How the Grand Traverse Conservation District plans to save the future of farming
By Sarahbeth Ramsey | November 12, 2022
The Grand Traverse Conservation District (GTCD) is on a mission to change the fate of the local agricultural industry through its new program, the Great Lakes Incubator Farm (GLIF).
Agriculture is currently facing a litany of challenges – from droughts and labor shortages to the rising cost of doing business, retirements and mass closures – that require practical solutions. . On its website, GTCD reports that “70% of farmland will be transferred over the next 20 years” and that “new and beginning farmers face a mountain of obstacles in accessing capital, land, infrastructure and markets”.
Koffi Kpachavi, Executive Director of GTCD, believes the GLIF program has the answer. Through the program, young and new farmers would have the opportunity to get hands-on agricultural training, develop business plans and learn about market trends while gaining access to agricultural land and resources.
Plant the seeds
Kpachavi started toying with the concept of GLIF years ago when he moved to Michigan and saw a two-part problem almost immediately. First, there was an aging population of farmers who were retiring or about to retire and had no one to replace them. Second, in many cases landowners would sell their land to a developer rather than another farmer. In his own words, we were losing farmers and losing farmland.
The current state of the agricultural economy has only made the situation more revealing. The pandemic and recent wars abroad have disrupted supply lines and even caused local food shortages. “It behooves us to find a way to grow food ourselves so that we don’t have to wait for food to arrive from places like California or even overseas,” Kpachavi says.
And so, as the problem has two parts, so does its solution. Kpachavi decided that we should train young or new farmers and then we should help them find land. If there’s a secret sauce to his method, it’s this: he believes future farmers must have both farming skills and business acumen.
Get the best results
In 2016, there were 130 Farm Incubator Programs (FIP) operating in the United States, providing ample opportunities for aspiring farmers to hone their skills. But GLIF will take a hyper-local approach to stand out to people who want to work the land in the region. For example, farmers in northern Michigan often encounter sandy soils with little nutritional value for plants, which can add an additional challenge to growth. GLIF will offer expertise in soil and a variety of other factors that are unique to our region, giving local farmers a head start.
Other program specialties include regenerative agriculture, which emphasizes biodiversity, soil health, waste reduction, and natural approaches to practices such as watering and fertilizing. The concept is being embraced by more farms, especially as the practice can be more resilient to the effects of climate change.
And then, of course, there’s the business angle. The program aims to help reduce start-up costs for new farmers and give them a holistic view of how to build a successful business.
“Your traditional farmer is an excellent farmer: he knows how to grow food. But we are trying to create a better, smarter farmer by giving them not only the skills to grow food, but also how to run a business,” Kapchavi says.
GLIF is still in its infancy as GTCD focuses on fundraising and staffing for the project, but big steps are already underway. Last month, a farm manager was recruited to oversee the application process – required for every potential entrant – and appoint teachers for the students. A practice and demonstration farm will soon take root at the Meyer Farm location across from the Boardman River Nature Center in Traverse City.
Kpachavi expects to have five students in the first class, and he says serious students who are fully invested are essential, as the idea of farming is often romanticized before things get tough. The program will take around three years, with some students graduating faster if they already have a strong agricultural background and simply need to learn more about the business side of farming. Kpachavi points out that before they graduate, students will have a business plan in place for their farm and they will also have secured land through the program.
GLIF plans to work with partners such as conservancies, the National Park Service and individual farmers with farmland for future farmers. They also plan to connect with the Small Business Administration to help with business plans and other aspects of the training program. Kpachavi says they see many potential farmers coming from downstate and he looks forward to giving them the tools they need to achieve their farming dream.
A lively family farm
A big reason this passion project is gaining momentum is because Kpachavi is one to practice what he preaches. After many years of learning all he could about his father’s farm, he now continues to have his own private and sustainable hobby farm.
All that time spent on farms growing up made her realize that the conventional way of growing food is neither sustainable nor healthy. For Kpachavi, farming is, and should be, “as natural as breathing.” His hobby farm is home to livestock and an abundant seasonal garden. They grow and eat their food during the growing season and avoid chemicals and artificial fertilizers.
Koffi has also created a bee club. After discovering that many beekeepers put products inside the hive that are not intended for human consumption, he decided to show others how to harvest honey without using chemicals. The claim is that the chemicals are for the treatment of the hive and will not later end up in the honey; however, Kpachavi says that is not true. Tests on honey have shown that these chemicals show up and will eventually end up on our tables.
Keeping bees chemical-free, for Kpachavi, is just something that makes sense. Sustainability and the importance of chemical-free agriculture are high on his list of values, which he plans to bring to GLIF’s mission.
When asked if his father was happy to see him continue the farming legacy, Kpachavi said his father has since passed away. However, he smiles and says that he and his sister were talking recently. She mentioned how proud he would be of the family member carrying on the tradition of sustainable agriculture. “I’m the only one who did it, so she joked that he would be the proudest of me.”
To learn more about the Great Lakes Incubator Farm, visit natureiscalling.org/glif.