Snow flurries swirl along I-94 as I drive out to talk to Trent Thompson of Green Gardens Community Farm, east of Battle Creek, a week before Christmas. It’s been an unusually warm fall, allowing field crops to continue to be harvested far past when they can be most years. Yesterday was a day to get as much picked as possible, so today is the semi-official end of the season, or as close to the end of the season as Trent gets. Several of his hoop houses are full of greens which, along with carrots and other vegetables in storage, will send him every week to the indoor winter market in Kalamazoo. This makes eating a lot tastier and healthier for those of us who try to source as much as we can from local growers, but it also means a lot less down time for farmers after the relentless work the usual spring-fall crops demand. Trent has had only two half-days off since May before today, something a January trip to Florida will only do a little to make up for. But Trent isn’t complaining.
Though I’d met Trent at a dinner Donna McClurkan organized several years ago, and though hardly a week has gone by when I haven’t bought something from his stand at the Bank St. Market, I’ve never been to his farm, either the original one he started on rented land in 2008 or this one, which is on twenty acres that he and his wife Ruthie purchased in 2012. I pull up and park in front of a long low barn sitting perpendicular to a row of six big hoop houses and next to a stately old white farmhouse with a wraparound porch, columns, and shade trees in front. Trent and Ruthie, along with toddler Jorah, will soon move into the main house out of an apartment built off the back that they’ve been renting, just one of many steps forward that they’re taking as their farm grows. Trent calls to me before I can ring the wrong doorbell, and I walk over to meet him where he’s come out of the barn. He greets me with a strong handshake and then we head inside to talk for a bit with Ruthie before he and his feline helper, May, give me a tour of the farm.
Trent and Ruthie met at the Richland farmers’ market, where she was selling surplus produce from a garden she helped maintain at the Kellogg Biological Station. “He wooed me with sunflowers” Ruthie says, and pretty soon they were married and farming together. For the first years together, she tells me, “I was heavily involved in the farm work – out in the fields every day, I’d get up early, I’d stay up late, I’d go to market.” Now with Jorah to look after, she says, “I don’t really do all that now, ‘cause I’m taking care of her.” Not that that keeps them indoors: Jorah has “already got out there and picked tomatoes and strawberries, she’s weeded some,” says Trent. His work hours mean not a lot of play time, but it does mean he’s around in a way lots of working parents aren’t. Ruthie says, “I tell her, you know, for other kids, their dad goes to work and they’ll see him in the morning but they don’t see him again until dinnertime, so it’s nice that he gets to come in and have lunch with you and see you.” Still, having a child has made her realize that there’s a need not to let the farm be “all-consuming,” and Trent admits that farm work and family make for “a hard balancing act.” He points out, though, that all this “is not necessarily unique to farming – there’s a lot of other small business owners that have a hard time balancing family with work.” He’s confident they’ll find that balance though, and, in the meantime, he’s happy that Jorah gets to be a farm girl. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says, adding that “I think she’s going to love growing up on this farm. She’s very fortunate I think, to have the opportunity to grow up here.” One of the benefits, though she may not always see it as such, is that she’ll have lots of opportunity to work. As Trent says, “it’s good for kids to work and have responsibility, I think that gives them purpose” and helps them learn “problem solving and critical thinking.”
Problem solving and critical thinking might not be the first things you think of when you think of Green Gardens. More likely it’s the friendliness of everyone working at their table, or the color or taste or variety of their produce. If you’ve seen their stall at the Bank St. Market in Kalamazoo – they go to the Battle Creek market too, and now also one in Marshall – you know what a bountiful table they put together. Set in the southwest corner of the market, it spills out of the main structure, with mounds of greens dominating one end no matter whether it’s spring, summer or fall, and the rest filled out with whatever is taking its turn in the seasonal spotlight. You’d swear Trent and his always-smiling helpers have polished everything on the table: the reds and blues of tomatoes and potatoes pop, the leafy greens gleam, the orange of the carrots and their bushy tops comes into focus next to the undulating blacks and purples of the eggplants, or the greens of peppers, or the whites of turnips and giant kohlrabi; even the dry skin of the onions seems to glow a little. We have a circuit of tables we shop from at the market each week, each with its own style and beauty, but none shouts abundance and color the way Green Gardens’ does.
