The new farmers
A new generation of growers in West Michigan is transforming the way we eat.
By Jaye Beeler
Photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick
A new kind of farmer with innovative ideals and eco-friendly practices is transforming farming in West Michigan.
The new farmers produce pastured-raised livestock the old-fashioned way. They grow a wide range of organic vegetables. They sell directly to consumers through social media, community-supported agriculture programs and herd share programs, and at farmers markets and independently owned butcher shops.
Some also host harvest dinners at the farm, welcome volunteers with live-in exchanges where people can live and volunteer on the farm, and teach people how to cook whole foods — roots, stems and all.
With the average age of a farmer having risen to 58 over the past several decades in the U.S., these new, younger progressives — who are more ethnically diverse, internationally traveled and university degreed — offer a glimmer of hope.
A decade ago there were concerns about the future of small-scale farms, says Melissa Harrington, executive director of Fulton Street Farmers Market. Instead, she says, “The number of small-scale farmers under (age) 35 has doubled in the last 10 years. On opening day, we’ll have 60 different farmers, and each brings their own story and personality.”
That’s just the beginning, promises Garrett Ziegler, community food systems educator at Michigan State University Extension at Downtown Market.
“This new generation of farmers are really social entrepreneurs who are finding innovative ways to make agriculture an integral part of our lives. They operate like community hubs, focused on more than growing food. They’re getting involved in activism and collaboration.”
Youssef Darwich, farm manager at the Sustainable Agriculture Project at Grand Valley State University, says there’s a disconnect between farmers and the people who consume their food.
“The farmers market is a great way to connect with the people who grow our food. Community-supported agriculture takes it one step further by establishing a relationship with the grower in exchange for tasting the seasons,” he says. “In the spring, we eat the tenderness of early greens, summer the juiciness of tomatoes, and fall the velvetiness of butternut squash.”
In 2012, Earthkeeper Farm’s Rachelle Bostwick created the West Michigan Growers Group, a social network for young farmers, with the idea that “we all have the same dreams and goals. There are two ways to go about it — as competitors or as friends who share the knowledge.”
Members get together monthly at different farms for potlucks. “I guess it’s really about abundance,” she says.
Groundswell Community Farm
The kind of certified organic produce Katie Brandt and Tom Cary grow could be called miraculous, introducing lovely fresh flavors that compound the pleasures of growing, eating and cooking.
There’s the Groundswell Gold tomato, an orange-flecked yellow beauty they discovered growing in their fields. And there are the many varieties of mizuna, a Japanese green from the mustard family whose flavor ranges from hot-tasting like arugula to crunchy.
Then there’s yukina savoy.
“Have you ever tried yukina savoy?” Brandt asks. “It’s a wonderful replacement for spinach.”
In 2006, she started Groundswell with Anna Hoekstra as a community-supported agriculture farm that she now owns with her husband, Tom Cary.
CSA is a strategy that helps people eat the freshest, local produce in season on a weekly basis. It works like a cooperative — you become a member and receive a share in the harvest May through October. That’s 22 weeks of produce, offering the chance to experience Groundswell’s 300 varieties of organic vegetables grown on seven and a half acres in the rich muck soil near Zeeland.
Groundswell looks to help its members — 180 and counting — and farmers market customers understand how its food is grown while being transparent about the challenges of running a small family farm.
They strive to minimize stress on the land and reliance on fossil fuels. They also introduce people to interesting, often fragile, varieties the big box stores don’t fool around with because they can’t be picked at the peak of ripeness and shipped hundreds of miles.
For instance, the garlic grown at Groundswell includes heirloom varieties from around the world.
“We grow over 20,000 garlic bulbs each year and we sell it at market, give it out to CSA members, and sell 1,000 pounds to Seed Savers’ Exchange to be used for seed garlic in gardens around the country,” says Brandt, who has a degree in anthropology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in biology from Grand Valley State University.
On this day, the husband-and-wife team and their farm crew harvest 3 Root Grex, an interbreeding cross of their heirloom beets, including Yellow Intermediate, Crosby Purple Egyptian and Lutz Saladleaf by vegetable breeder Alan Kapuler.
By hand, they pluck yellow SunLemon cherry tomatoes and orange Sungold cherry tomatoes.
“I am continually astonished at the highly qualified people who come to our farm to work,” Brandt says. “We’re lucky that so many people have a passion for farming. We’re mindful of that — we pay attention to their dreams but also their needs as workers and that they are key to the success of our farm.”
Groundswell has inspired a cadre of new comrades, whether they start their own farms, such as Green Wagon Farm in Ada and Full Hollow Farm in Belding, find themselves managing the student farm at the University of Washington in Seattle, study food policy at Johns Hopkins University, or find work on a permaculture farm in Australia.
Powered by imagination and a bustling work ethic, the couple and their 4-year-old son, Leland, hopscotch West Michigan vending at farmers markets in Grand Rapids, Holland, South Haven and now Grand Haven.
Starting with its planting potluck and farm tour in June, they host monthly member events, including a garlic pull in July, a potato dig in August, a squash harvest in September and a pumpkin-carving potluck in October.
For four years and counting, they’ve offered a seven-week winter CSA from early November up to Christmas.
“Groundswell Farm continues largely due to Katie’s passion for variety and depth of knowledge about plants, our being frugal, and the many, many amazing and wonderful workers who have helped build what we have become today,” says Cary, who holds a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Hope College and a master’s in community and environment from Antioch University.
He’d love to see consumers posting photos of dishes they create with Groundswell’s produce on the farm’s Facebook page.
“We’re too busy to do that now!” GR