By Colleen Gehoski Steinman
Southeast Michigan’s Forgotten Harvest Farm is expected to take a big jump in production this year with about 900,000 pounds of fresh vegetables going to needy families.
Now in its fifth year, this nonprofit, 95-acre farm in rural Deerfield Township outside Fenton is attracting support from the community. A newly donated movable greenhouse, different crops and improved sustainable farming practices have helped push production to new levels, farm manager Mike Yancho says.
One of the biggest changes is a movable 30-by-96-foot Rolling Thunder greenhouse that sits south of the farm buildings. Donated by Kevin Cragg, of Birmingham, as part of his Eagle Scout project, the new structure allowed for about 1,500 pounds of cherry tomatoes to be harvested by July 4.
“We had cherry tomatoes up the ceiling and back down again,” Yancho says. “We wouldn’t be able to do that without that structure.”
After the cherry tomato harvest, the next crop brought nearly 1,000 pounds of eggplant, and a second harvest will be coming later in the fall. In colder months, radishes and kale will be planted.
Cragg continues to be involved at the farm and is now working to develop viable beehives to help pollinate the crops.
It’s a common theme when people learn about the farm. Donated by the Maroun family, the 95 acres was once a tree nursery. Volunteers provide most of the labor, Yancho says, planting and harvesting the farm’s 15 different kinds of produce, including watermelon, kale, collards, sweet potatoes, zucchini, eggplant and corn, which is distributed to some 257 agencies for needy families.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the more than 3,000 volunteers who come out here time and time again,” Yancho says. “They know they’re going to get sore, hot, sweaty and dirty, and they keep coming out. It’s really gratifying.”
For volunteer coordinator Lori Setera, volunteering just once was all it took for her to quit her job as a surgical tech in a hospital to accept her role with the farm.
“This is my happy place,” she says, looking out over the fields. “I started on a Thursday, thinking I’d simply do this work on my days off from the hospital. After one weekend, I quit my job on Monday.”
Devotion like Setera’s and Cragg’s within the community also has resulted in expanding the reach of free fresh produce. Last year, Forgotten Harvest donated 30,000 pounds of fresh kale and collard greens to Flint and will continue this year.
“Kale and collard greens are one of those vegetables that are hard to keep fresh,” Yancho says. “We can fill that need because we can harvest and get it distributed where it’s needed.”
Despite an improving economy, demand remains high for nutritious, fresh produce, Yancho says.
“The need is never going to go away completely,” he explains. “It’s an economic issue and unemployment issue. It’s always going to be there to a certain extent. There’s always going to be that pressure to pay the rent.”
The growing demand and the support from the community have resulted in sustainable farm practices to increase production. With support from Michigan State University Extension, the farm now uses rye as ground cover to control weeds and retain moisture. Last year, they tested 8 acres and expanded to 21 acres this year. The results have been fewer weeds, less need for herbicides and less irrigation.
They also planted sweet potatoes in a field previously used for corn after deer decimated the crop. Yancho also wants to grow turnips and beets because the roots and the greens can be harvested.
In return for the recommendations, Extension is conducting a two-year study of seed hybrids and use of ground cover on the property.
With additional equipment and a precision planter, Yancho says these kinds of sustainable farming practices will continue to help the farm increase production. The farm’s equipment needs are listed on the Forgotten Harvest website.
“For an outfit that needs to turn a profit, some of what we do wouldn’t work,” he says. “But because we’re set up a little differently, we can rotate our crops a little out of season to help keep that fresh food in their homes.
Steinman writes from DeWitt.