A visit to Tilian Farm Development Center: a vision of our local food future

Merely 5 miles north on Pontiac Trail, a vision is taking on substance. Tilian Farm Development Center is about to burst forth with active vegetables, animals, and people. As with so many things, it is nice to see a "before" picture, this is that picture. As I noted in January, Tilian Farm Development Center is the larger envelope enclosing the Four Season Farmer Development Program (FSFDP) currently using 16 acres owned by Ann Arbor Township. The Township's acreage extends for 150 acres around an old barn (with a new roof courtesy of the Township) and a crumbling side building. Three inaugural farms will share the land, the resources, and the community's support as the first wave of entrepreneurship under the Tilian umbrella.

The purpose of Tilian is to create new farms in our area. As such, there will be a rotation of new farmers coming in new every year on two-year rotations. Andrea Ridgard, Project Manager, shares, "the first year of the program is really focused on getting the farms started and sustainable with their own markets. The energy of the program in the second year will be more focused on the farmers leaving the land and surviving on their own."Borden-2011tilianfarmers

The newest farmers to join the Ann Arbor community served breakfast at Selma Cafe last Friday. From left to right: Ben Fidler, Nate Lada, Alex Cacciari, Mark Nowak, and Jill Sweetman.

Of the FSFDP applicants, three farms were chosen as the inaugural cohort. Nate Lada and Jill Sweetman, of Green Things Farm, are starting a small vegetable and egg CSA (memberships available). Alex Cacciari and Mark Nowak, of Seeley Farm , are looking for wholesale customers for their greens. Benjamin Fidler, of Bending Sickle Community Farm, will be doing a pork and poultry CSA. As Nate Lada explained to me when I asked about growing practices - "we are all doing ecologically sustainable practices, using insecticidal soap for example. But we are not going to be certified organic."

The young farmers benefit from the FSFDP advisory committee with a broad range and depth of knowledge: Jane Bush (Grazing Fields egg cooperative and Food System Economic Partnership), Tomm Becker (Sunseed Farm), Shannon Brines (Brines Farm), Jennifer Kangas (Capella Farm), Victoria Bennett (WCC), Jeff Holden (Allegiance Health), and Dan Carroll (Zingermans Bakehouse). Fueled by potlucks - the veterans, "volunteer their time," shares Jill Sweetman, "they have given us advice on our seed order, business planning, doing the llc, and financial stuff."

Tilian Farm Development Center is guided by a steering committee equally impressive in its knowledge and dedication. Jeff McCabe (Repasts Present & Future and Selma Cafe), Andrea Ridgard, Jeremy Mogheter (MSU Student Organic Farm), Dan Bair (The Farm at St. Joes), Shannon Brines, and Jessica Neasfey (SNRE student and landscape designer).

Selma Cafe formed the Four Season Farmer Development Program with funds from a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 2 year grant pays for 25 hours of work a week, a mobile hoop house, a washpack (where food can be, you guessed it, washed and packed), a root cellar, and $3000 worth of tools. As such, the farmers have put together a "Tools to Till Tilian" campaign on Kickstarter.com to raise $12,000 to purchase fencing, a tractor, and capital necessities that should last beyond their two years on the land.

If you choose not to contribute to the campaign you can help grow more farms in Washtenaw by literally building a hoop house. The first hoop build of 2011 will happen at Tilian on April 16th. You can sign up here.

The day I visited, the lone chicken coop surrounded by electric fence highlighted the wide expanse of, as yet, empty land. One brave Bantam rooster crowed against the wind and the wilderness. Not for long will he be the only one making noise on that land.

Here is the article on annarbor.com

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)

Selma Cafe celebrates its 2nd anniversary

Selma Cafe is a local-foods breakfast salon began in February 2009, founded and hosted by Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe, organized these past six months by Gottlieb, as McCabe has focused on the farming initiatives.

Borden - Anne's picture of Selma Cafe

The first time my husband and I went to Selma Cafe, we arrived at 6:25 a.m. so he could be at work by 7:15. It was dark. It was winter. I could barely believe we were going to be welcomed into a stranger’s home at 6:30 in the morning for breakfast.

We entered the glowing entryway and stopped. “What do we do now?” I whispered. We could hear voices and smell bacon. A prodigious number of nametags and masking tape adorned the walls –Jim, Mary, Susan, Lynn, John, etc. “Those must be for the people who belong here.” I whisper again. Right when I was about to turn around and sprint back to our car in embarrassment and nerves, a greeter bounded around the corner and our introduction to Selma Cafe began.

As I wrote in September, hoop houses are being built with the money raised from the breakfast funds. I did not mention the amazing experience one has eating breakfast at the Friday morning Selma Cafe. There is a palpable energy of good cheer and community.

I watched Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe this past Friday clearing dishes, answering questions about the laying habits of their chickens, extolling the prowess of masseuse Ed Weymouth (offering complimentary massages to those waiting for a seat) to first time eaters to the cafe, sitting down with participants, laughing and smiling at the community centered around their kitchen. It is a remarkable gift they are giving to our community.

