A New Breed: Tilian Farm Development Center

It took a while, but now southeast Michigan is flush with business incubators: TechTown, Tech Brewery, SPARK East, to name a few. With many of them already supporting the life sciences and high-tech, what other industry could use some incubation? Food and agriculture being Michigan's second-largest economic sector, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, it's a wonder more residents haven't planted themselves in this career field. Demand for locally-grown food is high, there's a surging trade in farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares – and you can wear Carhartt every day.

Coming at a ripe time, a program of the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP), the Tilian Farm Development Center, on 44 acres of land in Ann Arbor Township, runs a farm incubator for farm start-ups and residency farmer program for individuals with previous farm experience. Each program is two years long, with two new incubator farms and one resident farmer added each year. Tilian founding steering committee member Jeremy Moghtader believes the incubator program is the first of its kind in Michigan, and the farmer residency is the only one in the nation.

But likely the biggest problem for new college grads or career-changers looking to make a living off of agriculture is farming's reputation for being a legacy profession, with farm properties passed down familial lines. Moghtader, who is also director of the Organic Farmer Training Program and manager of the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State University, says even after years of hands-on experience,  "Many of them still have additional barriers to starting up their farm. These barriers tend to be around land access, equipment access, market and capital access. Projects like the Tilian Farm Development Center are ways to try to lower these barriers to new farm start-ups, and to create what I would call bridge steps for students who have completed a program like mine or have other qualifying farm experiences."

Moghtader talks with Concentrate's Tanya Muzumdar about Tilian's niche in the farming field, and agriculture as a potential profession for those who aren't "landed".

How was Tilian Farm launched in 2010?

Ann Arbor Township knew about the training program at MSU. The township preservation board asked me for some recommendations for what they should do with their land...We ended up submitting a grant to the USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program and basically the FSEP and the township worked together. That grant was denied. Simultaneously, [fellow Tilian steering committee member] Jeff McCabe had applied to a different pot of USDA money to start a very similar program...When he ended up receiving that grant, we agreed to merge them into Tilian.

After that initial grant, how are you funding Tilian?

There are three major grant funding sources to date. There's the grant Jeff McCabe received from the USDA Conservation and Innovation program, another USDA Farmers Market Promotion program grant the FSEP received for equipment purchases...and then FSEP also had secured a Beginning Farmers and Ranchers grant, a grant that we originally applied for and didn't receive the first time we applied. When we applied the second time, we received partial funding of that grant as a development grant...I think we're going to continue to seek grant funds from the USDA and other places that are clearly interested in supporting this kind of work, but we know that we don't want the project and the program to live and die by a grant cycle model.

I think that with Tilian the goal is that it also have a built-in self-sufficiency to sustain itself through the future...The farmer residency program operates what you can describe as the home base farm for the Tilian Farm Development Center...The proceeds from the operation of that farm will go to help both pay for the residents and also help generate some needed overhead and structural maintenance as well as staff to help manage the program.

You seek new incubator farms and resident farmers each year. What are you looking for in successful candidates?

The resident farmer applicant we're looking for is someone who has previous farming experience...say, someone who's worked for several seasons on an organic farm and knows the ins and outs of production. They need to really understand the basics of production and management of farming. They're looking for an opportunity to gain some more management experience. Because it's often difficult in the farm world right now, the industry...isn't really developed to the point where there's a lot of management positions. Farms often have owners, and those owners are in charge of stuff and then they employ laborers to do things. And so there's a real gap there. Some states, California, Wisconsin, some other places have larger farms where there are farm manager jobs.

With the incubator program, we're looking for people who have ready-to-go business plans, who have outlined what their market is, who they're going to sell to, what their production numbers are, a complete financial budget...They say, "If I have access to this land and this equipment, I can launch this business."

What's the biggest barrier faced by those who would like to become farmers?

FSEP just completed a survey of beginning farmers. Capital and land access are the top two that people listed, along with being interested in access to mentorship and continuing education...

The federal government has programs for helping people get farm loans for businesses and things like that, but all of those things, through commercial lending, GreenStone Farm Credit Services, and the USDA Farm Service Agency, they really require people to have an existing farm business already, to do that..."It's like, show me that you have a track record, that you have a farm that's filed a Schedule F and has made a little money over the last couple of years." And then that's a different conversation.

