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City Kids and Country Pies

Up North farmer, downstate friar team up on fresh food

March 4, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Rick Samyn

Bernie Ware stirs an organic strawberry filling during his pie-making demonstration at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit.

Bernie Ware’s farm on the corner of Alkire Road and US 31 is one of northern Manistee County’s unmistakable landmarks. The sign by the highway changes with the growing seasons, announcing fresh asparagus in early spring, strawberries in summer, and lettuce in the late fall. Mr. Ware’s 175-acre farm grows such a diverse line of fresh food that residents throughout the region seek him out for top quality produce.

Yet even though Mr. Ware and his wife, Sandee, live just three miles north of tiny Bear Lake, and sell their abundance primarily to people who live close by, the Wares have the city on their minds.

Just last weekend Mr. Ware traveled 250 miles to Detroit to visit Brother Rick Samyn, a Franciscan friar who works at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen there. His mission was a pleasant one: Showing city kids how to bake wholesome, low-sugar pies with whole grains and the organic fresh strawberries and cherries that he and another area farmer grow and freeze for winter sales.

But there was also something of a business component to his Detroit trip. Mr. Ware, who is slim and completely bald, is not generally prone to use a lot of words, but he is a tireless promoter of an increasingly important sector of American agriculture. Like many of his fellow small-scale farmers, he is looking for ways to put a farmer’s face at the dinner table — both in the country and the city.

That’s why Mr. Ware was pleased when a local public television station documented his baking class at the soup kitchen. “I can’t buy that kind of advertising,” he said. “That’s payment in itself.”

Fresh Food, Fresh Ideas
Urban-rural connections are becoming ever more vital to small farms because they are building important new markets that pay the higher prices that direct sales generate. Consumers, it turns out, love fresh food, so it is showing up more frequently in five-star restaurants, classic supermarkets, and even soup kitchens in many American cities.

As word spreads about fresh food’s strikingly better taste, the number of local farmers markets in the U.S. is skyrocketing. In fact, that number has jumped nearly 80 percent, to 3,100 markets, in less than 10 years. The number of community-supported agriculture farms — where “shareholders” pay in advance for a season’s worth of food — has also grown, to at least 1,700. That’s up from only two in 1986. In many cases, the CSA farms are serving metropolitan populations, such as a thriving concentration of farms in Wisconsin that grow for families in the nearby Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.

Mr. Ware has an unusually well-developed sensitivity to the potential for fresh, homegrown food. His farming history goes back four generations on his father’s side, and to the 1600s in Germany on his mother’s. But he doubts he would have made this country-city connection if he and Sandee had not made the dramatic decision in the mid-1990s to ditch the bulk commodity market for pickling cucumbers and instead grow a cornucopia of organic produce — everything from berries to broccoli — for local neighbors, restaurants, and stores. The switch to local markets brought home how important and satisfying it is to have face-to-face relationships with appreciative customers, instead of nothing but dollars-per-bushel discussions with bulk commodity buyers.

“We are bringing back that connection of the food, where it comes from, and that connection to place,” he said.

Mr. Ware recently added fresh baked pies to his product line. So, although for now Mr. Ware is happy to simply help inner city kids learn about good food and farming, he hopes to eventually train an inner city entrepreneur in commercial pie-baking that would use the organic fruit he and other northwest Michigan farmers raise. The urban entrepreneurial baker and the country entrepreneurial farmer would share the profits while also making a name for fruits grown in the region — another good reason for donating some of his prized strawberries to the soup kitchen’s pie-making project.

“If there’s a way we can get him some product, then maybe he can make a few bucks off of it,” Mr. Ware explained, referring to some of Brother Rick’s own entrepreneurial impulses. “We are just going to give it to him and somehow promote northwest Michigan.”

Everybody Wins
Mr. Ware’s trip to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen is also part of a growing movement to link farm-fresh foods to food pantries, including inner city operations like the one Brother Rick works in. But it’s not the food banks soliciting local family farmers to help feed the poor. Quite the opposite: Pantries typically negotiate with large, brand name food companies for such donations; what fresh produce they do get often comes from the federal government’s program to purchase surpluses from large-scale commodity farmers.

