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Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Minor

Tilian Farm Development Center and their Contribution to Sustainability

Tilian Farm Development Center is an incubator farm in Ann Arbor, MI managed by Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS). Comprised of several beginning farmers, this system provides them of the opportunity to work toward personal farming goals and adjust to their local consumer market, in a relatively low-risk setting. On our class visit to the farm, we were greeted by Jared Talaga (a former SAFS student) and Caroline, who currently manages a food hub in the Metro Detroit area called Grow Eastern Market. It is abundantly clear they are both using their education and experience as farmers to help work towards a more sustainable agriculture and food system here in Michigan.

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Tilian was once certified organic, similar to many of the farms we met with this semester. However, as Jared and Caroline discussed, the current organic certification process is often too costly and time-consuming for busy farmers to consider it essential to their success. The farms found at Tilian FDC are small, diverse operations striving to uphold practices that align with environmental, social and economic sustainability. These farmers are working to build local community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and supply restaurants and markets with heirloom varieties of tomatoes, salad greens, squash and root vegetables among others. As Jared pointed out, “no one’s coming out here trying to farm two acres of soy”. These rented plots aren’t meant to be the forever farm for any of these beginning farmers but rather a helping hand into the world of small-scale agriculture. But what these farmers get is more than just rented acres. Tilian members enter a community of peer mentoring, with training programs including growing basics and how to wholesale. In past years they’ve tried to orchestrate a CSA program that pulls from all the Tilian farms but what they’ve experienced is that many of these start-up operations want to experience having their own stand at weekly farmers markets and building relationships with customers.

Next year Jared hopes to implement a new program, switching from quarterly to monthly billing, and requiring farmers to attend at least 75% of the monthly workshops, including excel bootcamps, how to write a business plan and how to market yourself on social media. Currently, they collaborate on designated work days each month pertaining to farm maintenance, and they have brief biweekly check-in sessions on Mondays. These aspects of Tilian help to build resilience and longevity in up-and-coming farms as well as a sense of community among the farmers.

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Jared and Caroline are also helping the incubator farmers to connect with their local food system. Caroline works for Grow Eastern Market, based in Detroit, which is on its third year of connecting small Michigan farms to tables. Currently they complete a loop twice a week which services 25 farmers, including 4 from Tilian, by handling the logistics and delivery from farms directly to restaurants or markets. This is advantageous to small farmers because it allows Michigan agriculture to be competitive to restaurants and is a convenient and reliable system. Because there are over 20 farms, it allows for redundancy to ensure orders can be filled as needed. It also helps the farmers because it saves them time from manning a farmers market stand for hours. Jared has help positions in many different sectors of our local agriculture system including managing a hoop house company (Nifty Hoops in Ann Arbor), managing a nonprofit farm (Growing Hopes in Ypsilanti), working for the Ingham County Land Bank through AmeriCorps, and doing some farming of his own. He provides the Tilian farmers with knowledgeable advice, so they can situate themselves in the best way possible.

The biggest issue they’ve had to combat recently is chemical drift from nearby farms. Jared pointed out they’ve become familiar with filing complaints through USDA to ensure others are responsibly using pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Such chemicals can be carried great distances by the wind and enter their hoop houses causing extensive plant damage, especially to the tomatoes. They are working with plants that were never bred to withstand such strong chemicals. This is yet another example we’ve seen on our visits of how farmer’s must constantly be adapting and problem-solving season to season.

They also discussed an advantageous business model that their farmers have participated in and that through Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor. Farmers are able to drop off large quantities of their products, set their price and Argus takes 20% of their sales. They also allow you to decide what happens with your food that does not sell. You can choose to compost, pick it back up, or donate to local food banks. For most of the Tilian farmers that have utilized Argus as a consumer, they’ve seen better sales through this model than your classic farmers market, and it saves them the time to manage a stand themselves at a market. Argus started as a nonprofit by an older couple that renovated a gas station, and they have since had to open a second location to keep up with the demand. Argus also contains a commercial kitchen which allows them to lightly process unsold food (chop carrots, slice apples, etc.) and sell these value-added products to local schools. This model succeeds in connecting the public to local, diverse and healthy food and servicing the needs of their local farmers.

Tilian Farm Development Center is doing more than their fair share of improving the agriculture and food system in Southeast Michigan. They are a model community serving to inspire more operations with similar goals. So far four farmers have “graduated” from Tilian and are still in operation. Green Things Farm was able to leave Tilian profitable and maintain a 100-person CSA. Another couple is full-time farming, a practice which is increasingly less common. Jared hopes to create a local land-link among property owners and farmers to account for the difficulty of acquiring land for beginning farms. Undoubtedly, he will continue to foster successful, sustainable farm operations that build a robust and connected food community.