of local coffee roasters. About thirty people usually show up; on New Year’s Eve, when chef Craig Common made breakfast, a record eighty-five came to eat.

Jane Pacheco, Yellow Door’s main force, estimates she spends about three hours a week gathering the food. It’s easy, she says, because many farmers are friends and neighbors, and some will bring goods to her door. Other items can be bought at the Chelsea Market, which keeps expanding its line of local foods.

The breakfast is a recruiting station for the movement. Dawn Thompson, a newcomer to Chelsea, says that in the six months that Yellow Door has been operating, organizers have added twenty members to a buying club, Raisin River Co-op, whose truck delivers farm products weekly to the parking lot outside Chelsea Lanes.

Yellow Door’s profits go to Chelsea Community Kitchen, a new nonprofit that aims to incubate local food producers. Its goal is to lease space by the hour, starting sometime this year, in a commercial kitchen–so that would-be businesspeople can test recipes before committing to the huge expense of building their own licensed kitchens. Bernadette Malinoski, board president, says thirty entrepreneurs have already expressed interest.

Despite the growing network of connections, Pacheco says it’s far from enough: “The challenge is linking farmers to consumers. We need to make it easier to get goods to market, so that farmers can make more money.”

Big dreams

Yellow Door is modeled after Friday Mornings at SELMA, a wildly popular Friday morning event held weekly since February 2009 in the Ann Arbor home of Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe. The gathering routinely draws close to 100 people who toss in a $12-$15 donation to sample dishes cooked by a rotating cast of local chefs.

The breakfast is a buzzing nest of activist networking and an ongoing locavore fund-raiser with ambitious aims. In its first spring and summer it raised enough money to build two hoop houses, one in Detroit and one for Webster Township startup farmers Tomm and Trilby Becker.

Hoop houses are passive solar greenhouses built directly over the soil. They allow farmers to extend the growing season and cultivate cool-weather crops like greens and carrots almost year round, giving locavores a winter alternative to canned and preserved foods.

A passel of volunteers helped build the Becker hoop house last fall. Tomm Becker says “there’s a big market” for winter salad greens, adding “season extension is a specialty of ours–we want to grow everything we can at this point in this climate.”

He’s a true romantic. “It’s a wonderful thing to do,” he says, “very humbling and yet very empowering to me, just giving [seeds] water and surrendering myself to the weather and the faith of seeding, and being able to steward so many living things.” Like other movement farmers, he speaks of the joys of “connecting with people through food.”

Becker hopes to help future growers spread that joy. He wants to “build a really successful business on this property and then buy a larger chunk of land somewhere else and turn this land over to other farms. And allow it to be a spot where farmers can come and learn over a couple of years, and then turn it over to other new farmers.”

Becker’s ambitions are modest next to Jeff McCabe’s. A movement proselytizer and self-styled visionary, McCabe recently wrote a manifesto for a campaign called “Eat 10 for Your Town.” Its goal is to get residents of Washtenaw County, who now consume less than 1 percent of their diet from local farmers, to increase that to 10 percent by the year 2020. McCabe figures that would “result in over $90 million in direct economic activity” with a “back-of-the-envelope” estimate of 750 new small farms employing 3,000 workers on more than 8,000 acres.

It’s a big dream–and a long way to go. According to the updated 2009 Michigan Food and Agricultural Systems Profiles, there currently are 1,300 farms in Washtenaw County, with 166,811 total acres. But of those, only twenty-six are organic farms and together those work a combined 267 acres.

Sharing the land

The biggest obstacle to creating more locavore farms is getting the land itself. “You can’t be out in the middle of nowhere,” Kate Long says, because there aren’t enough custumers nearby. But around Ann Arbor, Chelsea, and other towns inhabited by locavores, “the prices of land are astronomical,” Long says. “We’re only going so far if we can’t get the land.”

As McCabe points out, the federal government pays agribusiness to grow–or sometimes not to grow–commodity crops. Such subsidized farmers, he sneers, are “on the dole.” In contrast, help for organic startups is miniscule.

Ann Arbor Township’s small farms initiative is one promising exception. Perched on Ann Arbor’s doorstep, the township has long sought to limit development and preserve its rural character. Supported by a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, the initiative aims to make the township “the state’s premier location for the establishment of small farm operations.” Consultant Barry Lonik says there are fifteen to twenty small parcels available right now that the program wants to get in the hands of small farmers. In addition, the township itself owns 150 acres, much of it occupied with conventional corn, wheat, and soybean production–but some of it is suitable for slicing off into organic farms.

