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Michigan community looking to engage would-be farmers
 
By KEVIN WALKER
Michigan Correspondent

CHOCOLAY TWP., Mich. — As farming has grown bigger in scale, there are fewer farmers out there who know the tricks of the trade and who can carry on the farming tradition. People in Chocolay Township would like to change all that.

Township Planning Director Kelly Drake Woodward is heading up a farm incubator project that’s intended to fill in some of the gaps created by the large-farm phenomenon. Located in Marquette County in the state’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), Chocolay Township has been proactive in getting the community involved in different farming and gardening projects, including a community garden as well as local involvement with the Marquette County Food Network.
Drake Woodward said the idea came about because there is township-owned property next to the township’s recreation area, which is currently being leased to someone for farming purposes. It’s a 14-acre parcel.

“We were looking for ways to keep the property in agricultural use,” she said. “I know there’s young farmers that want to get started but don’t have the capital to do it. These days if you’re young and want to get into farming, you probably don’t have a lot of money anyway.

“It used to be that people who wanted to get into farming had family and friends and a whole network that could help them. I think we’ve just lost so many small farms and family farms that it’s become hard for people to get started.”

What township leaders envision with the project is to lease out the land to aspiring or beginning farmers to give them a better idea of what it means to farm – but Drake Woodward said it’s supposed to be more than just an educational experience. The idea is for it to also be an entrepreneurial venture.

“People do internships, but don’t have a way to get into farming after that,” she said. “It’s more like a working classroom, but it’s not just a classroom, because they’ve got their own money in it. They’ve got skin in the game.”

Ashley McFarland, coordinator of Michigan State University’s AgBio Research Station in Chatham, in the U.P., is working with Drake Woodward on the farm incubator project. From her perspective it is another leg on a stool that’s supposed to help small farming survive and maybe even thrive in the U.P.

The research station contains a 1,200-acre research farm. Part of McFarland’s mission is to develop a student farm on the property and help some of those students go on to use a parcel of land for farming at the Chocolay Township location.

“Our students graduating from our apprenticeship program will hopefully be able to lease a parcel of land from the Chocolay Township folks,” McFarland said. “We’re not going to be doing large-scale farming. What we’re looking at is doing some produce items, such as things that are sold at a farmers’ market, or things that are done at a CSA (community supported agriculture).”
She said large commodities are grown on the research farm, but not as part of the project that’s tied in with the farm incubator initiative.

A problem in the U.P., she stated, is there is more demand for organic and CSA-grown produce than there is a supply. Both she and Drake Woodward point to the lack of people who have both the will and the way to become farmers today.
7/10/2013