Growing Lansing's Food Future
If you like springtime in Michigan, you've got good reason to be jealous of the farmer-students at the MSU Student Organic Farm
When it was 32 degrees outside, it was spring inside the farm’s six hoop houses—greenhouses constructed of hoops covered by heavy, shiny white plastic. These folks have been sharing the warm air with rows of growing spinach, lettuce, cilantro, bright green, leafy kale and glossy green chard for months.
Student farmers tended plants all winter long, providing organic greens to an MSU dorm and other local businesses. Through a popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation
, the Student Organic Farm (SOF) also distributes weekly selections of the farm’s produce year- round to those who have purchased a share—enough food to feed a carnivorous family of four, or two hungry vegetarians.
The CSA is sold out, and the waiting list to purchase a share is two years long—about 200 names. And it grows every season.
“This area has a huge demand that is totally underserved,” says Michigan native Tomm Becker
, who manages the SOF. “We have so many farmers markets
and so many people who want fresh organic food. We just don’t have enough farmers.”
But Becker and his colleagues expect that to change.New Crop
Thirteen people, ranging from 23 to 56 years old, make up this year’s SOF cohort. After a year of classes and fieldwork, and an internship, the students will receive certificates in Organic Farming
Most of the students are women. They come from the east, west and north coasts. Most have spent time out-of-state and out-of-country in places like California, Manhattan, Colorado, Scotland, Guatemala, Dallas, and Ghana. Many grew up here, went away and boomeranged their way back to Michigan. They share an entrepreneurial spirit, a desire for self-sufficiency and a need to contribute.
“After they graduated from college, all my friends left Michigan. So did I,” says boomerang Lauren Bonney
, who observed the trends while living in California. She saw this was the time to come home and become a part of the SOF. “People thought I was crazy to leave a $40,000 a year job.”
“That lifestyle is draining—it’s not rewarding, it’s not sustainable, says Indiana native Rachel Beyer
. "It’s not even worthwhile.” Beyer is working on a degree in sociology, international studies, and contemporary dance. “I needed to find a different way to live and be self-sufficient, where all the parts of my life are connected. That’s farming. Farming is life.” Mary Kirsch
, 56, grew up in Detroit and came to the program after farming potatoes in Maine. But for many years, her work life was devoted to General Motors
. “I liked my job at the proving grounds. It was grueling toward the end because the cuts were so deep I was doing the work four people used to do. I’d go home at 5:00 and then go back. It was killing me. To relax, I gardened,” she shrugs. “When they cut our whole group, I felt a tinge of relief because I knew I never would have left on my own. It was a huge paycheck, but I sacrificed a lot of my life for it.”
“This is a unique, intense program,” says Denae Friedheim
. Originally from Texas, she relocated from Chicago to study public health at the University of Michigan when she stumbled onto the SOF. “It’s academic and it’s hands-on. We’re also concerned with the issues of social justice and responsibility that surround food.”
If you spend any time with this diverse group, you understand why the Capital region is the place to be for these organic entrepreneurs. They advocate expanding the growing season by using hoop houses, and for re-shaping our relationship to food production by revitalizing small farms and converting former industrial sites to growing spaces.
“Michigan is well-positioned for leading the change to small organic farm production,” says Corie Pierce
, instructor and farm manager. "California’s having so many problems, and that’s where we get all our food in the winter."
Pierce grew up in New Hampshire. After teaching in California, she has settled here. “Michigan has all this land, all these people, and all this water. We have the formula. And we have the really simple hoop house technology so we can even grow vegetables in the winter.”Making it in Michigan
“Michigan is an important model. The increasing expertise here for four-season growing will contribute to the food security of the rest of the world,” says Joanna Lehrman
, who is from New York and found the program after graduating from Hunter College with a degree in anthropology.
“Agriculture revitalizes communities in both rural and urban areas," she says. "Small organic farms are a viable alternative to agribusiness as economic development. They create new jobs. You need skilled labor, connections to policy and land. It’s all here. There are lots of possibilities.”
The students in this program have high hopes: farming their own land; educating others about where their food comes from and how to produce it; and attracting other entrepreneurs to create small farms that will employ people in producing food for their community. Most of them would bring their dreams to fruition in the Capital region if they could.
“People come back—intentionally—to create a community,” says Lehrman.
Bonney summarizes their enthusiasm for the future. “This community is flourishing and growing. It’s a bright spot in the state and we’re part of this amazing thing we can take with us.”
So how do we keep the newly cultivated farming talent here?
“The greatest difficulty is in raising capital,” says Becker. “But the opportunity exists for cooperation to make that happen. We have a lot of good examples of communities establishing CSAs
, who buy land and hire a farmer. We need leaders to take on the challenge, people willing to take a risk and [we need] more farmers.”
Pierce believes the Capital region could become the center of sustainable local food production efforts. She sums up her advice to the certificate class of 2009: “Find land. Farm here. We have a market. I can hand it to you.”You can find a short documentary on the 2007 SOF with Tomm Becker, farm manager, right here, and another short film about the SOF here.And if you think you'd like to join the SFO as a summer farm crew member, dig up the application here. To receive Capital Gains free every week, click here.
Rebecca Stimson is a local freelance writer who grew up on an old farm and eats organic whenever it’s available.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Plants getting started at the farm
Members work in the gardens
Tomm Becker demonstrates gardening techniques
A wall mural illustrates the gardens philosophy
Tomm Becker with one of the farms organic chickens
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie