FENTON, MI --
Dirt roads people travel to find Forgotten Harvest Farms near Fenton are filled with chatter bumps and, during certain seasons, deep, muddy potholes.
Recipients of the farm’s beneficence may arrive with rattles and loose springs lodged in their souls, even as their inclement seasons lead to sunshine and blacktop.
Redemption, however, isn’t found on pavement. As proof, many people willingly return to those dirt roads with repaired hearts.
“Among one of the first groups of volunteers that came to this farm was a mother and two kids,” said Forgotten Harvest Farm Manager Mike Yancho. “She had gotten food from Forgotten Harvest when she needed it, and now that she was back on her feet, she wanted to bring her kids out to help. She wanted to show her gratitude, and that’s the result of what we do. We help break poverty and build attitudes. People improve their lives by not having to make a choice between rent or electricity or a car payment and food. The way I see it is that if you have to make that choice, you’re under a whole lot of stress. If you’re trying to find food instead of a job, Forgotten Harvest can at least take one thing off your plate. To be able to get rid of that one stress is extremely important. It helps people, community and all of society if we can take that one stressor off their plates so they can function better.”
Once they’re able to function without a grumbling stomach, some beneficiaries of Forgotten Harvest join hundreds of other volunteers at the farm to perform hard labor that isn’t normally done by hand anymore.
Their first volunteer task each spring, appropriately, is picking rocks.
“That’s always a fun one—for about a half-hour,” Yancho laughed. “I tell them that every farm kid’s first job is to go out and pick up rocks. During their orientation, I hold up a perfectly good disk blade, one that’s beat up, and one that’s completely broken in half. I tell them that this is 50 bucks. And if it’s in the middle of a gang, it’s half a day to pull it apart and put it back together. And because we can produce five meals for every dollar, missing too many rocks can mean missing 250 meals.”
While that light-hearted guilt doesn’t necessarily ensure efficiency, the Forgotten Harvest board does.
“Our finance department makes sure we spend every single penny absolutely correctly,” Yancho said.
The farm’s efficiency can’t compare to a modern commercial farm, simply because volunteer labor doesn’t concern itself with the bottom line. But when it comes to food rescue—part of Forgotten Harvest’s commitment to end food waste—there is no wasted effort.
“We send trucks anywhere excess food would go to waste,” Yancho said. “Grocery stores, caterers, ball parks, airlines. If it would go to waste, we get it and repackage it. Sometimes it goes right to the agency that’s going to use it.”
As for what’s grown on the farm, the charity’s emphasis has changed the last few years, Yancho said.
“We’ve switched from growing maximum pounds to maximum nutrient value,” he said. “You don’t get as many pounds of kale out of an acre as potatoes, but there is so much more nutrient value to it that we thought it was important to provide those things, and we can. If we can get people accustomed to eating those things, we’re doing double duty. We’re helping influence diets in a better way.”
This year, the farm grows nine different crops: Navy beans, sweet corn, zucchini, butternut squash, kale, collard, broccoli, cabbage and, new this year, tomatoes in a rolling high-tunnel greenhouse produced by Eagle Scout candidate Kevin Cragg. Also, two newly-worked acres in an old nursery field produce collard and kale specifically for Flint.
“If a food is high in calcium and iron, it reduces the amount of lead absorbed into the body,” Yancho said. “We partner with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, which will send trucks out to pick it up. It’s all reciprocal. When they have extra, we go get it. We do a lot of that through the Food Bank Council. We’re plugged in to everyone.”
At times, it seems that everyone is plugged into the farm. Last year, about 3,000 people volunteered.
“Sometimes it looks like a swarm of locusts,” Yancho laughed. “But when we have 100 people in the sweet corn, they can harvest an acre right now. And with the broccoli, because the labor is all volunteer, we’re able to harvest the main heads, then come back later and get all the secondary heads. Then after harvest we do weed control. We have 40 hoes.”
Times come, however, when Yancho must use mechanical means to produce a crop. Sprays for powdery mildew in the cucurbits and deer repellant in the sweet corn are relatively common, and the farm also works with Michigan State University on cover-crop experiments. Black plastic is commonly used for weed control, but at this point, it appears that strip-tilling and crimping down a rye cover crop offers the best weed control and moisture retention.
Retaining volunteers doesn’t seem to be a problem, though. On occasion, heat or other inclement weather may reduce the numbers, and that always hurts.
“We have a staff of three on a 100-acre vegetable farm, so we rely on the volunteers,” Yancho said. “When they don’t show up, it’s a big problem.”
For those who stick with it, however, the satisfaction of working to bring food to the hungry has another gratifying aspect for Yancho and his fellow farmers.
“Every day, I hear people say they have a new appreciation for farmers, and a new appreciation for where their food comes from,” he said. “They also say ‘now I know why my food costs so much.’”
Cost of that labor, however, seems to be no sweat compared to the need for life-sustaining crops. But when people help other people smooth out the chatter bumps, even simple acts such as hoeing beans can build a highway that leads back to another redemptive dirt road.