Breaking soil

Tetil holds two large squash, grown on her small plot at the MSU North Farm in Chatham. Tetil is part of the Apprentice Farmer Program, which allows fledgling farmers to utilize a small plot of land to test their hand at running their own operation, without the commitment of purchasing land and farm equipment.

Story by Sam Henke, Marquette Food Co-op • Photos courtesy of Bean Pole Farm

So do you think the U.P. is a good place to start a farm?” I ask the young and enterprising farmer while she is on a break between her other, non-farming jobs. She hesitates then laughs, “. . .if you’re crazy!”

Landen Tetil is the owner and operator of Bean Pole Farm, a small, diversified vegetable and flower farm located in Chatham. In her 20s, Landen is a new kind of farmer. The average age of farmers in the U.P. and across the country is climbing, from around 50 in the 1980s to nearly 60 years old in the most recent data available from the USDA Census of Agriculture.

Dovetailing with the increasing age of farmers is the difficulty in transferring farm ownership as older farmers retire. Farms have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation as a family business, but in the last few decades the trend has moved toward consolidation into larger, corporate-owned farms. This model has not seen widespread adoption in the U.P., where commercial, non-family farms make up a tiny proportion of total farmland. Without a son or daughter to take up the duties, and a lack of corporate interest in the challenging farming conditions the U.P. presents, what happens to a farm when an aging farmer wants to retire?

The Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center (UPREC) has instituted an Apprentice Farmer Program in part to address this issue. Tetils one-acre plot and hoophouses are leased from MSU’s research farm in Chatham. The program is in its third year (also Tetil’s third year—she was the program’s first participant) and was set up to help aspiring farmers build capital and experience in order to eventually purchase land of their own.

“Through a fixed cost based on acreage, I get access to land, water, infrastructure, and the brains of the MSU employees,” Tetil said. The program is intended to provide stability and resources to would-be farmers, although it is not for those new to agriculture.

Landen Tetil of Bean Pole Farm plants seeds.

“My first job was on a farm when I was 14,” she continued. Tetil also worked seasonally on the local Dancing Crane Farm and Seeds & Spores Farm while in college.

“I would absolutely recommend [the Apprentice Farmer Program] to anyone who [is] struggling with the financial and physical resources of starting a farm—I would not recommend it to anyone who needs more farm training. . .it’s not a training program,” she said.

The U.P. Research and Extension Center is a multi-purpose agricultural complex that encompasses research, education and production, in addition to the Apprentice Farmer Program. The organization promotes and interacts with the U.P. food system in many ways, and has been a partner with other U.P. organizations, particularly the U.P. Food Exchange, with whom UPREC collaborates regularly on agriculture conferences, training sessions and tours.

The North Farm at UPREC is a USDA Certified Organic vegetable production operation (the only one in the U.P.). Other areas of the farm are dedicated to agricultural research as part of Michigan State University’s AgBioResearch community. Tetil’s Bean Pole Farm is not USDA Certified Organic, but as part of the program, her farm meets all organic standards.

“Everything I do is organic, because the North Farm is certified organic…I am required to adhere to those standards by leasing from the North Farm, so I can explain this to people, but I can’t put the [USDA Organic] sticker on my product.”

The North Farm also offers a series of “Short Courses,” day-long interactive workshops for gardeners, beginning farmers and established agriculture workers looking to pick up new skills.

“I’m actually helping to teach one of the short courses on soil health this summer,” said Tetil, who has attended all the North Farm Short Courses and who studied soil systems as an undergraduate student at Northern Michigan University. She has also taken part in UPFE-coordinated Farm Food Safety training programs and intends to utilize the UPFE Online Marketplace to reach institutional buyers.

Partnership, collaboration, and community are essential components of helping to grow a local food system, particularly one with the population and climate challenges of the U.P. Groups like UPREC and UPFE take time to improve the conditions for U.P. farmers young and old, but progress is under way.

Landen is grateful for the opportunities available to young and aspiring farmers in the area.

Sprouts begin to pop out of the soil.

“For people like me, I did not inherit a family farm and I wasn’t born into a family with a lot of money…it’s made farming a real possibility for me, it’s made it affordable,” she said.

The U.P. is by no means an easy place to start a farm.

“If you want long-term success you really have to put a lot of attention into your soil…Also, our [natural] growing season is less than 100 days long, so you really have to make use of season extension: green houses, hoop houses, row cover,” Tetil said.

One thing the U.P. does have going for it is an abundance of land and a growing demand for locally produced vegetables and meat.

“In some regards it’s kind of a fool’s dream to farm in the U.P., but a lot of people are making it work. It just takes a lot of forethought,” Tetil said.

The benefits of sticking around the U.P. seem to outweigh the challenges for this young farmer who plans to own land by 2018.

Learn more about MSU North Farm’s farm incubation program and skill seeker short courses and UPFE on their websites, upfoodexchange.com and msunorthfarm.org.

Find Landen and her products through her website, beanpolefarm.com, at the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market every Saturday, or on Fridays at her farm stand at MSU North Farm in Chatham.

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