Women learn to farm at Genesys-hosted incubator

September 1, 2017


Man farming
Michelle Napier-Dunnings yanks a root from newly tilled soil at the Farm Development Center on the campus of Ascension's Genesys Health Park. Now in its second growing season, the center teaches agriculture skills to women. Napier-Dunnings was executive director of Michigan Food & Farming Systems in 2015, when the land was first cultivated. She now is a senior advisor for the organization.

Summer brings abundance and a flurry of activity to the three-acre Farm Development Center on the campus of Ascension's Genesys Health Park. Farmworkers and volunteers keep the crops watered and the weeds at bay as they harvest salad greens, lettuce, spinach, kale, zucchinis, tomatoes, peppers and herbs.

Along with the produce, the center off Pollock Road in Grand Blanc, Mich., is cultivating the business skills and agricultural acumen of women interested in pursuing livelihoods or supplemental income as owners of small agricultural businesses.

Now in its second growing season, the center is the locus of the Women in Agriculture program, which provides education, mentoring, networking opportunities, hands-on experience and other support to women who relish getting their hands in the dirt.

Wellness campus
The land that Genesys Health System is loaning for the Women in Agriculture farm is on the health system's 500-acre campus located in a somewhat rural area just southwest of Grand Blanc's town center. The farm's plot is on a 25-acre section of the Genesys campus slated for future development.

The health system's campus is home to the 400-bed Genesys Regional Medical Center. The mid-Michigan campus also houses an athletic center with a gym, banquet facilities, aquatic center and medical offices; 5 kilometers of hiking trails and a sanctuary garden for personal reflection, that doubles as an outdoor chapel. These features and accompanying healthy lifestyle programing are aimed at improving population health in a county that has some of the worst morbidity and mortality indicators in Michigan.

Farm Development Center staff and volunteers farming
Left, Farm Development Center staff and volunteers set supports for a hoop house greenhouse on land provided by Genesys Health System in Grand Blanc, Mich. Center, the hoop house frame goes up in 2015. At right, the farm hosts an educational tour this spring.

Women in Agriculture complements this wellness aim because in addition to growing healthy food for use locally, it addresses people's financial health — a social determinant of health status.

Sprouting collaborations
The nonprofit Michigan Food & Farming Systems and the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems brought the idea for the women-in-farming program to Genesys, asking for an in-kind donation in the form of a free land lease, about five years ago. The decision to make the land available was an easy one, although it took a few years for all the pieces to fall in place for all the partners.


"It made perfect sense," says Nicholas Evans, vice president of business development for Ascension's Michigan Ministries. "We're increasing economic opportunities for women, promoting healthy food and promoting green activities and the stewardship of the earth." Evans says Genesys is considering launching a similar agricultural business incubator on the campus for veterans.

Women in Agriculture's $50,000 budget is funded entirely by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Michigan health department. That money is used primarily to employ a full-time farm manager and a part-time educator and composting expert — both of them women — and to maintain the property. Most of the programming costs are borne by a group of regional partners, including Michigan State University departments, community agencies and USDA departments.

For the past year and a half, the Food & Farming nonprofit and the Center for Regional Food Systems have been working with their partners to offer free workshops, networking sessions and experiential learning both on the farm and at partners' locations. Participants have learned about soil nutrient management, organic pest control, farm labor management, compliance with USDA regulations, and business planning and marketing, among many other topics. They've networked with experienced farmers, who may be a knowledge resource for them in the future.

There is no formal curriculum; the partners adapt and refine workshop content as they learn of participants' specific needs. The center, which consists of the acreage, a hoop house and a composting site, is part of an incubator farm network and gets much of its workshop content from that network.

Leg up
"It is very difficult to break into, much less prosper in farming," but the odds of success increase with knowledge of markets, federal agriculture programs and local experts available to pitch in, or just offer advice, says Jennifer Silveri. She directs field operations for Food & Farming.

She says that new entrants to farming struggle to get the knowledge, land, equipment and dollars to run a farm. But, unbeknownst to most would-be farmers, the USDA in recent years has taken a special interest in providing loans, grants and expertise to new farmers — and particularly to women and minorities underrepresented as farm owners. By accessing USDA resources, which are available even for small acreage farms, people can establish a large garden or farm plot that can produce healthy yields.

Women toasting with seeds
Women in Agriculture participants toast with seed to celebrate planting the first cover crop at the farm in the summer of 2015. Cover crops add nutrients to soil and prevent erosion. Below, the group moves in a line to seed the furrows.

Silveri says that even a small piece of acreage — a half acre or more — could produce a supplemental income for a household. She adds that some specialty crops that sell at premium prices do not require a lot of acreage. These include organic small grains for brewing craft beer. Also, there are growing markets for native ornamental plants, and this can be a profitable business for aspiring farmers, says Silveri.

