Sept. 30 2016 11:41 AM

Young farmers excited about working with communities

LANSING — In the past few weeks, 35-year-old John Krohn estimates his urban farm in Lansing has donated 40 pounds of food to people in need. But don’t call it giving back.


“I don’t feel like I’m giving back because I don’t owe anybody anything,” Krohn said.


Call it community. A community Krohn said he relies on as a market, and the community where he has chosen to live.


Brigitte Derel, 35, also wants to feed her community. She sells food from her small rural farm in Chatham in the Upper Peninsula at farmers markets and also works for the Marquette Food Co-Op. That’s one of the reasons why she keeps her prices as low as possible, she said, and also donates what she doesn’t sell to food banks.


Millennials in agriculture see the need for more community involvement, said Emily Eisele, a 31-year-old member of the Michigan Young Farmer Coalition that helps beginning farmers network and learn from established farmers. Millennial farmers, defined as ages 18-35, are passionate about feeding people, said Alexandria Schnabelrauch, the young farmer manager at Michigan Farm Bureau.


Krohn and his wife, Egypt, who both spent their childhoods on dairy farms, wanted to live in the city because of friends, community and nightlife. Urban farming, Krohn said, lets them practice the things that they love about farming, including growing their own food, canning and cooking.They farm two acres, about 20 city lots.


That’s not uncommon, according to John Biernbaum, who teaches organic farming at Michigan State University.


“MSU students in the organic farming class tend to be interested in urban agriculture as an opportunity to do something that can make a difference in people’s quality of life and living environment,” Biernbaum said via email.


There’s concern that there won’t be enough farmers in the future because on average, farmers are in their 50s, said Joan Nelson, executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center in Lansing, which hosts a farmers market and has a community gardening program.


The Farm Bureau has had a young farmer program for most of its history, said Jeremy Nagel, a media relations specialist for the organization. But it’s hard to say just how many young people are currently farming, because the definition of farming is becoming more difficult to pin down as urban farming and gardening for profit are changing what it means to work in agriculture.


“It’s super fuzzy now,” Nagel said.


For his part, Krohn says he considers himself a farmer, not a gardener, because his farm in Lansing’s Urbandale neighborhood produces more than his family can eat.


Urban farming made headlines recently when U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, introduced an urban agriculture bill in Congress. It would set up an urban agriculture office in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Other provisions of the bill include a mentoring program that would connect beginning urban farmers with experienced rural farmers, and a program to encourage farmers with sustainable farms to donate food. Sustainable farms are environmentally sensitive.


The mentorship program is exciting, said Jennifer Fahy, communications director for Farm Aid, a national benefit concert for farmers. She calls the bill an opportunity to change people’s’ thoughts on agriculture.


“We have to shift our thinking to consider that American agriculture will be more and more urban,” Fahy said.


Nagel agrees that urban agriculture is a “growth sector” and says Michigan is uniquely poised to lead the way. Nelson said urban farmers such as Krohn are already changing the communities where they live.


“I wouldn’t call it charity, but I would suggest urban farmers are community builders,” Nelson said.


Eisele agreed and said urban farming requires giving back to the community because farmers are in such close proximity to their neighbor. In September, the Farm Bureau donated money to all seven of the state’s regional food banks under the umbrella of its “Harvest for All” program.

Young farmers love the program, Schanabelrauch said.


“They have adopted the program,” she said. “They want to promote it and increase participation,”


— By KAREN HOPPER USHER, Capital News Service


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