Young farmers find place to grow through Land Link-Up
By Diana Witcher, Aquarian Gardens
MOSES provides Land Link-Up, a free online listing service, to connect people who need land to farm with those who have farmland to rent or sell. The story of Big Head Farm, a remarkably diverse operation in Benton Harbor, Mich., illustrates how the right match can make all the difference for both farmer and landholder.
Land that is suitable for organic farming can be difficult to find. A 2011 survey of 1,000 farmers by the National Young Farmer’s Coalition listed access to land as the second most difficult challenge for new farmers, just behind adequate financial capital. Organic farmers have unique concerns when choosing land for their farms. They must look at not only topography and soil types, but also the history of chemical inputs and the availability of buffer zones.
Yet, the expanding organic marketplace is creating a ripe opportunity for farmers to go into organic farming. As the Wall Street Journal reported last summer, supply is not keeping up with the increasing consumer demand for organic products. Land Link-Up is one of the ways MOSES is encouraging the transition of more acres into organic production.
Big Head Farm Success Story
Karen Warner, who is originally from Detroit, began her transformation to farmer in the summer of 2008 when she and her husband, Jody, began an urban garden near their home in Chicago. They founded Big Head Farm the following December. During that time, Karen took a one-day introductory class called Farm Dreams, followed by the nine-month Farm Beginnings course offered through Angelic Organics Learning Center near Chicago.
The couple farmed at three locations in three years to keep pace with their farm’s rapid growth. In April 2011, Karen posted an ad on the MOSES Land Link-Up asking for assistance to buy a farm she had found that was perfect for expansion, but at a price beyond the couple’s means. She received an email from a landowner who offered her a different option: 50 acres in Michigan, including 17 acres of blueberries in transition to organic. But, the owner wanted to give the current tenants a chance to work things out. So it wasn’t until December that year that the owner was ready to talk about leasing to the Warners.
Through a phone call, Karen and Jody learned about the landowner’s goals for the property and shared their goals for Big Head Farm. Then they visited the farm, which seemed ideal. They researched organic blueberry production in Michigan, evaluated the financial aspects of the deal, and several weeks later, they signed a lease for their new farm.
Karen and Jody hope that their current location will be a permanent one. In December 2012, they purchased a nearby 19-acre orchard that was previously managed conventionally. The orchard has four acres of Gala apples, as well as Honeycrisp, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Cortland.
Big Head Farm’s 70 acres include 17 acres of blueberries, 19 acres of apples, 13 acres of fresh market vegetables and the rest in managed woodlands. The site has very sandy and acidic soil, which is great for the blueberries, but a challenge for the vegetables. The farm is certified organic by the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance program.
In 2013, Karen and Jody grew 32 different crops and 133 varieties, including 26 varieties of potatoes. Their markets include a CSA, two farmers’ markets and two restaurants in the Chicago area. They use the social media sites Facebook and Twitter to promote the farm. They drive to businesses, leaving free bushels of apples wherever they go. They innovated a “pay as you can” farm stand, allowing people to pay what they can afford.
Plans for expansion include an on-farm market with a cider bar located at the apple orchard. An existing barn will house a cider press and processing equipment. Karen would like to start a project where farmers are hired to work on land that is provided. These “employee farmers” would have support, social media presence, business planning, marketing opportunities, and a website provided for them.
Big Head Farm is an inspiring example of what can happen when farmers find the land they need for organic production through the MOSES Land Link-Up.
Diana Witcher is a freelance writer and co-owner of Aquarian Gardens, a sustainable garden design business located in Menomonie, Wis.
From the May | June 2014 Issue