In fact, it is farmers and organizations working to develop prosperous local food systems that have begun approaching food banks about using locally grown foods; the organizations, which are typically nonprofit, raise monetary instead of commodity food donations, and use them to buy direct from nearby farmers. These relatively new programs are proving to be quite popular.

In New York City, for example, the nonprofit organization Just Food links United Way to to farms, which then supply produce to pantries and soup kitchens there. At one soup kitchen in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, word spreads fast when one particular farmer makes deliveries.

“As soon as they started serving the collards, word got around the neighborhood and the number of clients would increase,” said Kristy Apostolides, a Just Food program manager.

But because the hunger problem in this country is so immense, commercial and commodity food sources will remain vital to food banks, said John Arnold, executive director of Grand Rapids-based Second Harvest Gleaners Food Bank of West Michigan. Still, Mr. Arnold said he’s intrigued by the idea of buying local farm foods for food pantries, because he believes that such relationships build a stronger overall community.

 “Ultimately the community is going to be the most healthy when there are vibrant local economies,” he said. “When you go into a store here and you can’t find a Michigan apple or a Michigan potato because they have all been shipped in from other places, it is just crazy.”

And while the Gleaners switched 10 years ago to working the phones with commercial and commodity suppliers, the organization’s name hints of a possible return to its roots: It comes from the idea of “gleaning” or picking the surplus fruits and vegetables from farm fields. The Grand Rapids Gleaners are now looking at using locally grown food again simply because one staff person was interested. Mr. Arnold said that the organization has discovered “huge volunteer interest” among church and school youth groups in gleaning at farms partly because people like the fresh air and the connections they make to the farmers who grow the food.

“Not that many kids today have that opportunity,” Mr. Arnold said.

Inner City Entrepreneurs
Nor do they often have the opportunity to bake pies with a farmer. But, thanks to Mr. Ware and Brother Rick, that’s changing. The kids that learned about pie making are part of the friar’s Earth Works Garden project, which transforms vacant city lots into green spaces for urban food growing. The project hopes to revitalize downcast inner city neighborhoods with vibrant entrepreneurial ventures and community gardens that bring neighbors together. In effect, it is the other side of Mr. Ware’s efforts: Like the prosperous farms that hold off suburban development, healthier cities can help curb urban flight and protect rural lands from big box and residential sprawl.

“Urban and metropolitan areas must start respecting the land and those who labor on it,” Brother Rick said. “You cannot live in isolation, whether you’re in the city or the suburbs. We allow our cities to implode, and we affect sprawl that takes out viable farms.”

Brother Rick’s grow-it-yourself approach engages several dozen inner city kids, ages 6 to 12, in his year-round Growing Healthy Kids project. More than 500 adult, child, and teen Earth Works volunteers grow fresh, chemical-free food on three vacant lots on Detroit’s near east side. The kids are not just learning how to grow and prepare their own healthy foods; many are also learning the business of farming.

Last year the friar and his volunteers sold 9,200 pounds of their fresh, homegrown food at farmers markets and outside community health department clinics, where low-income, pregnant women and mothers of young children can use federal Project Fresh coupons to buy fresh food. Brother Rick also plans to engage the kids in creating specialty products to market, including honey, a beeswax-based hand salve, spice blends, and an assortment of jams. All of the money from Earth Work sales goes right back to the project.

The project also helps the volunteers better appreciate farms, farmers, farm labor and how people treat, or mistreat, the land.

“I do engage the volunteers in, ‘Where does your food come from? Do you understand the labor involved in farming, and the difficulties we in the city have in reclaiming land from urban sprawl?’” the friar said. “Maybe it’s not best to sell land to the highest bidder, because it compromises our quality of life.”

And he’s sure Mr. Ware’s pie-making visit with his kids last weekend will leave a lasting impression.

“Bernie the berry farmer came down, and we talked about where Bernie came from and got the Michigan map out, and talked about how important it is to farm in a healthy way so you have healthy soil that makes healthy berries and healthy pies and healthy kids,” said Brother Rick. “Then, Bernie whipped out all his super duper ingredients for pie crusts. It was a great time.”

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist, coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s entrepreneurial agriculture program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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