By Laura Moser
There is no discrimination to participate in Michigan’s Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. The program helps farms of all sizes and all commodities voluntarily prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks. All it takes is the willingness to participate in the program.
Giving Tree Farm in Lansing, Mich., seems like an unlikely MAEAP farm from the road, but when you learn of its mission and purpose, it is easy to see the alignment to the MAEAP program.
Established 14 years ago as a community garden north of Lansing, Giving Tree Farm since has grown into farm with eight greenhouses and 7 acres of fields. The farm is owned by Community Based Interventions, a nonprofit providing vocational and daily productive activities for individuals with brain injuries and cognitive impairments.
The pairing of a working farm with a rehabilitation center creates positive synergy as clients engage in activities on the farm. For farm manager Matthew Romans, coupling the rehabilitation program with the overall farm management presents opportunities to explore new ideas while working to increase the productivity of the farm.
“The MAEAP verification ties in well with our organic certification and methods we are using here on the farm,” says Romans, who notes that being a good steward of the land is a priority of the farm. In 2013, the farm was named Clinton County Conservationist of the Year.
The farm was recognized for its efforts in protecting the area watershed. A drainage ditch feeding into the Looking Glass River runs through the farm property, which is a point of emphasis for Romans and other managers.
“We don’t want anything to flow into the drainage ditch and are careful with our practices to avoid getting anything into the water,” Romans says. “We adjust where our compost piles are to make sure nothing leaches out.”
The farm manager before Romans worked with Lindsey Martin, MAEAP technician for Clinton County, to achieve verification. She found their organic certification and record-keeping helped them complete the process.
“The farm’s organic certification record-keeping aligned with many of the MAEAP requirements,” Martin says. “Having this in place allowed us to discuss other areas like the location of their soil amendments and fuel storage. Together, we relocated these items in more appropriate areas of the farmstead, which were a safe distance from the wells and out of sight to the clients."
The farm also works with a local fertilizer company to test the soil each year and help write the nutrient program for the farm following organic certification standards.
LIVESTOCK: In addition to the vegetables, the farm also is home to a small flock of laying hens.
In addition to the vegetables, the farm also is home to a small flock of laying hens.
Romans uses “chicken tractors” to till the land by rotating the hens in different fields. They turn up the soil by scratching much like a tiller does. They also provide nutrients to the soil from their litter.
“We use the chickens in a limited way to till the soil,” Romans says. “The chickens can’t be in contact with the crops 90 to 120 days prior to harvest, so it is used on a limited basis but can still be effective in small areas.”
Romans, who is new in his role, came to Giving Tree Farm as an employee after completion of the organic certification program at Michigan State University. The organic program was his first exposure to production agriculture.
“I was attracted to farming in my early 20s,” Romans says. “We had some acreage around our home in the Pinckney area, but we were not farmers. I was looking for a career where I could work outside, and organic farming seemed to meet my needs.”
Working at Giving Tree Farm, Romans is focused on making the farm as efficient as possible while staying true to the mission of providing vocational services to the clients. Balancing between the two requires him to look at each task on the farm and evaluate if it is a job a client can do, or if one of the full-time workers should do it.
“We are growing over 50 to 60 crops in the A to Z vegetable garden, from asparagus to zucchini,” Romans says. “This is a muck farm, which makes growing this many crops a challenge.”
The produce raised on the farm is sold to neighbors through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and at a few local farmers markets and restaurants. They have 40 to 50 CSA members who receive weekly produce boxes. The farm supplies the CSA members from spring until late November.
“We are working in relatively small volumes of any given crop, so we are not marketing in a lot of areas,” Romans says. “We have some CSA members that have been with us for over 10 years because they believe in the vision and mission of the farm.”
Having MAEAP verification can be appealing to consumers looking to support local farms who are operating in a way that aligns with good conservation practices.
“Specialty crop farms like Giving Tree Farm who participate in any sort of direct marketing of their product to the public are able to help spread the word about the environmental farm benefits that MAEAP has brought to their business,” Martin says. “There is added value and level of customer satisfaction when the public is able to have a heartfelt conversation with the farmer, or part of their team. When this interaction takes place, aspects of MAEAP can be explained to customers one on one.”
In the first year, Romans has worked to revamp and redesign some of the work areas and implement some new procedures that enable the clients to be more engaged. Long term, he hopes to cultivate the farm into more of a garden setting, creating a retreat-like atmosphere while still producing a variety of crops. He also would like to bring in more tree crops to provide shade.
“Vegetable gardening in the summer can be brutal in the hot sun,” Romans says. “It is difficult for the clients at harvesting time. In the spring, they are all working to help transplant, which is easier for them.”
The hands-on work on the farm provides the clients an atmosphere to do meaningful work in a safe environment. There can be up 10 to 20 clients on the farm on any given day. A group leader accompanies them on the farm and works directly with them.
The added dimension of the rehabilitation center with the farm presents some extra challenges for Romans, but it also gives him a heightened sense of purpose knowing the many individuals who benefit from the resources and services the Giving Tree Farm provides.
“We have two initiatives here: to be an efficient farm providing a sustainable food source and a nonprofit working with folks giving them a place to work – bringing the two worlds together in a way that values both is my daily challenge,” he says.
Moser writes from Holt, Mich.