Nurturing business
Silveri says the farm is teaching women to develop or scale up gardens or small farms including by helping them establish their eligibility for USDA aid or private lender loans.

Margaret Horton is a married mom of three from Swartz Creek, Mich., who has been a regular at the women's farm. She and her husband have owned a farm for nearly 40 years but have not used it as a working farm. Now retired, the two plan to do so. Horton says the expertise she's been building up through Women in Agriculture is invaluable. "I love having the farm to learn from and the support that the group has given me. I may not have found the courage to start my own farm otherwise."

At the Women in Agriculture center other women will have the opportunity to establish their own small incubator plots to build up their skills until they can create their own off-site businesses.

Anyone, including men, can participate in the Women in Agriculture activities and learning opportunities, but only women will be given the use of land for individual plots, says Silveri.

At the farm, the paid staff and program participants tend the field crops and greens and tomatoes in the hoop house they built. They sell the harvest at a Genesys-sponsored farmer's market near the athletic center as well as at several other outlets, with proceeds going back to the farm, to further develop its programming. Currently, says Silveri, Women in Agriculture is using about half its acreage. She says the farm will expand its use of the land as the program grows; and, in time, the farm likely will yield several hundred pounds of produce annually.

Women sowing seeds

Diverse group

Outside of paid staff, several women work on the farm regularly and about 20 intermittently. Some are single, some are married, some are parents, some are not. Silveri says some of the women already have a farm or garden, some don't. Most of the women work outside the home and hope to supplement their income with agricultural endeavors. Like Horton, some are hoping to add to retirement income.

While current participants come from a range of different socioeconomic backgrounds, Silveri says the goal is to increasingly work with women with limited economic resources and who are members of racial or ethnic minorities.

The Grand Blanc farm is Food & Farming's second such enterprise. Food & Farming has been operating the 45-acre Tilian Farm Development Center in Ann Arbor Township, Mich., since 2013 as an incubator farm to educate low-income people and novice farmers, particularly members of racial or ethnic minorities. Eleven people are incubating individual businesses on the property producing eggs, vegetables, heirloom crops and micrograins; two are "graduating" this season to open their own off-site businesses, says Silveri.

Partner organizations

Nine partners based in Michigan run or support the Women in Agriculture programs:

  • Genesys Health System, parent of Genesys Health Park
  • Michigan Food & Farming Systems
  • Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems
  • Michigan State University Extension
  • edible flint, a network promoting the growing of — and access to — healthy food
  • MSU Student Organic Farm
  • Community Foundation of Greater Flint, Mich.
  • ROWE Professional Services Company ofFlint, Mich.
  • USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service, Michigan


Vermicomposting converts food scraps to fertilizer naturally

Amy Freeman directs Women in Agriculture's vermicomposting program, but worms do much of the work. They digest food scraps from Genesys Regional Medical Center and excrete nutrient-rich castings that are used to enrich the vegetable beds.

Freeman says the prep kitchen at Genesys' cafeteria brings buckets of fruit and vegetable scraps — most of it already sliced and diced — to the farm. Freeman feeds it to worms in a 12-foot-by-4-foot, in-the-ground vermicomposting bed at the Women in Agriculture site.

The farm uses the eisenia fetida species of earthworm, a.k.a., red wigglers. The farm began with about 100 pounds of the earthworms, and the colony is in the population buildup phase. Freeman says the farm expects to use a maximum of 350 pounds of prep waste per week this fall, but once the worm population expands, the colony will be able to process a maximum of 600 pounds of waste per week.

The worms work year-round; they are most efficient in the spring and fall, Freeman says. The worms produce castings that will be used as a soil amendment to enrich the soil on the farm, Freeman says. Those castings contain microbes that improve the biodiversity and fertility of the soil and increase the farm's ability to grow healthy, nutritious vegetables, she says.


Greenhouse is downright neighborly

The Evergreen greenhouse at Genesys Health Park has been a hospitable neighbor to the Women in Agriculture program, providing access to water and electricity.

Genesys Regional Medical Center owns the greenhouse, and the Genesys' foundation and Genesys' volunteer organization run it and related fundraising projects.

The Evergreen team sells plants and flowers grown in the greenhouse at a fundraiser cart and through special promotions. The Evergreen site also has a small garden, and the greenhouse team sells produce from the garden at a Genesys farmers' market.

The Evergreen team also plants and maintains decorative planter pots at Genesys Regional Medical Center's entrance on the Genesys Health Park campus, gardens and planters throughout the hospital and a flower bed near an on-campus athletic club. The hospital pays the Evergreen team a nominal fee for these landscaping services; and that fee also goes back to Evergreen, as part of the fundraising.


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