Pumpkins at Holman Orchards on Old Mission Peninsula in October.

The future of local, sustainable agriculture in northwest Michigan continues to shine bright. Our region is a patchwork quilt of farms and agrarian businesses and communities, with “squares” of different sizes, commodities and products.

One long-standing local organization, the Grand Traverse Conservation District, hopes to aid in the expansion of this quilt by forming The Great Lakes Incubator Farm (GLIF).

The farm will be an active, land-based agricultural program that will foster the growth and development of new and beginning farmers in Northwest Lower Michigan. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer is 57.5 years, and this number is continuing to increase. It has become increasingly difficult for retiring farmers to transition their land to new farmers to keep the land in agricultural production.

The USDA has estimated 70 percent of farmland will change hands in the next 20 years. Unfortunately, much of that fertile farmland is transitioned out of farming and into commercial and residential development — irreversibly damaging the soil and localized ecology.

Meanwhile, young and beginning farmers face significant challenges in building new agricultural operations due to high start-up capital costs for land, infrastructure, and equipment.

The GLIF program will help lower these common barriers that typically deter individuals from starting a farming operation by giving them the opportunity and flexibility to create an agricultural business with significantly reduced start-up costs — allowing farmers the opportunity to gain expertise as they grow. GLIF will soon join the ranks of more than 130 incubator farms across the country, defined as “land-based, multi-grower projects that provide training and technical assistance to aspiring and beginning farmers.”

As of today, there are no operational multi-farmer Farm Incubator Programs in Northwest Michigan. By cultivating new producers in this region, the Great Lakes Incubator Farm program aims to: aid in the succession of local farmland, create a local farming model based on principles of regenerative and organic agriculture, build resilience in our local food economies, and create a lasting culture of health and wellness.

The Great Lakes Incubator Farm expects to have two to five incubator farmers in any given year, with the expectation that participants will stay between two and five years as they build their specialty business and brand. Participants entering the program will have previous experience running or operating a farm in a managerial capacity and with a business plan developed, or in the process of being developed.

Once accepted into the program, the incubator farmers each will have: a parcel of the incubator farm, greenhouse access, equipment access, hoophouse space, educational opportunities in business and farming, and potential mentorship opportunities with other local farmers.

Additionally, the participants will work closely with the GLIF Farm Manager on organic and regenerative farming curriculum and demonstration, ensuring that the farmers have a comprehensive understanding of environmental stewardship and progressive farming practices. To that effect, the GLIF farm will also serve as a demonstration and educational farm for the general public, where individuals can actively engage in workshops, classes, and events.

The Grand Traverse Conservation District is positioned to build GLIF into a successful program due to the comprehensive, dynamic knowledge and expertise offered by its multi-departmental staff in conservation, natural resources, and agriculture. Its deep-rooted community support and strong partnerships with governmental entities, local municipalities, environmental and agricultural organizations, as well as the agricultural community as a whole will ensure the program has ample support and learning opportunities for the GLIF farmers.

By the time they graduate from the program, GLIF participants will have well-established markets and sales accounts, efficient and effective production methods, a broad understanding of critical farmer skills including good environmental stewardship and business management, farm record keeping (crop management and business), a well-established farm support network, and a detailed business plan with financial records.

With the help of regional partners, GLIF hopes to help graduating farmers in the transition onto local farmland to continue their farm businesses success.

The Grand Traverse Conservation District has an agricultural site in mind for the inauguration of the GLIF program, and hopes to be able to expand the program to other sites as it grows.

The community is encouraged to follow along with the progress on the Great Lakes Incubator Farm on its new Facebook Page, “Great Lakes Incubator Farm — GLIF.” If individuals are interested in volunteering with the program or donating farming equipment, infrastructure, or funds, they can contact the program at glifgetgrowing@gmail.com.

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