This Traverse City garden is growing gorgeous produce and green jobs
A small rabbit darts under a row of lavender ringed with sweet basil, just up from a tempting patch of tomatoes, corn and sunflowers, escaping a pair of approaching young boys. But in this garden, whose neat rows are embellished with a colorful peace sign, the bunny needn't worry. These young boys are on a mission: To exterminate the enemy -- potato bugs -- with their bare hands.
"We like to put an end to their misery, so we squish them," explains Dan Erb, 10, as brother John eliminates the creepy-crawly nemesis with the enthusiasm of a superhero out to save the planet. "We're just helping our plants."
These and other young participants in the Beehive Art-Farm camp, run by the Traverse City-based Little Artshram
, are doing more than that as they rid a garden of pests and snack their way through some sweet peas and licorice-flavored fennel plants. They're part of a multidimensional, Traverse City-based experiment that's creating a new model of farming along with a new way of interacting around food.
As campers make compost tea and plant seed balls, college-age interns work as green entrepreneurs -- planting, growing, marketing and selling the garden bounty. If they come out in the black, they get paid. If not, they've learned some lessons along the way, says Penny Krebiehl, a trained illustrator and painter who founded Little Artshram in 2000 as a education-oriented collection of artists, musicians, environmentalists and gardeners who take inspiration from nature and runs the camp and market programs under its umbrella. She's also a leader in the field of permaculture, an agricultural design system based on shapes and patterns found in nature. As she sees it, planting flowers and herbs amid tall stalks of corn and other vegetables is not just aesthetically pleasing, it also cuts down on the need for weeding and other human intervention.
A 15-year lease from the city also is allowing time to develop the green jobs and camp programs through plenty of experimentation -- something that appeals to the artist and teacher who calls herself an art farmer (someone who supports farms creatively).
"It's not a new idea," she explains of the market project. "It's the way we used to live -- but then we lived with our relatives."
The mostly self-sufficient Youth Garden project of Little Artshram, supplemented with grant funding, is located within a community garden situated on the one-time farm site of a former state mental hospital, now called the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The garden is across from the power plant on Red Drive past Trattoria Stella restaurant. It's ahead of the curve in many ways, both in the sustainable and organic methods of planting and the emphasis on green jobs, says Diane Conners, senior policy specialist in food and farming at the Michigan Land Use Institute.
The movement isn't replacing farms of 100 or even 1,000 acres, Conners says, but adds another element to the evolving definition of farming. At the same time, she says, the community garden movement is getting people back in touch with each other around food in much the same way people used to gather regularly around a dinner table. Other community gardeners help mentor the campers and even share produce when the older gardeners fall short.
On a recent midsummer Friday, Chris Steffes is working the busy early shift. It's market day, and Steffes, who is headed to Michigan State University in the fall as an accounting major, is carefully harvesting a mix of lettuce and arugula. He cups the greens in one hand, snips off the tops with the other, and places the produce in a basket that soon fills to overflowing. Some of the bounty is headed for the 10 people who have bought shares in the project's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA
) program. What's left will be sold elsewhere on the grounds of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, which hosts two farmers markets weekly.
Her young campers busy with the potato-bug hunt, project manager Kriebiehl strolls over to Steffes with a proposition: A local restaurant owner is open to buying all the cilantro the interns can grow, possibly through a barter arrangement. He serves great coffee and pastrami sandwiches, Kriebiehl points out. Or they could offer the produce for what the man is currently paying at Sam's Club.
"You think about it," she tells Steffes. "You're the money man."
That Kriebiehl's experiment is working, at least in part, is evident as the other youngsters continue their tasks in their Beehive day camp. In great detail, they share the way they mixed stinging nettles into a compost tea, spreading it onto roots for protection. As they stand facing each of the four directions, one by one hurling seed balls toward more open areas of the garden, they can recite the planting philosophy behind this "Seven Sisters" garden that is based on the way Native Americans used companion plantings of corn, squash and beans for the perfect mix of shade and stability.
As for the economically sustainable part? "That's not working out too well," Steffes admits. "We're too small scale to be successful in agriculture, you really need to produce a lot of food."
But the project continues to evolve. The young farmers have been tapped to supply produce for a high-profile "Evening with Mario Batali" to be held on the historic front lawn of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons on August 14 as part of the Traverse
City National Writers Series
. They're also getting creative with recipes; the week's farm share features a modified pesto recipe that uses what's in abundance: spinach and arugula. And Kriebehl's connections continue to bring opportunities, says Steffes, who mulls over her cash-versus-barter offer for the cilantro as he continues his weekly harvest.
"I would just sell it. That's what I'm thinking," he says. "I'm sure he makes good sandwiches. But we need the money."Kim Schneider is based in Suttons Bay. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.