Sunday, April 16, 2017

Put an idle 12 acre farm to work in a manner that pushes sustainable, regenerative, agriculture forward while enhancing community and appreciation of the natural world.

My grandfather used to say, “Robbie, if you find you are the smartest person in the room, you are definitely in the wrong room!”   I’ve always tried to keep that in mind and it has most often paid off.  It is in that spirit that I have developed this page for the farm.

If you are here it is because you were invited.  The ideas you express and the passion you exhibit indicate you are the kind of person who might see in this place the opportunities I see, or more importantly, those which have escaped me.

I wrestled for a good while over how much detail to include.  In the end I’ve decided that less is more.  To add more detail at this point, on this page, I run the risk of imprinting the information with my own ideas, of which I have many.  In so doing I could constrain the depth and range of ideas you might generate, or stifle the questions your reading may generate.   I therefore choose to tickle your imagination and stoke your passion and maybe hear from you should you feel this farm could be a place to launch something new.

Here you will find a brief description of the property and its past use.  You will know it for what it is and may imagine what it could become.  I will also share with you some of the ideas that interest me since for all intent and purpose, I come with the farm.  In essence I offer a sand box: static resources that require imagination and energy to become active and productive.  Let the play begin shall we?

We are located in rural West Michigan, equidistant between Grand Rapids and Lansing and about 9 miles north of Interstate 96 in Easton Township, Ionia County.  Easton Township boasts 2,835 people as of the last census.  The nearest town is Saranac which has a population of 1,337.  Seven miles to the east is Ionia, Michigan, the county seat with 11,424 residents. 

As with most places in rural Michigan small scale agricultural operations, a few factories and government jobs provide much of the employment. 

The farm itself is surrounded by a mixture of single family residences and farms.  Immediately adjacent to and south of the property is land currently certified organic.  To the west is a set of small farms raising cattle and hay.  To the north and to the east are larger operations rotating corn and soy beans.  The farm is buffered by woods on the north and east.  Located at the intersection of asphalt paved Johnson Road and gravel paved Sayles Road, the property sits atop a ridge with no visual obstructions to the south thus providing ample sun and simply outstanding wifi.

Past horticulture and livestock endeavors on the property have received strong support from all the immediate neighbors.  There is no zoning in Ionia County.

The Farm
The information here is not detailed, but sufficient to give you a general understanding of what resources and opportunities are available to create viable projects designed to forward sustainable, regenerative concepts.

From 1871 to 1956 the property served as the location of the Dexter School, a Standard School serving children in the township.  Classes ceased in 1956 and the property sat idle until 1971 when the property was purchased and the school converted to a residence.  The garage was constructed at that time. 

Around 1975 the property sold and the new owner constructed the barn and storage building and operated the property as a horse stable until 2006 when it sold to the current owner. 

From 2006 until 2013 the property was operated as an organic farm.  Vegetables, pastured poultry, meat goats and dairy goats were raised here.  All practices were consistent with Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association best practices though the farm was never certified.  All animals were properly vaccinated and there were no occurrences of CAE, CL or other diseases on the property.

This was a hand farm with all work (including hay harvest) carried out with hand tools.  Spring Roto-tilling was done to break ground for gardens on 4 occasions.  No petroleum-based chemicals, pesticides or herbicides have been used on the property since at least 2002.

Soils consist mainly of Sandy Loam with pockets of clay.  There is a residential well on the site and this well easily supported the family’s gardens and livestock.  Another equally productive water well could be drilled on the property should project needs require it.

Farm Components
The property consists of a little more than 10 acres of land usable for projects.  This components described below reflect how the property was used by a family of five seeking to provide their own food and a small income stream over and above expenses on a sustainable basis.  Practices were modeled on approach advocated by Joel Salatin.  The farm worked quite well though the land was not intensively cultivated.  Certainly the property could support more intensive use under a well designed project, or set of projects, that seek to create sustainable systems well integrated with the surrounding ecology.

Raised Beds
Nine raised beds, three feet wide and sixty feet long , are located in a 0.22 acre fenced and gated area  along the Sayles Road frontage.  The beds were established in 2007 and went out of use in 2013.  All manner of garden produce were raised with only compost and compost teas used to improve productivity.  The compost was produced on site.  Companion planting, floating row cover and sticky traps were used in lieu of pesticides whenever garden pests became a problem.

Poultry Yard
Cooped in the barn and scratching on a 0.35 acre fenced grass pasture, 68 Isa Brown laying hens produced 40 dozen free range eggs weekly.  The eggs were sold via an “egg route” serving homes and businesses in Saranac and Lowell.  Pastured Broilers were also raised using portable coops in the large pasture in concert with the goat herd.