Because in contrast to my first trepidation as I viewed the entryway nametags, the legion of names on masking tape illustrate an important precept of Selma Cafe Jimeveryone belongs.

I asked Gottlieb if she would answer some questions for me about these past two years and where she thinks things are moving forward. Her voice is the best way to describe what has been happening in her home. Yet, before we hear from Gottlieb, I want to share this one anecdote.

Last week, I was able to join Karl and Cara Rosean of Real Time Farms at a presentation they gave for Food Tech Connect in New York City. The mavens of the tech food world were there to listen to them speak. One of the participants noticed that Selma Cafe is listed on Real Time Farms as one of their locally sourced restaurants. Then the entire room of 30 people began talking about what a fabulous and amazing institution Selma Cafe is – it was exhilarating and I felt very lucky to live in Ann Arbor.

Here is the interview with Lisa Gottlieb:

According to your blog archive, the first breakfast "cafe" took place on Feb. 27 to organize future breakfast "cafes." What gave you the idea in the first place? The first breakfast was on Feb. 20, 2009, and it was a casual breakfast to celebrate Jeff's 50th birthday. It was such a high-energy party, and people were so enthusiastic, that afterward a small group of people met to discuss the viability of continuing the breakfasts each week. Jeff and I decided that as long as we had volunteers to help, we would continue to open our home, and create a manageable way to find chefs each week and source local food.

Borden - Silvio at Selma by Myra

Photo courtesy of Myra Klarman

How long did it take for a regular routine to be developed with sufficient volunteers? We decided pretty quickly that we would do the breakfasts every week, as opposed to bi-weekly, or once a month – to avoid confusion. As we moved forward, and the workload became apparent, we needed more volunteers to take over some of the chores that got to be too much for us. For the first month or so, I was coming home after work to a pretty messy kitchen, and I was doing a lot of extra cleaning every Friday afternoon. And, the more the number of guests increased each week, the more need there was for extra servers, a steady dishwasher, people to clear plates and set tables and an expediter to make sure the food orders were going out to the right tables. We started out our first few weeks with 35 guests, then 50, then 75 and then 150. Our highest so far was 186 guests in December of 2010. In December of 2009, we were really needing more volunteers than we had. One week our chef was making breakfast, and no servers showed up to volunteer. So, we had guests fill out their own meal tickets, and when we called their name, they'd come get their order. The dishes piled up, because the dishwasher had to leave, the tables weren't being cleared, and it was a good bit of chaos. It was pretty obvious to everyone that without volunteers, Selma Cafe was not going to happen.

A core group of us sat down, and we sent out an email, and we basically said if we don't have enough volunteers by Wednesday of each week consistently signing up, we'll have to stop Selma Cafe. And that was all it took. Since then, over a year ago now, we haven't had any problem with a lack of volunteers.

Borden - Anne's picture of veggie tart

At this point we have a volunteer base of more than 450 people, including volunteers for the breakfast, hoop house build volunteers, and volunteers who help out at Selma Cafe fundraiser events and other local food events where Selma Cafe is represented. And that isn't including the couple of dozen chefs we have who come make the food. These days we have specific volunteer roles that are filled in order to keep things running smoothly. [CB: Check out the Selma Cafe blog for volunteer spotlights.]

Since this is a University town, volunteers come and go, but we love having volunteers who commit to taking on a role consistently for a period of time, since it means we have less training to do, and it's easier to give really great customer service when people are encouraged to own their volunteer role.

These past two years, what elements of the "cafe" have been the most fun/exhilarating? Nearly all of it is fun. If there wasn't fun and joy and enthusiasm and energy, we just wouldn't have the juice to keep it sustainable week in and week out. A couple of my favorite fun things lately have been the addition of live music from various artists and the massage therapists who come and give complementary massage samples to our guests and volunteers. I love it when we are really busy, and there is this wonderful, happy energy in the house. There is the sound of people laughing and talking and connecting with each other. And the chefs are in a groove, and the food is coming out fast and hot and beautifully plated and delicious. And there's music, and the smell of waffles cooking, bacon frying, and fresh ground coffee. And folks are hugging each other, and babies are being passed to open arms, and kids are kissing their parents good-bye and heading up to Eberwhite to school. And then it's somebody's birthday, and I cut a little slice of bread pudding and put a birthday candle in it, and everybody stops for a moment and sings to that person, and it's just the sweetest, exhilarating feeling, all of that combined. And it happens pretty much that way each week.

Most people I speak to are in awe of your willingness to open your private home to strangers on a weekly basis. Has your relationship with your home changed these past two years (i.e. does it still feel like home)? We've always had a lot of activity in our home, with people staying with us and coming and going. Jeff and I are pretty gregarious, and our kitchen and dining room are really set up to have lots of people cooking and eating together. Our rule is that no one goes upstairs –  the upstairs is our private space, and that works pretty well. You know, we have the house to ourselves all week, except for Thursday evening and Friday morning. It still feels cozy and lovely to us. We are so lucky to have our own home, so why not share the abundance? Sometimes things get broken or put away in the wrong place, but those things are pretty minor when I look at the big picture of what Selma Cafe is accomplishing.