Sounds like the chicken or the egg problem.

Right. Those entities, they want to serve that market, but when you show up there, if you don't have some credentials that you've been a farmer, even those programs from the government which are designed to basically lend money to new and beginning farmers, they say, "We want to see your documented experience." For the USDA, that's usually three years of some kind of farming or management experience.

What's the background of the farmers at Tilian?

Most of the folks we're dealing with at Tilian and MSU's organic farmer training program are from non-farm backgrounds. They're folks who are second-career folks, career-shifters. A lot of them are young folks that have college degrees, in their late 20s and don't have access to land and capital.

At Tilian to date all of the people who have farmed there have been from non-farm backgrounds...We live in a world where we want people to have choice. We want the sons and daughters of farmers to grow up and be doctors and teachers and contractors and whatever they want to be, but if we live in that world, then we also need to live in a world where the sons and daughters of doctors and teachers and contractors can choose to be farmers, can choose farming as a vocation, as a career path.

So how can farming be a viable, profitable career option for locals?

I think there's a lot of opportunity. We are seeing such an increase in the interest in local foods. There are some goals in Washtenaw County – Ten Percent Washtenaw means 10% of the food that we consume is being produced locally – right now, we're not doing that.

We need to be working on increasing market access and consumption of locally produced product, but at the same time we need to be making sure we're producing that product so... one isn't getting too far ahead of the other. What we're seeing as of late...specifically in the Ann Arbor community, there are a lot of new CSAs, there are a lot of new vendors in farmers markets, but we still haven't really stretched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the volume of local product flowing into institutions, universities, hospitals, school systems, and in regular grocery retailers.

Through partnership with the Washtenaw Food Hub, with the potential of a place like that to help facilitate better distribution channels, and what FSEP is doing with its farm institution programming we really are in a place where...there's other work going on in a broader sphere, from the food hub to FSEP to make that greater connectivity and provide that kind of opportunity for local businesses at all different sections of the food sector.

If you look at some statistics, Mike Hamm, who's the endowed chairperson for sustainable agriculture at MSU and the director of the Center for Regional Food Systems, which the student farm is a part of, if the residents of Michigan were to consume the USDA-recommended fruits and vegetables consumption level, if we were to try to make up the gap between what we currently consume and what we're supposed to consume, with Michigan-grown product we would need 20-30,000 additional acres of fruit and vegetable production in the state.

What has been Tilian's biggest success to date?

I would say that we've had the successful launch of five new farm businesses in our community. Green Things Farm, Seeley Farm, Bending Sickle Community Farm, those are farms that have launched businesses and have already secured land or are in the process of securing land and are moving out to continue to farm elsewhere in the community...Honest Eats is in its second year and it's a functioning farm business with just one year left at Tilian. The residency farm launched as the first of its kind of program and that's been a big success, and within the residency farm we've piloted some new ideas around restaurant shares and restaurant CSAs.

What are Tilian's plans for the next couple of years?

Continuing to have a successful incubator farming program and a residency farm program and to see the number of participants in the incubator program rise a little bit, as well as to develop those programmatic components that are still underdeveloped around helping link program participants with land to farm on after they've been at Tilian. Also, helping them with securing market access both while they're at Tilian and after they leave. And helping them secure capital access when they leave and helping provide them with mentorship while at Tilian and beyond...If Tilian is a bridge step between what we currently have and farm ownership, there's some other bridge steps that we can build off the edge of Tilian to help make that pathway a little bit more clear, better paved. Right now that career pathway is like bushwhacking.

I'd like to see it to the point where [it's defined] for people who are in school – my guidance counselor certainly at no point in my life was like, "You're a smart guy; you should farm." Nobody says that to a high school student.

Not that people have to or need to choose it, just that it's there. I know how to become a lawyer or a nurse or a doctor; those paths are well-paved, legally enshrined even. I don't think farming has to go to that extent, but I think that just making it so that someone can at least see a path as opposed to having to completely invent one.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous feature column was "Now Playing: Spontaneous Art".

All photos by Doug Coombe

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.