The Pasture
The center of the property contains about 4 acres of pasture that was originally established for horses.  Goats grazed the property from 2007 to 2011 Boer goats were raised for meat while Nubian and Saanen goats were raised as part of the farm’s raw milk goat lease program.  The pasture is high and dry and consists of a mix of cool and warm season grasses and forbs with orchard grass predominating.  Rotating portions of the pasture were hand hayed to provide winter fodder for the goats.  The pasture easily sustained a herd of 21 goats.  The pasture also has 4 apple trees that were planted when the school was in operation.  They fruit in sequence beginning in early September.  The trees were planted for the benefit of the school children.  The varieties have not been identified, but the trees are heavy producers despite having no pruning or care for several decades.

The Woods
To the north of the pasture lies about 4 acres of wooded slopes and ravines running to Red Mill Creek which flows northeast to southwest along the northerly property line.   The wooded cover consists of mixed hardwoods including red and sugar maple, poplar, red oak and black cherry.  There is sufficient shade and water to make shitake farming quite viable in the woods near the stream.

A 2,000 square foot steel sided pole barn is centrally located on the farm acreage.  The barn contains several 10’x10’ box stalls, a 10’x24’ stall, and two large chicken coops all facing onto a central hall.  The barn was constructed in the 1980s and is in good condition.  A 450 square foot steel sided storage building sits to the east of the barn. The floors in both buildings are dirt. The barn has water and electric but the storage shed has no utilities.

A 1,500 steel sided pole garage with concrete floor and front and rear vehicle doors sits to the east of the storage shed.  The garage has electric and serves as a workshop.  The garage is one large open space that has been used for large construction projects (handcrafted canoes and kayaks); processing farm produce into canned and frozen soups and preserves as well as yard parties. 

The site is owner occupied.  A brick one room schoolhouse constructed in 1871 sits on one acre in the southeast corner of the property and serves as a private residence for the owner and his two children. This portion of the property is not eligible for projects.

A Blank Slate
The property is currently idle and thus stands as a blank slate.  Given the size and configuration of the property, it is possible to use the entire property for a single operation.  It is also conceivable that a number of smaller projects could be supported on the land, particularly if they were complementary in nature and purpose. 

Colored Chalk
Project proposals will be considered through a deliberative process between the property owner, project advocates and any sponsors, thus, “rough ideas” are a good place to start. 

Collaborative development should be directed toward producing strong project proposals that include a sensible business plans and incorporates one or more of the areas of interest presented below. These areas of interest are not boxes to be checked off, but instead, colored chalk to be applied to the blank slate noted above.  

It is likely that each person may select a different combination, or a single one, but that is as intended.  View these areas of interest as very general parameters and let your passions, expertise and resources guide you.

Areas of Interest

Sustainable agriculture.  Basically refining approaches to growing food for people to eat. 

  • Closed systems that require little in the way of “off property” inputs to become viable growing operations.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or cooperative farming projects.
  • Teaching “new farmers” how to successfully propagate food, manage production and maintain infrastructure.
  • Care farming. Using horticulture and agriculture to enhance recovery from illness.

Regenerative agriculture projects that educate people about biologically-based food growing strategies including but not limited to conventional organic farming, Permaculture designs, as well as native habitat creation and/or restoration.

  • Developing sound practices for Permaculture projects in forested wetland and floodplains
  •  Raising crop beds to improve waterlogged soils; using brewed cellulose-digesting bacteria and fungi combined with grazing to manage cereal stubbles; spreading biological blend on soils
  • Propagating heirloom and native annuals, perennials, bushes and trees for restoration projects, soil building and education.

Teaching community.  While it natural to think of the farm as a set of natural resources to be put to use for agriculture, horticulture and experimentation with sustainable methods , the land is also a space to be occupied by people.  Thus it is and well suited to sharing knowledge, ideas and experiences that either button neatly to these land use practices, or, are altogether separate endeavors that simply benefit from the setting and resources.  Any of the following practices could be incorporated into, or overlaid atop agricultural activities and are of great interest to me.

  • Land Laboratory for Primary and Secondary school students.  As a venue where teachers might conduct outings that build on concepts over the space of an academic year, over several years or, as unique intensive sessions.
  • Arts and Nature.  Just allowing for artists to work on the land, or facilitating instruction and possibly hosting exhibitions.
  • Business practices for outcome-centered endeavors.  Sustainable businesses require sound fiscal planning, yet, when the goal is not solely financial gain, different strategies need to be employed.  Helping high minded enterprises take shape and grow in a stable manner is needed now more than ever.
  • Teaching the tools of the deliberation and coaching the process of collaboration.  Our society desperately needs to re-learn these concepts to solve the myriad or issues before us.  Whether this is centered on projects taking place at the farm, or the farm serves simply as a refreshing venue for the teaching, these processes will be central to everything that happens on the farm.

What to do
Well you have done all you can on this page. Thank you for taking the time to look this material over.  My hope is that you will tuck it in your mind and let it bounce around a while.  If you are wondering where some of the above items could be further explored, I will be adding some reading resources you may like to investigate. 

