BY LORAINE ANDERSON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY – A new community garden grows in Acme Township this summer on a five-acre plot that one day will become the site of Greek Orthodox Church.
And the years-old Mancelona Community Garden is getting a fresh start, thanks to an ongoing advocacy effort by an Antrim County nonprofit called ISLAND, an acronym for the Institute of Sustainable Living, Art and Natural Design.
Both are part of a patchwork of community gardens across the five-county Grand Traverse region that provide a place for area residents to grow vegetables for themselves, area shelters, churches and fresh-food programs, or to sell to area restaurants.
Sometimes they have other purposes as well.
Father Ciprian Streza, parish priest at Archangel Gabriel Greek Orthodox Church in Traverse City, never had gardened in his life. But that didn’t stop him from starting the one-square-acre Angels Orthodox Community Garden in May with the help of parishioners, non-parishioners and a Bertha Vos pre-kindergarten class.
“They teach me gardening and I teach them the theology of gardening,” he said of his congregants. “This is just one step. We wanted to do something we could afford and is practical.”
Church services currently are held at 1030 Hastings Street directly across the street from the Coca-Cola offices. Streza said construction of the new church is probably two years off.
In the meantime, the 30-family congregation plans to create a prayer garden and a small wooden structure that can be used for weddings, vespers services and Bible study.
The Archangel Gabriel garden includes 24 plots. Streza’s 5-year-old daughter, Katherine, is among the gardeners. She and classmates planted seeds, grew seedlings, planted them and are watching tomatoes and broccoli grow, Streza said.
“Now they will know miracle of growth from seed to plant to food,” he said.
The produce will be distributed to Safe Harbor area churches that serve free meals to the homeless or sold to area restaurants. Streza said they will be used later in the Archangel Gabriel soup kitchen once church and kitchen are built and possibly sold at an “honor system” roadside stand.
“From now on, we can only grow from here,” he said.
The Mancelona Community Garden project is part of ISLAND’s overall effort to help revive rural communities and increase community resiliency by building agricultural diversity and economy, protecting farmland, training new farmers and creating local markets for local food, among other things.
ISLAND is a non-profit arts and ecology center in Antrim County dedicated to sustainable living and connecting with nature, art and community.
Antrim Church of Christ created the 60-by-100-foot Manistee Community Garden several years ago on church property. ISLAND got involved in the Mancelona garden when a group of local residents obtained permission to use the land from the church and asked ISLAND to support and coordinate it, said Mary Brower, food and garden coordinator.
The garden has 68 basic 5-by-10-foot plots that are leased for $5 per plot by 13 gardeners and leaders, who generally have two or more lots. The $5 fee is dropped for gardeners who donate half their produce to local organizations.
“We don’t require gardeners not to use Miracle-Gro (fertilizer),” Brower said. “But we do encourage biological chem-free gardening.”
ISLAND has contributed organization, technical programming and coordination to the garden since then. It also has donated simple farming tools such a wheel barrow, irrigation system strip, hand tools, seeds from farmers organizations and tomato, pepper, eggplant and squash seedlings from Pine Hill Nursery and Garden Goodys in Mancelona. The church donated water and space.
“We’ve had a lot of community support,” Brower said.
Technical assistance includes healthy eating, harvest and other classes by Michigan State University extension agent Lori Eccles.
Interest in community gardening, as well as small- and medium-scale farming, has grown with modern concerns about the industrial food chain, the high cost of food and fuel, and the loss of farmland across Michigan, Brower said.
Part of what fuels ISLAND’s advocacy for farming and resilient rural communities is concern about what will happen to Michigan farmers, farms, farmland and food systems, given statistics cited in Michigan State University’s 2012 Michigan Farm Succession Study:
• 40 percent of Michigan small-farm operators are over the age of 65.
• Within the next 10 years, approximately 35 percent of all Michigan farmers anticipate retiring.
• Only 38 percent of those intending to retire will pass on their farm as one unit to an heir.
• Approximately 472,000 acres of farmland are in current operation by owners planning to leave farming in the next 10 years.
“As farmers retire, addressing the question of who will continue to farm is key,” researchers Steve Miller and Susan Cocciarelli concluded. “The approach to farming, once an intergenerational business transfer, is shifting in the state. As Michigan invests in and grows its agricultural economy, it is important to cultivate and prepare the next generation of farmers.”
ISLAND is conducting a needs assessment of area community gardens. It also is close to raising $15,000 that will allow it to found a farmer residency program, similar to a medical residency, that would help young, first-generation aspiring farmers learn more about the business side of farming, land acquisition, marketing, equipment and repair.
“It’s easy to get entry-level experience, but farming is also running a business,” Brower said.