Problem solving and critical thinking are behind all this, however. This is Trent’s 8th year as a grower, and a lot of what we talk about when he shows me around the fields – some brown and resting, others covered in a lush rye cover crop, a few with kales and other cold-friendly plants still looking vibrant – is the learning curve he’s climbed in farming, as well as how they’re getting better and better at growing each year.
There are so many aspects to this that it’s amazing anyone can pull them all together and actually make it work. Right now, as this season is ending, it’s time to decide on seed orders for next year. For a home gardener, surrounded by catalogs bursting with an endless variety of colorful vegetables to experiment with, this is a fun and self-indulgent task, a time for winter fantasy. But for a commercial grower, choosing seeds means above all figuring out what can be grown successfully that people will actually want to buy. Trent says this year they slipped a little in tracking what they took to market and how well it sold, but they’ve been good in the past about keeping market records, so they have some good data to draw on to make these decisions. These data let them see what’s been successful, and once any new additions are figured out (requests, experiments), it becomes a matter of planning out the whole complex arc from seed to harvest. Trent has to figure out when to start what and in what quantity and order (they don’t buy starts; everything begins in their own hoop house or soil), and how everything will get into the ground, whether in the fields or hoop houses, all so that things can be harvested in saleable quantities continuously throughout the season.
The number of variables at both the growing and selling ends makes this a very imperfect science. The most obvious unpredictable is weather, which in a given year will almost inevitably ruin some crops and lead to bumper production in others. But there are also other unknowns, like what hired workers will be capable of, or what changes there might be in CSA subscriptions and other sales. And there’s machinery too. If it breaks, that can slow things down considerably, the main reason Trent opted to purchase a new tractor, calculating that the extra cost would be offset by productivity tied to its reliability. But using machinery well can also allow for year-to-year gains in production. Trent shows me a cultivator he’s started using that he can drag behind the tractor to save hours of hand weeding. Another tractor-drawn implement is so simple it’s hard to imagine it doing much of anything, but in fact it’s a blade that runs a few inches down in the soil, moving under root crops and loosening and lifting the soil they’re in up enough so that it’s almost no work to follow along behind the tractor and pull the plants from the ground. This isn’t sophisticated technology by today’s standards, but it’s incredibly effective at boosting productivity on small acreage.
In addition to all the planning for the upcoming year, Trent and Ruthie also have to make longer-term plans for the farm and figure out how to finance them and then incorporate the work to implement them into the more immediate tasks that go with weekly production. In 2014 Trent planted two acres with a variety of trees: apple, pear, paw paw, persimmon. But before they went in, it took time to research which ones would be best (he chose varieties bred for disease and pest resistance, to minimize the need for spraying), then they had to be planted, and now they have to be maintained, even though they won’t contribute anything to the table for several years.
Despite all the complexities in both planning and execution, Green Gardens has managed to stay on top of it all and has grown continuously. In fact, Trent says, “our business has grown too fast,” for this year they ended up with more than they could sell at certain points during the season. The weather played a part in this, as several rainy Saturdays meant far fewer customers out shopping at the Kalamazoo market, and so an unexpected amount of produce going unsold. But the other part is just that they have gotten really good at growing, and the demand isn’t quite yet even with their capacity to supply. Trent and Ruthie talk about how they might best handle this, whether or not they should cut back and save some costs on seed, labor, fertilizer and processing, or just hope for better weather, or try new forms advertising and marketing that might help them expand sales to match their capacity to produce. It’s another problem of balance that lots of businesses, both small and large, face, how to get production capacity and demand in line with one another, and hearing them discuss it reminds me again that farmers are under the same pressures as any entrepreneurs, only intensified by vulnerability to natural conditions that most businesses don’t have to worry about.
[Stay tuned for Part 2!]