Farming opportunities sprout at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center

New grant funding supports launch of an incubator farm in the food insecure region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Demand for local food has grown throughout the nation, but in remote regions, such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, sourcing fresh, nutrient-rich food is challenging. However, growing conditions in extreme northern climates can be tempered through use of hoophouses and other season-extension technologies. In order to meet this demand for local produce that currently far outweighs the supply, Michigan State University is working on more than just growing food; they are also growing farmers that can eventually supply the local food system.

Matt Raven, from the Department of Community Sustainability at MSU is leading efforts at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center (UPREC) to develop a farm incubator that will focus on increasing access to nutrient-rich food in Michigan’s most remote region. Raven commented that “One of the best ways to improve access to quality food is to source it from local producers. Our goal with the incubator farm at the UPREC’s North Farm is to provide an educational center where we can increase the number of farmers in the UP growing nutrient dense foods.” Launch of this project is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s (AFRI) Foundational Grant program.

This farmer incubator program will be launched in 2015, with preparations already underway to convert some of the original Experiment Station facilities at the North Farm site, located in Chatham, Michigan. The old dairy farm will feature hoophouses, a greenhouse, cold storage, a wash-pack facility and field production areas. Much of the program will be modeled after the MSU Student Organic Farm, located in East Lansing, Michigan, and guided by faculty coordinator John Biernbaum. “While we have 10 years experience in East Lansing, there will be new weather/climate challenges presented by the shorter growing season and marketing challenges presented by having fewer consumers distributed over a larger area.”

The incubator program will target two groups of learners: Apprentice Farmers, who already have basic-skills, but need additional support to successfully farm independently, and Novice Farmers, who are just being exposed to intensive four-season farming and would like to gain competency in the field. Housing is provided on-site, which will provide for an engaging, year-round learning experience. Michigan State University Extension programs will also be held on-site to target Skill-Seekers in the community that would like to learn more about season extension, vegetable production and direct marketing to the local food system.

The incubator farm hopes to collaborate with other initiatives in the region, including the U.P. Food Exchange (UPFE), which supports the local food activities already taking place within the Upper Peninsula’s distinct regions (eastern, central, western), and assists with the development and ongoing maintenance of the three successful regional food hubs. UPFE serves as a resource portal for farmers, businesses and individuals looking to connect with and actively participate in their local food system. Co-project coordinators Michelle Walk with MSU Extension and Natasha Lantz from the Marquette Food Co-op are looking forward to having access to an educational facility to support their work. “We are excited about the food, farmers and educational opportunities that the teaching farm program will bring to the U.P.’s growing local food system and look forward to partnering with UPREC in a variety of ways.” The UPREC farm will market the produce to offset costs for the teaching farm.

Raven’s vision for the North Farm Incubator is for it to be the central location in the U.P. for education and extension programming on community food serving a variety of clients including beginning farmers, current producers, avocational skill seekers, Kindergarten through university students, and anyone else interested in learning more about growing nutrient dense food. Information on the progress of the farm incubator can be attained by contacting Ashley McFarland, Coordinator at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center. 

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