When Ann Arbor voters approved a 2003 millage to purchase land to create a “greenbelt,” the intent was to preserve open space as a buffer against development–not to promote any particular kind of farming. At the moment, the nearly 1,000 acres of farmland under greenbelt protection are used for growing traditional row crops. Last year, however, responding to locavores, the city’s greenbelt advisory commission amended its acquisition scoring system to give extra points to farms that sell their crops locally.

The influx of enthusiastic young growers is coming just in time. The percentage of Americans who work the land has fallen in every census since the first, in 1790. According to the 2007 federal Census of Agriculture, from 2002 to 2007 the number of farm operators age seventy-five and over grew by 20 percent and the number age twenty-five and under decreased 30 percent. Yet so far, agriculture’s new generation owes less to governmental leadership than to innovations by the farmers themselves.

Farmers have always helped one another, but Kris Hirth has established an extraordinarily extensive network of business relationships. Her Old Pine Farm in Sharon Township is only eleven acres–yet nearly 100 people buy shares in her meat CSA. In its fifth year, the CSA includes buyers of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck, and even emu and bison.

As a youngster, Hirth used to visit her grandfather’s farm south of Hillsdale–and she always wanted to raised livestock. In the late 1990s, her two sons got into 4-H and started showing animals. That propelled Hirth to start raising hogs, selling freezer meat in bulk. It “kind of evolved” from there, she says. (Her sons, now seventeen and twenty, still help Hirth on the farm.)

Today, she leases fifteen acres from one farmer–and forty acres from another as pasture for her cattle. She grows hay along with Leonard McCullough, a member of an old farm family near Chelsea. In the winter, Hirth’s sheep graze at her father’s fifty-acre farm near Saline. She and Amish farmer David Stuckey, whose spread is near Homer, mix their own feed from oats, corn, soy, and vitamins and minerals.

Hirth sells about thirty or thirty-five hogs in a year, has about thirty head of cattle, and raises and sells 300 to 400 chickens. As a self-professed animal lover who raises livestock for consumption, she’s sometimes caught between conflicting value systems.

When she started raising pigs, she had three of them under a tree. As demand grew and she got more pigs, she put them in an eight-acre fenced compound. While she knew her customers wanted “free-range” meat, she had misgivings.

“I thought, ‘What have I done? I’ve ruined my pork,'” she laughs. “But in fact, the meat tasted much better that year. My customers like it too. And the pigs are a lot happier. I put a sprinkler out there, and they run around in the mud.”

Mixed messages

Even if Jeff McCabe’s vision of 750 new small farms were realized, he estimates, the “food dense” spreads would take up only 5 percent of the county’s agricultural land. But the local foods bandwagon is so attractive that even many traditional farmers are climbing aboard.

Forty years ago, a young married couple, Pat and Ken Huling, bought twenty acres of land in York Township. Ken was a full-time tool engineer; Pat added to the family income by growing vegetables. For years, they drove down to Detroit’s Eastern Market on Saturday mornings–but often came home with unsold produce. They also didn’t do that well at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market–Pat says back then “you had to be in the in-crowd to make money there.”

In the mid-1990s, the farm income got so meager that Pat stopped farming. But a few years ago, she resumed, offering shares in a CSA. Ken was retiring, and they needed the extra income. With fifty or more members buying shares up front in their Valley Family Farm, the uncertainty has eased, though Pat points out, “you do have to produce what you advertise.” This year, she’s adding herbs to the mix.

This time around, Pat farms differently: her customers want pesticide-free veggies, so she’s put the Roundup on the shelf and learned how to use fish emulsion for fertilizer and vinegar to kill off broadleaf weeds.

Other local farmers have tried to appeal to a changing market as well. At the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, Hannewald Lamb has a large banner above its stall.

“All natural,” it says. “Locally grown. Antibiotic free. Hormone free.”

The farm in Stockbridge has been in Rex Hannewald’s family since the 1880s. By 1963 the family was raising 1,500 head of sheep and lamb a year. In 1996 and 1997 they expanded and sold to bigger markets. Then five years ago, they changed again, to focus more on local sales–Rex’s wife, Judi, says they wanted more control than they had when they were “at the mercy of commercial buyers.” More control, she says, means better control of price and quality and attending better to the well-being of animals.

Asked at the market one day how they raise their lambs, Judi says “we raise them healthy, and we make sure they’re happy.” Asked what they’re fed, she answers: “They’re grass-fed,” then pauses and adds “for 75 percent of their lives. In the last three to six months we feed them grain, to fatten them up and help with the taste, because that’s what the restaurants want–we serve five restaurants in town.”

