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Programs Grow Local Food, New Farmers

Young people learning, embracing entrepreneurial agriculture

July 21, 2008 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Emily Bingham
  Teens interning in the Little Artshram-Institute entrepreneurial agriculture program got hands-on experience when they visited Meadowlark Farms in Leelanau County.

TRAVERSE CITY—It was a picture perfect July day when teenagers Molly Fish, Chris Steffs, and Carmen Ortiz, traveling Leelanau County’s rural back roads, arrived at Meadowlark Farm. Blue skies. A slight breeze.

Farmer Jenny Tutlis greeted them with a smile as she knelt clipping flowers destined for bouquet sales at local grocery stores.

Molly, Chris, and Carmen, part of a pilot youth entrepreneur project, are growing food in 16 garden beds at a community garden located on the grounds of the closed Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital, right in the heart of this small city. They’re selling produce at a farmers market and to a restaurant—both located on the redeveloping property—and, soon, to low income families who will receive discount coupons through local human service agencies.

The three are part of a growing trend both here and across the country: Agriculturally oriented youth programs are raising a new generation interested in farming at a time when the average age of farmers is 55. The kids in these programs get some hands-in-the-dirt experience in the hard work, ecological smarts, and marketing savvy it takes for success in a growing new local food economy. And in many cases they are linking financially strapped families to good, healthy food.

In the Grand Traverse region, such efforts are attracting growing interest not just from farmers, but from business development experts, educators, chambers of commerce, grocers, restaurateurs and other food retailers who view rebuilding a strong, local food economy as an important way to boost quality of life, bring more jobs to the area, keep more farms in business, and curb sprawling development patterns that threaten the region’s beauty.

The three teens are participating in a program sponsored by two nonprofit organizations based in the area--Little Artshram and the Michigan Land Use Institute--in coordination with the region's vocational high school. It is one of several projects in the Grand Traverse region now connecting young people to agriculture.

The three, along with five younger students who are also part of the same program, got to see how it’s done at one of the area’s most successful small farms. Lou Blouin, their garden mentor, watched as they gazed at row after row of garlic, onions, broccoli, Swiss chard, kale—just about every vegetable one could hope to eat. The kids garden about 1,500 square feet of space, while Meadowlark farms a space about 200 times that size.

"It’s a little bigger scale, huh?" Lou said to them, as they divided up into groups to weed onions or pick peas.

Growing Youthful Enterprise
While Meadowlark might be larger in scale than a community garden plot, it’s actually a small farm by 1,000-acre Iowa corn field standards, and even compared to the 100-acre cherry and apple orchards that enhance the Traverse City region’s landscape. But its success taps into the growing interest among many people across the country to buy food from family farmers whose faces or stories they know and growing practices they trust.

Jenny Tutlis and her Meadowlark partner, Jon Watts, are two of those farmers. They grow enough food on just seven acres to feed 200 families who pay a lump sum in advance of each growing season for weekly boxes full of different fruits and vegetables. The two growers have 10 full- and part-time employees. And, like other so-called "community supported agriculture" farms here, Meadowlark has a waiting list.

"I definitely feel the demand is there," Ms. Tutlis said. "People’s consciousness about eating local food is really high right now."

Ms. Tutlis recommends young people intrigued by the idea of farming do just what Molly, Chris, and Carmen are doing now—get some hands-on experience and mentoring. She and Jon apprenticed on farms before starting their own.

"It is really important to learn as much as you can from being on other people’s farms," she said. "And you might start small. It might be a community garden spot."

Ms. Tutlis, in fact, is a member of an organization called CSA-MI , for Community Supported Agriculture in Michigan; it has been a leader in conferences and mini-schools for aspiring CSA farmers.

In many youth entrepreneur programs, a wide variety of community organizations, farmers, and businesses collaborate to provide learning opportunities. That’s the case in Traverse City, which has a community garden coordinated by the nonprofit Little Artshram, which also runs a garden, nature study, and art summer camp there.

The non-profit Michigan Land Use Institute, which operates a program and publishes a local farm food guide and Web site called Taste the Local Difference that promote farms as an important part of the regional and state economy, partners with the camp to create the entrepreneur program. It uses grant and sponsorship funds from Michigan’s W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and local employer Hagerty Insurance. Other businesses and individuals donate everything from seedlings to bags for the market.

The Institute also runs another program, in collaboration with agencies such as MSU Extension and the Small Business and Technology Development Center, called Get Farming! It links beginning farmers to resources such as business planning assistance, workshops in cool-season greenhouse production, and field trips to successful farms—all open to the youth entrepreneurs.

Molly, Chris, and Carmen, meanwhile, came to the summer project from the agriculture and natural resources program at the Traverse Bay Area Career Tech Center, where teacher Anna Blight is expanding her program from landscape plants and poinsettias to include food production. The returning students—Chris just graduated—will take back to the school what they learned over the summer. And joining them in the garden, on field trips, and at markets are five other kids who are younger and who apprentice kids younger still in the camp—and one of the camp apprentices now is inspired to attend Career Tech.

Learn By Doing
The Career Tech Center, Little Artshram and Institute programs are not the only ones in the Grand Traverse region. Another, slightly different, is coordinated by the Kalkaska County MSU Extension office. There, members of the Forest Area 4-H Entrepreneurs Club pick and buy produce at area farms and sell the products at five different farmers markets.

Over three years they’ve learned some tricks of the trade—the fine art of "schmoozing," how to create displays that draw in customers, and how to price products.

Last week, Jim Harper, Kalkaska Extension Director, and Shawn Morgan, one of the students who started the youth farm stand program, traveled 30 miles west to Traverse City to meet Molly, Chris, and Carmen and share what they’ve learned.

"We will talk about the tomato scare (dangerous salmonella contamination of nationally distributed tomatoes) and explain where our tomatoes are from and how they are grown," Shawn told them, sitting with them under a big maple tree near the garden. The tomatoes they sell come from nearby Zenner Farm, and that comforts customers.

They try for a mark-up of at least 50 cents over what they pay farmers for the product—after all, they have to pay for gas, pint boxes, and their labor; but they also scope out prices at the market and at grocery stores.

And they create colorful displays intermixing boxes of fruits and vegetables of different hues, providing a visual treat that encourages purchases of multiple items. They group boxes of products that go well together in dishes, such as potatoes and onions. And they find that setting their display table at an angle creates a sense of abundance that draws people in.

How’d they learn that? Tight space at a crowded market forced them into that angle once.

"It’s just trial and error," Shawn said with a laugh.

The Taste of Success
At Meadowlark Farm the kids learned what else is important to customers—flavor.

Farm employee Berkely Gossett led them to the rows of peas, where sugar snap peas were ready to pick—or at least some were.

"Take a bite," he told the group of kids who’d tagged along with him rather than weed the onions. "This one is a little flat—the pea isn’t formed in it yet. You get a lot of crunch and water, but it’s not sweet. And you want sweet. It’s a sugar snap, right?"

After tasting a plump pea, they knew the difference, and hands twined in among the peas to firmly pull the ones bursting with flavor.

Molly, meanwhile, helped herself to a juicy strawberry next to the onions she was weeding.

"I love doing this physical work," she said, as she pulled a sunflower seedling that had sprouted among the onions.

She looked at Lou, her garden mentor. He used to volunteer at Meadowlark. "How do you work here?" she asked him.

"You call Jon and Jen and apply for a job," Lou said with a smile.

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and former farmers market master, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s farm-to-school program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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