Lansing Roots: Giving farming and gardening entrepreneurs a chance to grow

What do you get when you bring together a city's increasing demand for fresh, locally grown food, gardeners who are hoping for a way to turn their passion into a paycheck, and families looking for a way to earn a living doing something that benefits their communities?

The Lansing Roots Program -- a one-of-a-kind partnership between the USDA and the Lansing branch of the Feeding America Food Bank, the Roots program offers local entrepreneurs and those who are traditionally underserved in US agriculture, an opportunity to start successful small farming businesses in a supportive and innovative setting.

Seeds of Promise

The Roots program is part of the Greater Lansing Food Bank Garden Project, which supports more than ninety community gardens in the Greater Lansing area every year. And now they're branching out even further into the community, with an amazing plan to break down barriers within the agricultural sector.

"The average farmer in America right now is a 57-year-old white male." says Ben Sommers, the Lansing Roots program director, "But we're hoping to diversify that demographic. At least within the Lansing area." For this reason, the program was developed with the historically underserved in mind. Those who have traditionally had few opportunities to succeed as farmers, like refugees, women, immigrants and the disabled, to name but a few.

So on a 10 acre land trust that used to be a family farm in Mason, the Roots program created their revolutionary incubator farm, and set to work cultivating a whole new and fantastically diverse crop of farmers.

Anchored in the Earth

Walking proudly among nodding rows of sunflowers, Sommers explains the Native American styled "three sisters" garden grown to demonstrate yet another method of companion planting. Much of what they do here is teach - everything from new irrigation techniques and the best ways to harvest seeds for the next growing season, to business planning and collective marketing strategies.

"We teach the farmers about how to diversify their crops, how to rotate crops and plan out their growing season so as to best utilize the space they have available." Sommers explains. But it's so much more than that. "We want to increase their skills in more than just farming. They need skills in marketing, management and business if this is going to be an economically sustainable venture. Our plan is to develop functional, successful farmers who contribute to the Lansing economy in a meaningful way."

But even this doesn't quite cover it. Beyond the success of each individual farmer in the program, the Lansing Roots program hopes to increase the amount of healthy, locally produced food, support the local economy, and support local families and individuals. So, who exactly are these local people that the program supports?

Transplanted but Thriving

One of them is Mohamed, a Sudanese immigrant who came to the US over twenty years ago to study agriculture, and was one of the first people to sign on with the program last year. Having farmed his entire life, it only made sense to keep doing what he knew and loved. Mohamed likes to grow a wide variety of edibles, and wants to focus on varieties that are less common to the Lansing area, like purslane, arugula and okra.

"I love to farm." he says, gesturing to the land around him. "I enjoy the fresh air, the clouds, the greenery. Even the ducks and cranes that come at sunset to the pond. Farming benefits my whole being. Eat well, breathe well, live longer." Then he laughs, "Sometimes I stay so late my wife calls me, wondering."

Others are like Jit and Devi, a Bhutanese couple who came to the Lansing after years of living in a Nepalese refugee camp. They have brought to the program their love of the land, and a rich farming heritage. Here they grow crops they knew and loved in Bhutan such as carrots and beans, along side varieties entirely new to them, like kale and spinach.

While explaining their favorite weeding techniques, they tread carefully among the rows of bush beans where each plant is supported by little cages of sticks and twine. They still practice farming much the way they did in Bhutan, using age-old techniques. But here they incorporate new methods too, like the practice of planting in rows which was a revolutionary concept to these seasoned farmers. They have worked the land for as long as they can remember, and hope that they always will. "I will always grow vegetables. Always." Devi smiles.

A Grassroots Approach

Although Sommers says they usually only do "special event" farmer's markets, like the twice annual market held right at the Capitol Building, they do engage in many other forms of distribution for their produce. "We provide vegetables directly to some local restaurants and a few grocery stores as well."

But their biggest method of distribution is through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which is becoming a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. They do this by selling "shares" in the coming season's crop, which consists of a weekly box of whatever is being harvested this week. In spring, the boxes brim with lettuce and peas and asparagus, while in late summer - tomatoes and potatoes and peppers are a more likely fare.

Those who were lucky enough to get a share in the farm during the spring sign-up, will collect their box of fresh veggies and herbs from the distribution booth at the Lansing City Market every week.

A Fruitful Future

Started just last year, the incubator farm already has a large greenhouse to extend the growing season, a barn full of tools, a tractor, and huge piles of nutrient-rich compost and mulch available to all of the farmers working the land here.

But that's not all. Next year the farm will get it's first perennial plantings - asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, possibly even an assortment of fruit trees. And don't forget about the wild flowers. Sommers is hoping to start introducing native plantings that attract pollinators to the crops. But that's just the beginning. "We're going to have bee hives, bat houses, hawk poles, everything you need to practice responsible farming."

"After all," he says, "This is about empowering people through sustainability. And true sustainability is social, economic and environmental." So how does he envision the farm's future? Expansion and growth, in every area. More land, more small farms, and a group of successful farmers who have graduated out of the program and then return to mentor a whole new emerging generation of farmers.

So have a seat, grab a fork, and tuck into a delicious serving of Lansing's blossoming agricultural future!

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Sarah Hillman is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.
 
Photos © Dave Trumpie
 
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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