Greens and growth: local agriculture is a growing business in the eastern U.P.

Growing greens on the farm and making green in the local economy have found common ground in community supported agriculture. That's where the public can buy a share of an area farm's goods and receive a basket of it each week. Customers, farmers and local businesses are seeing the growing benefits of Sault Ste. Marie's two CSAs.

"You hear the mantra, 'Buy local, be local,' and that's it in practice," says Mark Jones, of the Sault. Alongside his wife Deanna, he owns and operates Beaver Meadow Creek Farms, located south of town. They operate their CSA during the growing season, packing baskets to suit a family of four. In 2015, they distributed 55 baskets each week.

Carolyn Rajewski and Greg Zimmerman operate the area's other CSA program. They started Ski Country Farm on their property. The farm offers a smaller weekly basket; Zimmerman estimates it would work for a couple, or two individuals who want to share local and diverse produce. They keep their membership around 15.

Both farms steer away from using harsh pesticides and fertilizers, and have a firm commitment to sustainable farming methods.

"It is a lot of work, but it's enjoyable work," Zimmerman says, adding he likes to come in at the end of the day and feel tired in a good way.

Some area businesses are also shopping at Ski Country and Beaver Meadow Creek farms. Zimmerman says they sell to Upper Crust Pizza and Karl's Cuisine and Mark Jones notes their farm has had huge success selling to Les Cheneaux Culinary School.

Mark says, "That venue is perfect for a small farm that doesn't necessarily have the same [products] every week. With them, they love having different stuff every week, whereas most restaurants want the same thing every week." He adds, laughing, "Where else are we going to sell 200 pounds of turnips?"

The farms' focus on local food means income from customers gets circulated directly back into the local economy, and that's a good thing, says Downtown Development Authority Director Justin Knepper, who lists his reasons for shopping local as the experience, the relationship, and the economic impact.

Local history backs him up. Going back 126 years, he quoted the St. Ignace newspaper from December  6, 1890: "Never send a dollar from home when the article that that dollar can purchase can be found at home. Money is financial blood. Its circulation keeps the business body alive. …Spend your money with the merchants who help sustain the city you reside in and who will pay taxes and are with you the year round. "

Knepper says because both CSAs distribute their baskets at the Sault's weekly Farmers' Market, the CSAs are helping boost market traffic.

"Around the U.P. there's been a growing [farmers' market] movement. Marquette is leading the pack, but we're catching up. We're trying to get to that next growth point, which CSAs are a big part of," Knepper says. "CSAs bring in probably the largest number of shoppers, the largest number of individuals that, each week in the summer, have to come downtown."
He says the CSAs do offer some competition for the local brick and mortar stores, but overall, they've been beneficial to the community.

Mark Jones says if CSA members come to the market looking for items they don't have, he points them toward a vendor who will.

"You would think that the other vendors wouldn't like [having CSAs there], but they love it," he says.

It's that kind of quality interaction with the community and with customers Zimmerman recalls as the most rewarding part of the job description, especially being on a first-name basis with customers, and providing them with "fresh, local, good-for-you produce raised by people you know."

Both Ski Country and Beaver Meadow Creek farms follow what they see as a common employment route for farmers, with one person working a nine-to-five job with regular paychecks and benefits, and the other dedicating a career to agricultural enterprise.

Last year, Rajewski left her employer to focus on Ski Country Farm, and to be able to spend more time with family. Zimmerman says the income from their CSA and farm hasn't completely replaced Rajewski's salary, but close, and their quality of life is better. Meanwhile, he continues to work at Lake Superior State University in the biology department.

"Is it possible to make real money? It is," Zimmerman said. "You're not going to get real rich but if you figure out your market, figure out how to do it efficiently, it can be a nice second income."

Mark Jones owns a lawn care business, but says he's purposefully scaling back so he can spend time and energy on the CSA and their farm. Deanna will continue her career as a nurse. Mark observes that in farming, "You have to get comfortable with [money] going out as fast as it's coming in. It's different with this type of work, than, say, with [Deanna's] hospital work, where every two weeks you get paid."

Knepper is hopeful the success of these two farms will inspire others.
"It shows people that you can be successful as a farmer in the eastern U.P. and that there's a demand. That's something that amazes me. As a community resident, and as someone who's lived in the U.P. their whole lives, I think it's amazing," he says.

In addition to a wide variety of produce, Beaver Meadow Creek offers some animal products, such as turkey and cuts of veal, and sometimes bring products to the Les Cheneaux weekly winter Sip 'n Shop in Hessel. Ski Country baked goods also can be found at both the summer and winter Sault Farmers' Market.

Beaver Meadow Creek Farms and Ski Country Farm are active on Facebook, for anyone looking for more information and to see market offerings each week.

Megan Collier was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, graduated from Michigan Tech, and survived three years working as a newspaper reporter in Metro Detroit before returning to the UP to raise a family. She now splits her time between the Soo and Marquette,and is enthusiastic about her tiny house build, shopping local, and the Lake Superior shoreline. ?
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