Should you feel inspired to contact me with more questions or to propose some interesting scheme I will welcome your comments to this blog or your email.
Best Regards,

Rob Corbett

Further Reading for the Interested

Refugee transitional assistance. Though the current political situation seems to portend a slowing of new refugees, West Michigan currently has a large number of recent arrivals that may benefit from programs providing them the opportunity to grow food, share culture and better assimilate in their new home.

Deliberation. The process of deliberating over important decisions seems to have vanished in the past 15 years.  I’ve found great resources for my work in Lean Process Improvement facilitation and many other endeavors here at the Kettering Foundation.  This site has a multitude of resources and some good reads.

Collaboration.  Because kids learn by doing, and because they are tuned into computers more than any generation to date, reaching them via sandbox games opens a huge gateway into learning concepts they can then apply immediately on the ground in nature.  Math, language, and teamwork become natural extension of a good time.

Art as a life process in nature.  This is not a new concept, but seems to be out of use in communities where nature is the most accessible.  The Green Museum seems inspiring to me at least.

Land Laboratories. I was lucky my high school had a land lab that I spent a huge amount of time on in all seasons.  I believe it was integral to igniting my passion and ultimately in my choosing my career path in natural resources.  While locally we have a couple centers that function as field trip destinations, the area lacks any place for students to lock onto for long-term study in natural processes.   Two outstanding resources (one big, one small) serve as idea generators.  They are:

If you have anything you’d like to send my way, please do.  I am always interested in learning about something new.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The farm sits atop what in West Michigan would be considered a high ridge.  There is a field being farmed for organic wheat and oats directly to the south so the farm enjoys full sun all summer. Sloping very gently to the north, the garden plots and pasture are free of any obstructions.  I've mown the pasture with a scythe many times so I can tell you where every rock and divot sits, and there are few.   At the wood line the property drops into the ravine of Red Mill creek.  There is some low wet ground at the bottom that would be well suited for propagating Apios Americana (ground nut), elderberry and other wet soil species.

I've had little trouble getting things to grow here.  The sandy loam soils are particularly well suited to root crops and beets the size of a baby's head are not uncommon.  I once grew a bunch of Diakon radishes that were 24 inches long, and to my surprise, not woody.  There is just enough clay to help the soil retain water in the heat of August, but not so much that it makes tilling problematic.

For those interested in the soil profile for the open ares on the farm, including the garden plots and pasture, here it is:

Marlette sandy loam, 2 to 6 percent slopes

The Marlette series consists of very deep, moderately well drained soils formed in loamy till. These soils are on till plains, ground moraines, and end moraines. Slope ranges from 2 to 12 percent. Mean annual precipitation is about 838 mm (33 in), and mean annual temperature is about 8.9 degrees C (48 degrees F).

TAXONOMIC CLASS: Fine-loamy, mixed, semiactive, mesic Oxyaquic Glossudalfs

TYPICAL PEDON: Marlette fine sandy loam, on a 4 percent slope in a cultivated field. (Colors are for moist soil unless otherwise stated.)

 Ap--0 to 23 cm (9 in); very dark grayish brown (10YR 3/2) fine sandy loam, gray (10YR 6/1) dry; moderate medium subangular blocky structure; friable; about 1 percent fine gravel; slightly acid; abrupt smooth boundary. [15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 in) thick]

 B/E--23 to 46 cm (9 to 18 in); 60 percent strong brown (7.5YR 4/6) clay loam (Bt); surrounded by or penetrated by tongues of light brownish gray (10YR 6/2) fine sandy loam (E); moderate medium subangular blocky structure; friable; common distinct dark brown (7.5YR 3/4) clay films on faces of peds; about 1 percent gravel; slightly acid; gradual wavy boundary. [10 to 36 cm (4 to 14 in) thick]

 Bt--46 to 86 cm (18 to 34 in); brown (7.5YR 4/4) clay loam; moderate medium subangular blocky structure; firm; common faint dark brown (7.5YR 3/4) clay films on faces of peds; about 1 percent fine gravel; slightly acid; clear wavy boundary. [25 to 71 cm (10 to 28 in) thick]

 BC--86 to 96 cm (34 to 38 in); brown (7.5YR 4/4) clay loam; moderate medium subangular blocky structure; firm; about 2 percent fine gravel; few fine distinct yellowish brown (10YR 5/6) masses of oxidized iron; neutral; clear wavy boundary. [0 to 15 cm (6 in) thick]

 C--96 to 203 cm (38 to 80 in); brown (7.5YR 5/4) clay loam; massive; firm; about 2 percent fine gravel; few fine distinct yellowish brown (10YR 5/6) masses of oxidized iron; slightly effervescent; slightly alkaline.

 Thickness of the solum: 64 cm (25 in) or more
 Depth to carbonates: 64 to 127 cm (25 to 50 in)
 Reaction: moderately acid to neutral in the upper part of the solum and neutral
 to moderately alkaline in the lower part
 Rock fragment content: 1 to 10 percent gravel throughout