We have 377 acre crop and livestock farm, which is certified organic by OCIA. The farm is intensely diversified through the production and rotation of soybeans, wheat, barley, corn, hay, buckwheat, rye, oats, hairy vetch, beef and seasonal vegetables. Cover crops also include clovers, alfalfa, hairy vetch, and rye. The additions of the natural foods market and learning center in 1996 are family operated.
The transition from chemical based farming began in 1981, and all acres were eventually certified organic in 1991. Sustainable practices are based on organic principles that promote self reliance, renewable resources, and environmentally benign outcomes. Sustainability cannot occur without organic principles.
Because of the lack of producer and consumer interface, we searched for ways to educate farmer as well as the consumer on the merits of organic agriculture and eating organically.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
After deliberating and consulting with others in the industry, we decided to direct market to the consumer via an on farm organic and natural food store. We wanted this food store to provide more regional and local foods to the area with an atmosphere of environmental awareness. A colleague informed us about the possibility of obtaining a SARE grant for the education to help with the extended goal of education consumers and farmers about food, health and environmental issues.
As identified in the original proposal, the project’s goals were to:
1) Provide ongoing community education regarding whole foods
2) Provide ongoing grower education regarding sustainable agriculture
3) Provide a farmer based regional outlet for organic producers.
Any job goes easier if you have the right tools. If the tools make the job easier, then it is more likely that the job will be done to a higher degree of perfection.
It is our opinion that organic agriculture has one main barrier that chemical based agriculture does not have. That barrier is capitalism. Who stands to profit from the promotion of organic agriculture? Not many. There are few products to be sold as necessities for organic agriculture. This is in direct contrast to chemical based agriculture where millions of dollars are spent on the promotion of a recipe of ingredients it takes to keep if financially afloat. It is up to the practitioners and advocates of organic agriculture to teach about the merits of a food production system that everyone stands to benefit from, not merely a few reaping financial rewards from its use as in the case of chemical based agriculture.
The one way we could see most fitting to teach about organic agriculture was from a working, living farm, which had an exemplar history. With our intentions already under way for a market for organic retail sales, we though the time was right to establish an educational tool to augment what was already in place.
Though the initial process of funding and building the “learning center”, as it has come to be known, was born by ourselves, the fine tuning of the demonstration kitchen and some of the other accommodations for learning were funded from the SARE grant. This is a long term project, lasting far beyond the 15 months that most SARE projects would require.
The maximum budget allowance for physical assets was taken, thus, not leaving much for personal expenses. A project of this nature would rely on outside involvement from agency people. For example, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the Michigan State Cooperative Extension Service has cooperated on a limited basis with workshops, classes, and demonstrations. At this time, we are also working with the Capital Area Community Services organization and the Extension’s Food and Family Nutrition Program (EFNEP) to bring classes to the outer county area. These programs typically work with urban dwellers and recognize the rural needs. Another opportunity has been to work with youth in the 4-H cooking classes of the area. We will begin our second year with that very shortly.
It is difficult to measure the results of this project in a quantitative form. We think we have achieved a lot in the past year if taken into account what little outside help we have had. The “learning center” could be a more often used tool, and will be in the future, but it will take additional labor or help outside resources to promote, schedule, and accommodate the functions that need to patronize this facility.
Some of the agencies that have used the learning center include but are not limited to:
– Ingham County Soil Conservation District
– Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA)
– Michigan Agriculture Stewardship Association (MASA)
– Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS)
– Michigan Organic Food and Farming Alliance (MOFFA)
– Organic Growers of Michigan (OGM)
– Organic Crop Improvement Association (OICA)
– Cooperative Extension Service
– Local 4-H Clubs
– Grace Lutheran Church
– Leslie United Methodist Church
– Michigan Wildflower Association
– Michigan Milling Cooperative
– Great Lakes Basin Farm Planning Network
– Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA)
In addition to the above groups, we have had Tai Ji classes, massage therapy classes and other enrichment activities in the community.
The lesson we have learned from this project was primarily a validation of the need and usefulness for a facility like the learning center. That need is larger than we expected an, if fully utilized, the learning center could be used 2-3 times weekly to fulfill our mission.
The effect of having the learning center on our farming operation has been bittersweet. First, the amount of effort required to man the learning center had taken valuable time away from the production side of the farm and yet more is needed. However, on the other hand, more people are being exposed to the serious issues in organic food production and other ecological concerns because of the learning center.
In addition, the effect that the learning center has had on other people and groups involved in organic agriculture has been positive. Some functions may not have been so easily arranged without the learning center. The major advantage of this project was the amount of interest and requests for the use of the classroom, which further indicates its necessity. This fact demonstrates to us that the barrier identified in our grant proposal has been overcome. Although not the entire specific proposed activities have been accomplished, we are satisfied that our original goals have been and continue to be achieved.
The main message that needs to be communicated to other producers is that consumers are hungry for information about issues of healthy lifestyles, environmental health, organic gardening, and other alternative ways of healing the earth and themselves. The list goes on and on. These consumers may be a small percentage of the population, but it is growing. Information give people the power to be responsible for themselves and be more self reliant and sustainable. People also want information from practitioners who are dealing with the real issue everyday, not from second, third, or even fourth hand sources where it gets watered down and loses accuracy. That is why a facility like ours could be replicated on other organic farms throughout the country on a county wide level. This would make it convenient for people to have different facilities to meet a variety of needs.
Communicating with others was the most concise part of this project. Our involvement with many “sustainable” and organic farming groups has given us access to many people, as well as the many individuals who come into the market everyday with questions about our facility and our work. Business cards that mention the learning center are available to customers at the door. Roster for signing up for classes are also on hand. We promote environmentally safe practices in general living by modeling recycling, having free literature and readings available to the public. Some newspaper articles on the market during the last year have mentioned the learning center, but unfortunately, not all of them have. Every event that has taken place, and that will take place in the future has been a method of outreach. We are confident that a valuable goal has been achieved with the completion of this project and we are assured that its future use will benefit an untold number of people who are going into the 21st century who are concerned with out sustainability on this planet.