After further inquiries, Hannewald discloses that the farm buys “feeder lambs” from all over, including California and the Dakotas as well as other places in Michigan, and “we finish them” at Hannewald Farms. Do they eat grass at the farm? “No,” she says. “We don’t have enough room on our farm to pasture them.” They are using twenty acres of the original farm for their lamb operation, where the animals live in stalls in a large barn until they are sufficiently fattened to be taken to a USDA-approved slaughterhouse.

Kris Hirth says locavore townsfolk are often naive about farming.

“They don’t have a clue,” she says. “They’re making assumptions about how animals are raised just because they’re local. They’re not asking whether they are confined or pastured. They just think, ‘I’m getting a good product.’

“If you want locally raised, if that’s all you’re looking for, you can find it.”

On the producer side, Hirth says some farmers feel defensive in the current atmosphere, where local food advocates use loaded words to condemn their traditional practices.

“There’s resentment out there among some of the industrial farmers that are growing 100 acres of corn for sale elsewhere,” Hirth says. “They feel attacked. They’re just trying to make a living and mass-produce in ways that can compete on the market–and they do know what they’re doing.”

Traditional farming also has its own idealists.

“I’ll farm until the day I die. There’s no question about it,” says John Broesamle. “That’s who I am, and what I am. There’s not a better way, there’s not a more honorable way to make a living.”

At thirty-two, Broesamle is the same age as Kate Long. He grew up on a farm near Chelsea where his father and uncle raised cattle, hogs, and chicken, and grew corn, wheat, and hay as cash crops on 300 acres. In addition to farming, his father, who died a few years ago, worked forty-two years at a feed mill.

On his mother’s side, he is a fourth-generation farmer. His grandfather started Lutz Orchards near Saline in the late 1920s. Another uncle raised hogs and some sheep on eighty acres. Broesamle bought land next door, where he raises corn, beans, wheat, oats, and alfalfa on seventy-five tillable acres. He continues to help with his family’s other operations as well–they got out of the hog business a few years back, but still have dairy cattle and the orchard and grow conventional cash crops.

As far as agricultural practices go, “we haven’t changed a lot,” Broesamle says. But even this traditional farm family is responding to interest in locally grown food. Customers who want to pick their own apples once had to wait till mid-October for access to Lutz Orchards; now the you-pick season starts around Labor Day. Customers seeking a closer connection can even buy the harvest from an individual tree.

The family is seeking to get its lamb “verified,” he says, with a certificate from the Michigan Department of Agriculture for compliance with certain minimum standards of environmentally sound farm practices. That would “show that we’re being proactive and environmentally conscious,” he says. “It does help the image that we are trying to be environmentally friendly.”

As chairman of the Washtenaw Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers, Broesamle thinks conventional farmers should become better at promoting their own methods of raising animals, even if they aren’t free-range or organic.

“We need to get the word out that we care for our animals too,” he says. “Our farm and our animals–that’s our livelihood. Without them we can’t survive.”

Locavores’ eagerness to pay $12 for an organic breakfast is a testament to their desire for an alterative to conventional food systems. But Broesamle is quite sure that this country “produces the safest, lowest-cost food in the world.”

He thinks the locavore demand is limited–at least at the prices small producers have to charge. The “produce guys” may be able to tap a “niche market” for locally grown food, he says, but he doesn’t think commercial growers will be much affected. “There are producers who can be profitable on a small scale, and you’ll see more and more of that, but for someone in a mainstream crop operation, it’s not profitable.”

It’s not that Broesamle wouldn’t like to see more local markets. He and other local farmers are talking to Chelsea Milling about buying more local grain. For decades, the company that makes Jiffy Mix has preferred using white wheat–which grows best in drier climates–to the locally grown red wheat. If that changes, local wheat growers will be delighted.

But it doesn’t bother Broesamle at all that most locally grown crops are sold outside the county. “There’s an ethanol plant in Riga, near Blissfield–a lot of corn goes down there,” he says. “Soybeans might go to the soybean-crushing plant in Fostoria, Ohio. A lot of wheat goes to Nabisco, in Ohio.

“A lot of our grains go to a terminal at Ottawa Lake, near Toledo. They may end up on a barge going overseas.”

As Broesamle sees it, that might be exactly where the grain he grows can do the most good: “China and India are the fastest-growing countries in the world, and they don’t produce enough food to feed their own people.”

In the end, he says, “it doesn’t matter where in the world I’m sending my product, to feed animals or humans. The good Lord put me here for a purpose, and that’s to provide for my fellow man.”

Kim Bayer and Anita Sherman helped with research and interviews for this story.