What is your vision for the next two years? There are several big projects that we are working on. Jeff received a grant from the USDA to create an incubator farm program which is currently in the works just north of Ann Arbor, and we are planning a 20 Hoops in 20 Days event for this summer, which will include building 20 hoops starting June 15, finishing up on the 4th of July with a big party celebrating Independence Day by focusing attention on creating independence from big corporations controlling our food supply. We are funding those hoop builds with breakfast funds but also from our recently developed Farmer Fund, an investment fund managed by Ann Arbor's University Bank, where people can invest in our hoop house projects and earn a bit of interest while supporting our local farmers. Borden - Anne's picture of duck poutine

I've been working on a Selma Cafe cookbook and hope to have that available sometime in the future. As far as the weekly breakfasts go, the plan is to keep the food coming every week, while offering lots of events for folks to get involved with our area's local food adventure.

Anything you would like to add that I have not specially asked about? I am very proud of our accomplishments, like the nearly dozen hoop houses we've built, and the two years of weekly breakfasts we've provided, but just as meaningful to me is the environment we have created of inclusion, appreciation, physical and emotional safety, and the value we place on finding a spot for everyone, regardless of their skill set, to take part in our activities. As a social worker and yoga teacher, my view is that it isn't enough to be productive if the work we are doing doesn't reflect in the positive experiences of people involved in what we do.

A good part of our mission is to build community, affiliation, and connection in our modern world, which tends to separate people into virtual, surface level connection. I want to focus on giving people opportunities to prepare and eat good food, to getting their hands dirty in the soil, planting and harvesting vegetables, learning to swing a hammer and work as a team with others, and have their over all experience be that they know the work they do has a positive, measurable influence on their daily lives.

Thank you Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe for what you do!

Thank you Anne Savage for the use of your beautiful photographs!

Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Selma Cafe's Farmers Fund builds hoop houses

Ever since Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb started FridayMorning@Selmas as a breakfast fundraiser in their home 1/3 of the money has been spent, “on the food and the rest of the money goes towards the funds for hoop builds,” according to McCabe. At the Capella Farm in late August, I volunteered to help with Selma's 7th hoop build.

A hoop house is a plastic structure used to extend the growing season for vegetables into all four seasons of the year - a grand thing for our Michigan winters. Shannon Brines, of Brines Farm, has been overwhelmed with demand for his fresh winter greens since he began four season farming in 2004. Selma's Farmers Fund will allow more farmers to augment our winter supply.

Tomm Becker, of Sunseed Farm, received his two hoop houses from Selma’s funds in August 2009 and May 2010. Becker extols the benefits of four season growing. “If we didn’t have those [hoop houses] our CSA season would be 20 weeks, from June until October. With the hoop houses we are able to continue that all through the winter, so we do 48 weeks of distribution. We take 4 weeks off because we need to, for ourselves, not because we need to for the crops. With that protected space, we increase our income by increasing our harvest, all through the winter."

Borden - hoop house build

Jennifer and Dave Kangas started a CSA last year at Capella Farm and have had an eye on expansion. Jennifer applied for a USDA grant for a hoop house, which is administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and augmented those funds with a loan from Selma’s Farmers Fund.

All 75 volunteers were overseen by McCabe and Gottlieb, fed by the Kangas family, and fueled by McCabe's van full of tools. People worked Friday night and all day Saturday, August 28th, to build Capella Farm's 30 foot by 96 foot hoop house. I have never before been involved with such a large group of volunteers working together with enthusiasm and cheer to improve the sustainability of our local food. I loved every minute of it.

As the moon rose over the new building silhouetted in the field, Jennifer Kangas shared her thoughts on the day. “Dave and I were so energized by all of the volunteers and support that we received to help build the hoop. Farming can be challenging because it really is hard work and you can't control the weather or the number of mosquitoes, etc. It was very affirming to feel support from the community. This day will help keep us going for a long time.” Capella Farm is planning on offering a winter CSA with the produce grown in the hoop.

McCabe’s vision in 2011 is to raise, “20 hoops in 20 consecutive days.” This dream relies on increased revenue for the Farmers Fund beyond that which can be raised on Friday mornings. As such, Chef Brandon Johns, of the Grange Kitchen and Bar, is kicking off the fundraising launch of the community-supported micro loan program (aka Farmers Fund) on September 26.

If you cannot make the fundraiser, volunteers with shovels, hammers, and portable drills will be building the 8th hoop house at Brines Farm on September 25th. One weekend, two very different opportunities to support local food.

The Farmer Fund kick-off event will be held Sunday, September 26, 5-8 pm, at Grange Kitchen and Bar. The cost is $50/person, with a tax deduction of half the ticket price. RSVP to info@selmacafe.org or sign up online.

Here is the article on annarbor.com