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MSU Extension Grows a Stronger Kalamazoo

Staff reconnects food, farming, and community building

July 9, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes
  Master gardeners trained by Kalamazoo MSU Extension grow and donate food to local pantries, including Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.
KALAMAZOO—In many Michigan counties, there is a little office that brings together food, farming, community, and economy.

That is a difficult thing to do, because our wider, global-market world is very good at separating food from farming—and from community economic development, too.

The global market machine is so pervasive, in fact, that an entire generation now connects milk with grocery stores, not cows or farms. And mainstream, large-scale agriculture itself focuses much less on food and much more on making a living by treating products like milk, corn, and wheat as industrial ingredients. As author and food industry expert Michael Pollan asserts, most of our great-grandmothers would not recognize as food the "edible food-like substances" that now come in boxes displaying long lists of unpronounceable ingredients.

This disconnect drives many of the economic problems that farms endure, as well as the health problems people have. Junk food is cheap—its industrial ingredients provide mere pennies for farmers and poor nutritional value for those who eat it. Those food-like substances, in short, are causing farms to fail, farmland to fade, and children to fall ill.

No wonder, then, that county-based university extension offices are exploring solutions to these farm, food, and community problems. After all, Extension's mission, all the way back to Abraham Lincoln's day, is to help out local communities.

The Kalamazoo County Extension office is taking a big lead on reconnecting food and farming to help the local residents they serve. The office is a key hub of information, training, and technical assistance for that region's growing network of people, businesses, and officials interested in building healthier food and stronger farms into their community's future.

The staff offers Master Gardener classes for the general public, 4H for youth, Farming 101 classes for the startup farm business, and nutrition education for young families. They also provide research, planning, and leadership development.

And that is where we find Mark Thomas, community and economic development educator, and his colleagues helping to build the region's food and farming networks and Good Food capacity.

Mr. Thomas helps area farmers markets figure out how to share resources and ideas. He’s developing a project that provides weekly boxes of fresh, local farm produce to low-income residents. And he’s doing all kinds of analysis, from soil testing to business-plan development. He’s worked on a slew of community projects, too, including Kalamazoo's new Can-Do Kitchen and the Northside Association for Community Development’s self-reliance projects.

Gardeners Helping Gardeners
Linda Whitlock, one of Mr. Thomas' colleagues, is the local Extension’s consumer horticulture educator. She operates the county's Master Gardener program, which trains people in the art and science of raising food and flowers, but her accomplishments go well beyond typical beautification projects.

In fact, Kalamazoo's master gardeners work on projects that supply fresh produce to people in need. Last year the program, which counts some 300 active members, donated more than 12,000 pounds of fresh, organically raised produce from its Humphrey Garden site to the Food Bank of Central Michigan.

Humphrey Garden itself, on the southwest side of Kalamazoo, is on land donated for gardening by the family of a locally owned auto parts business, Humphrey Products, according to Ms. Whitlock. Community gardening took root there 20 years ago.

Then, about 10 years ago, some master gardeners started planting and harvesting Humphrey’s food for the Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes pantry. As the garden's volume increased, its food also went to the Food Bank of Central Michigan, which distributes it to Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes and other nearby food pantries.

"The Kalamazoo Master Gardeners' Humphrey Gardens project directly impacted the lives of over 1,000 individuals in need of food on a weekly basis," said Dan Salerno, of the Food Bank of South Central Michigan, in an interview last winter with the Kalamazoo Gazette. He nominated the group for a regional award for their volunteer work.

Greenhouse Powerhouse
Kalamazoo Extension also has Jeanne Himmelein on staff, as its horticulture educator. She helps area farms with their horticulture questions, and works with Elzinga-Hoeksema Greenhouses and other area greenhouse operations to explore how they to cut costs and add revenue during the winter, when their main business of producing bedding plants for big box stores declines, by growing vegetables for local food stores and restaurants.

"Smaller growers especially, less than five or 10 acres under glass, are not doing as well as before," Ms. Himmelein said. "They're hearing about organic, local, CSAs, farmers markets, and they're wondering how they can participate in this growing arena."

Extension helps answer such questions, which are often about new markets and production issues, particularly energy costs. The greenhouse operators want to add to their current business with things like growing vegetables in the winter, not competing with farms that raise vegetables during the regular growing season, she said. But these new greenhouse operations need advice and research on the new markets they are trying to serve, along with guidance on heating greenhouses affordably and sustainably.

Also helping to build Kalamazoo’s winter greenhouse produce business is County Commissioner Ann Nieuwenhuis, a former, long-time director of the Kalamazoo County Extension office. Along with locavore Donna McClurkan, Fair Food Matters, and many others, Ms. Nieuwenhuis believes Kalamazoo’ s many greenhouse operations present a big local food opportunity.

The challenge, according to both Ms. Himmelein and Ms. Nieuwenhuis, is a lack of hard data. Those leading the area's economic and agricultural development in Michigan, including MSU researchers, are not yet tracking greenhouse businesses or the new food market options they provide.

Ms. Nieuwenhuis began addressing that challenge last year by hosting a meeting that included greenhouse operators, the Michigan Farm Bureau, agriculture leaders at MSU, and Kalamazoo's economic development agency, Southwest Michigan First.

"Most knew nothing about the others," she said of the people that attended. Now they are conversing about how best to help greenhouse operations supply the growing market for local, winter vegetables.

Growing a Tradition
Ms. Nieuwenhuis is also involved in the next phase of a long-running community gardening program that she developed at Kalamazoo Extension in the 1970s.

Formerly called the Solar Garden Project, and operated by Kalamazoo County's Community Action Bureau, the program not only provided fresh food from gardens for families in need; it also gavefood preservation and canning classes at churches and offered nutritional education and community service opportunities for at-risk youth. The project won national recognition in the 1980s for its success, which included greenhouses offering both job training and income by growing flowers for market.

Kalamazoo Extension and the county commission recently re-made this program into a public-private partnership with farms that offer weekly shares of their produce over the growing season, or CSA (community supported agriculture) farms. With three years of startup funding from the county, Extension's Mark Thomas leads this effort to help families with limited means shift their diets toward fresher, healthier, local fruits and vegetables.

Ms. Nieuwenhuis says that, previously, the Solar Garden project offered only a little food to a lot of people; the new CSA project, however, regularly provides significant amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Extension selects its partner CSA farms via competitive bidding among operations that provide produce for 16 weeks. Participating farms also promise to help make the project self-sustaining over time. The farms help make the food affordable by following the example of other CSA projects around the country: Other CSA shareholders kick in a little extra money to share the harvest, through low- or no-cost shares, with low-income families.

"The focus of our work is self-sufficient families," Mr. Thomas said of Extension's gardening, nutrition, and community development outreach. "We want to work with families long-term, to see them through. It's about building their capacity versus just providing them with food."

That concern for building people’s capacity—and the community's strength—also drives other Kalamazoo Extension programs. Those include a 4-H project that had 15 young people tending community gardens in low-income neighborhoods last season, as well as a new 200 x 100-ft. garden at the county jail that had trustees planting, tending, and harvesting.

Again, County Commissioner and former Extension Director Ann Nieuwenhuis is a driving force. In addition to providing healthy food for inmates’ meals, she told the Kalamazoo Gazette, the jail garden gives them an important life experience: "It's about being able to take care of something and see it grow. There's a feeling of accomplishment."

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Food and Farm program, and is a senior policy advisor for the organization. Reach her at pattyc@mlui.org.

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