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The Green Room: Local Folks See Benefits In Raising Own Food

In today’s world, most of our food comes in packages at from the grocery store, and few of us have a real connection to how it got there.  The locavore movement is all about  the benefits of knowing your foods. In the November installment of 89.1 WEMU's 'The Green Room', we  look at local groups reaping myriad benefits of from working to grow their own food.

Barbara Lucas (BL):  Good morning.  I’m here to pick up my turkey. 

Staffer: Your name please? 

Credit Barbara Lucas / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU
Welcome to Dawn Farm

  BL: I’m at Dawn Farm in Ypsilanti, picking up my Thanksgiving Turkey.  Dawn Farm is a residential addiction recovery center.  Head Farmer Jim Balmer shows me around the farm.

Jim Balmer:  We were founded in 1973 by three recovering guys who knew nothing about farming…

BL: First stop is the turkey yard and shed.

Balmer: They are very tasty, and they are all over the place.  These are free-range turkeys.  You can see some of the heritage birds—they were sold out the first week we had them.

BL: He says although many of the animals are raised for food, some, like the ponies and llamas are there more for therapeutic reasons.  But he stresses, it’s not a petting zoo, it’s meaningful work.

Balmer:  Residents really run the place.  There are residents working in the pig barn or the chicken coop, they may be working in the gardens, they may be working on laundry…  really, everything!

Credit Barbara Lucas / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU
Free range rooster and bunny.

BL: He tells me that utilizing farm work for it’s mental health benefits is nothing new.

Balmer: The old Ypsilanti state hospital had a farm, I remember that farm. That's how old I am! (laughs)

BL: Farms and gardens within schools, prisons, and mental hospitals were taken out when society began to view them as archaic, if not abusive.  But lately, a growing movement is saying access to this type of activity is restorative. I’m in a large garden at Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor, where students have the opportunity to practice their science and math while planning and planting the garden.  But academic achievement isn’t on the minds of these kids who are happily picking and munching, answering my questions with mouths full. What do you like about working in this garden? 

Student:  Um.. I guess it’s relaxing for me.

BL: It’s a feast for the senses, from the bright red tomatoes to the basil-filled air. 

Credit Barbara Lucas / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU
Harvesting basil at Tappan Middle School.

Student:  I want to pull it out!

BL: Several students eagerly dig up a humongous carrot.

Students:  Wow, that’s big!  Parent volunteer:  Have you ever seen a carrot this big?  Students: No!  Parent:  Me either!  Want to try it?  Students:  Yes!  Parent: Ok, the hose is on over that way. You may have to rub it to get the dirt off.

Students and parent volunteer:  It’s really sweet.  It is really sweet!  I like it!

BL: They also proudly create sandwiches made from today’s bounty.

Student:  It’s bread, cheese, tomato and basil.  It’s really really really good. 

BL: Dr. Laurie Thorp is a professor at Michigan State University, and author of “The Pull of the Earth,” which explores the benefits of schoolyard gardens. 

Dr. Laurie Thorp: My grandparents were raised on farms and this was part of their daily life where they saw life and death and decay growth and it was part of their development, and we don't have that anymore.  Less than 2% of the population lives on a farm and we have so little interaction with the natural world.  We live in a highly technical world, a virtual world—these powerful farm experiences pull us back into what I would call the flow of life.

BL: In addition to growing plants, Dr. Thorp advocates bringing farm animals back into our communities, away from the factory farm model where their existence is hidden from us.    Every spring at MSU’s Student Organic Farm, students help animals give birth, an experience she says develops a “culture of care.”

Thorp: We need these experiences, to pull us out of our complete self-centeredness, and to extend our being out into the “other.”

BL: Dr. Thorp says the manual labor is therapeutic, and while any exercise has benefits…

Thorp:  We go to the workout studio solely for our selves. And this work, going to work in a school garden or going to work at the farm here at MSU, is this physical engagement, but added on, you are embedded in a community—which we are starved for, to be a member of a community. I would argue that we are way too isolated and that is leading to a space of being very unhealthy. 

BL: Dr. Thorp says when free time is filled up with screen time, gardens and farms can become..

Thorp: …this, I daresay sacred space where we go and engage our senses that desperately need to be engaged, where we have fresh air, sunlight, daylight. The farm is a living dynamic system, and we are starved for that.

BL: My conversations with local folks seem to validate these theories.

BL: I’m at a banquet celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Agrarian Adventure, which started the garden at Tappan School I visited earlier.  Local farmer Caitlin Joseph says school gardens nurture a sense of community, and a sense of self.

Caitlin Joseph: They have a chance to see something from a seed and grow into a plant into something they can actually eat.  Knowing how it was grown, know how much work that it took to grow just that one carrot, they start to see value in their own contribution.

BL: Surprisingly, she says digging compost is the most coveted task at Tappan’s garden.

Joseph:  It’s a clear task.  It’s something they can just do that’s physical and somewhat repetitive, and sometimes that’s therapeutic.  That downtime is necessary to assimilate everything you’re learning, to use an education term.  I think those physical activities that seem tedious are refreshing, every once in a while. 

BL: She says the opportunity to problem solve in a judgment-free setting is crucial. 

Joseph:  It’s getting more and more high stakes for kids at every level.  There’s standardized testing all the way down to kindergarten now, I think.  This is a way to provide a really rich learning experience with a little bit less pressure, and a sense of experimentation.

Credit Barbara Lucas / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU
Washing basil.

BL: Back at Dawn Farm, Jim Balmer says the farm reaches people in a way nothing else can.  He tells me about a former resident.

Jim Balmer:  …a heroine addict.  She came in one day, and she was weeping, and we thought something terrible had happened.

BL: She said she’d helped an injured pig.

Balmer:  She said it was the first time she cared more about that pig than herself and that she had framed her life in the context of her own needs, and at that moment, it had made her outward looking and it was transformative!   It didn't happen in a group, it didn't happen with the therapist, it happened in the pig barn.

BL: He says working in the garden can be transformative, as well.

Balmer:  Even the most stubborn resident who gets out here and works, and doesn't like it, when we harvest our first lettuce and eat it at dinner, or they eat a fresh tomato—it's pretty compelling.

Credit Barbara Lucas / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU
Harvest day tasks.

BL: Dawn Farm has 64 acres and only 36 residents, so, they loan out extra land to various groups in the Ypsilanti area. Balmer says their common goal of raising food has positives.

Balmer:  Community has always been important, it has been a key part of what the farm has done, bringing people together.  We understand that the connectedness of people's a pretty important part of recovery.

BL: Grace Yoder is the coordinator of the community gardens at Dawn Farm.  To her, the positives aren’t surprising, they’re only natural.

Grace Yoder:  I mean, we evolved to live in nature, so digging in the dirt and using our hands and getting exposed to all of it, it all clicks.  That's why we are here.


 The Agrarian Adventure

Dawn Farm

Credit Barbara Lucas / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU
Resting sheep.

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.