Visit to Sunseed Farm

In my Farm to Fork series I visit local farms around Ann Arbor and share what I learn.

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"People aren't willing to just eat potatoes and onions all winter long." Tomm Becker, of Sunseed Farm, stands in the one of their two unheated hoop houses surrounded by dark earth and verdant vegetables. "We believe that in order to have a really healthy food system we need to have a year round supply of food. It doesn't make sense to even talk about a food system unless you can supply food in the wintertime."

Tomm learned about supplying food in the wintertime as the Production Manager for the Student Organic Farm at MSU. He and his wife, Trilby, moved to Ann Arbor and started - Ann Arbor's first year round fresh vegetable CSA - as noted in the 2011 Local Food Victories awarded at the 3rd Annual Homegrown Local Food Summit. Borden-hoophousesinsnowatsunseedfarm

Supplying food all year long takes hoophouses (courtesy of Selma Cafe's Farmer Fund and the USDA), a regimented plan for the timing of plantings, and an awareness of which plants to grow inside the hoop during the winter. As Becker explains: "we grow either plants that you can harvest a bunch of times - like the kale or chard or the salad mix - or the really space efficient crops like lettuce, carrots, or spinach." Kale is very efficient, seeds planted in August have been harvested since November - four months. As their August plantings of salad mix and turnip are bolting they remove them and planting new seeds for the summer harvest.

Sunseed Farm uses a variety of methods to control pests and diseases: cover crops, rotational plantings, a broad array of vegetable species, the application of regular dish soap to remove aphids, and spraying nematodes (a microscopic soil organism) on the soil to reduce cutworms. "What we are working to do is to create an ecosystem in which the population of one pest/pathogen/insect is not exploding to the point where it becomes a real problem... [We are] increasing the biodiversity on our farm... to keep the insect pressure down... because when you have healthy soil you can have healthy plants. When plants have what they need they are able to resist attacks."

Another way Sunseed Farm protects and thus feeds the soil in the hoop house is by using a broadfork to loosen the soil for planting instead of turning it over with a shovel or tilling it. "[With a shovel] you might achieve a lot really quickly, but you are really setting back the soil biology by killing a lot of the microrganisms down in there...People have been using a broadfork for a long time, but [Eliot Coleman] brought it back." The 30 inch wide bar has 7 long tines - standing on it and wiggling it back and forth loosens the soil without destroying the fragile ecosystem.

The first week of March, Tomm Becker presented at both the Homegrown Local Food Summit and at the Michigan Organic Conference. He also welcomes interns and apprentices to Sunseed Farm. "I want to help people as much as I can. I don't really see myself in competition with other small scale vegetable farmers. I think that really what we are doing is trying to change the whole food system - helping each other is helping ourselves."

Customers can sign up for three 16 week shares: Autumn, Winter, and Summer. Sunseed Farm is accepting applications now for their Summer CSA share (sign up here). Located five miles north of Ann Arbor off of Joy Road, you can email them or give them a call! (517-980-0893)

Farm to Fork: Brines Farm

Borden - Shannon Brines in his greenhouse

Shannon Brines of Brines Farm is a busy man. In addition to his full time job at the U of M Environmental Spatial Analysis Laboratory, he is the vice-chair of Slow Food Huron Valley, and the chair of the HomeGrown Festival. Yet for him the decision was straightforward to become a four-season farmer on top of his other duties. "I want to have a lifestyle that is sustainable and I love food, so I was like, this is obvious."

It is obvious to me that I wish Ann Arbor were ringed with similar greenhouses filled with fresh lettuce in December. I stopped purchasing lettuce imported from California last year when I did some math. The amount of calorie energy my body receives from eating lettuce in February does not justify to me the amount of fuel it takes to get to my plate. There is a fascinating article discussing this ratio (energy input: producing, processing, packaging, and distributing vs energy output: calories to the body). I also think that vegetables and fruits grown here taste better than the hardier varieties grown to withstand transport and sitting on the market shelf. True, I still purchase olive oil from Italy, Malbec from Chile, and Telicherry Pepper from India - but I don't eat bowls of olive oil, Malbec, and pepper everyday - I do eat bowls of vegetables everyday. Big bowls.

My decision to eat more locally sourced fruits and vegetables may not save the planet but it probably won't hurt. So as a self-confessed salad lover, vegetable maven, and devotee to all things green walking into a greenhouse to see the carpet of fresh spring greens cosseted from the frost and thriving within large greenhouses on a recent 18 degree morning was a worshipful experience. The contrast was breathtaking.

Shannon Brines described to me how he started. "I was looking around and realized that there really wasn't anyone delivering anything year round." He went to workshops, read books, and finally decided to give four-season farming a try when he built his first greenhouse in 2004. He had no experience with such a large scale greenhouse operation, but he decided to "give it a whirl." Borden - Brines view of greenhouse

I think for many of us building a 90 foot long greenhouse might seem a bit daunting, but as Yoda tells us: "there is no try, there is only do, or do not." Shannon Brines has been doing - since 2004 he has built two more greenhouses. He started selling at the Ann Arbor Market in 2005 and continues to sell at Ann Arbor and the Westside Farmers' Markets. As Shannon tells me, while he harvests delicate yellow-green Tokyo Bekana, "It didn't take long for people to catch on when they realized I was gonna come in the winter with fresh greens."

Borden - Brines at A2 market

And green they are. Growing in his three greenhouses are, "what everyone talks about as cold hardy plants." Looking at his list of goodies on his website, his plants are mostly varieties of brassicas. Many of his seeds come from the Johnny Seed's because, "Eliot Coleman lives near them and has teamed up with them before." (You may remember Eliot Coleman as an influence on Mark Baerwolf, at Cornman Farms.)

The greenhouses are built as a simple metal frame with two layers of plastic on the outside. A small fan pushes air between the two layers to create a layer of air insulation. Row cover fabric is pulled over the plants when the sun goes down as an added layer against the cold. "For the most part it stays above freezing at ground level - the light issue is really the biggest concern. The day gets so short. It is winter." It may be winter, but inside the greenhouses, with the sun glowing through the layers of plastic, it felt like early May as the warmth crept into my bones.

Brines Farm utilizes organic practices and finds for the most part that insects - both deleterious and beneficial find their way inside the plastic. With the large number of brassicas crop rotation is "a little tricky" so their current modus operandi is to spread a 5 gallon bucket of compost for every 12 foot bed. This practice is recommended by Eliot Coleman and Steve Moore (referred to in this article as the Gandhi of Greenhouses).

I had a chance to do some harvesting of the mizuna, a plant I was unfamiliar with until that morning. I took off my mittens, jacket, hat, scarf, and sweater to kneel down onto the dark earth in the warm humid space. Occasionally the 18 degree wind buffeted the walls, making the plastic bounce. Mizuna is bright green with lacelike leaves. I used paper scissors to easily cut through the tall stalks and place them into a cooler. The leaves were to be cleaned and separated in preparation for the market the next day. Saturday at the market, I was able to purchase a bag of Mizuna to taste the fruit of my efforts.

I poured some toasted sesame oil and soy sauce to heat in my iron skillet while I cut the delicate greens. Sauteing for 90 seconds at high heat I transferred the glistening greens into a bowl and sprinkled on toasted sesame seeds. The taste was less intense than arugula, yet still pleasantly peppery. I look forward to eating the rest of the mizuna as a salad under poached fish. The last time I had that meal was when my arugula came up last April. Thank you Brines Farm for making that possible in December.

Here is the link for the article on annarbor.com!