Growing new farmers in the U.P.

The Upper Peninsula isn’t well known for farming, but a group from Michigan State University is looking to change that.

Chatham’s new incubator is aiming to help grow a new crop of farmers in the region.

Last winter’s bitter temperatures and deep snow make it hard to believe that much of anything can grow in the Upper Peninsula.  A handful of ambitious farmers at the MSU Extension farm have some new tools to make the impossible possible.

Last week, they laid the seeds for change, building a hoop house just down the street from their headquarters in Chatham.  Once completed, the high tunnel will allow them to plant crops earlier in the season, regardless of Mother Nature’s scorn.

“It’s a tool, you buy a tractor, we always say in teaching that a tractor allows you to farm more space. This green house, or hoop house, or high tunnel allows us to farm more time,” MSU Professor John Biernbaum said.

The hoop house is made of steel poles and trusses, which will be covered in layers of plastic sheeting to control the climate.

When it is completed, it will be 30 feet wide and 192 feet long.  Because it’s so large, organizers hope to not only extend the growing season by a few months, but to the entire year.

“It allows us to use this instead of four months or six months, maybe ten months, maybe 12 months and that’s again part of what we’re experimenting with,” Biernbaum said.  “Because it’s so big we’re hoping that this might allow us to go to the whole 12 months.”

But students won’t be the only one to benefit from working on the farm.

As the extension becomes rooted into the community, the staff plans on helping new and novice farmers grow crops of their own.  Different workshops and classes will be offered for prospective farmhands of all skill levels.

“We’re kind of an open door, or have an open door policy here so that people can come to us, try to get any sort of information that we might be able to share with them, but whatever people need we’re trying to provide it,” farm manager and program instructor Collin Thompson said.

Teaching skills is not the only goal.

Farmers at the incubator also want to get the community thinking about exactly where their food comes from.

“I never really thought about where my food came from,” assistant farm manager Brendan Sinclair said.  “I was really into convenience, I loved getting fast food or whatever and it wasn’t really until I was 20, I was living in Denver, Colorado and there was a snow storm that winter and the city shut down for two days, there was a really heavy weather event and I couldn’t get milk or eggs at the grocery store after that, and it was the first time I really considered that all my food was coming from the grocery store and I never really thought about how it was grown or where it came from.”

While it’s just in its beginning phases, the farm has already planted potatoes in the surrounding fields, which are ripe for expansion, and plans on bringing the operation inside the hoop house sooner than later.

As more crops are grown and harvested, they will be sold in the community, allowing those who helped cultivate the effort reap what they sow.

“What a lot of people in the UP are looking for is how to be healthy, how to reduce health care costs, and much of that comes from the food that you eat, and the quality of that food that you eat and that it’s grown with passion, grown with intention, and it’s going to help you be healthier,” Biernbaum said.

Biernbaum said a cup of soil can have as many living organisms as there are people on the planet. That’s six to seven billion building blocks of life, giving new meaning to having the world in the palm of your hand.