When Ryan Padgett decided to return to Michigan to farm, he chose Ann Arbor, and Tilian Farm Development Center, for their placement in a strong local food network. Other farmers were quick to welcome him, and customers in the area didn't need to be educated on the benefits of organic food. Plus, as Tilian's only full-time farmer, he needed more land than he could find at other incubator sites. Since coming to Ann Arbor in March he has worked hard to build Radicle Roots, literally breaking sod in order to grow his crops.
Now his garden is a mix of heirloom veggies, which he grows and harvests himself, then delivers – by bicycle! – to Argus Farm Stop and the Ypsi Farmers Market. Among other crops, he pointed out kohlrabi, broccoli, pac choy, cabbage, kale, butterball potatoes, watermelon, ground cherries, and a kind of warted squash grown since before the Pilgrims arrived. He chooses specific varieties of each vegetable, prioritizing heirloom strains that are either over fifty years old, or types that have been growing in Michigan, and thus are suited to the climate. Often he looks for the beautiful, unusual varieties that no one else is growing – “dragon's tongue” waxbeans, anyone? – and almost all of his plants are heirloom or open-pollinated, meaning they are bred for flavor, rather than shipping hardiness.
“A lot of people would probably be embarrassed by this field,” Ryan said, standing barefoot in his garden, and gazing over all weeds he doesn't have time to pull. But he takes a certain a certain joy in seeing it all “just come together,” as if by magic. He revels in the messiness, which to him represents the diversity and health of his crops, all grown with organic practices. “There is a method to the madness,” he said, pointing out, for example, the nitrogen-fixing beans planted next to the squash. He explained companion-planting, gesturing toward pest-resistance groupings of plant “friends,” such as peppers, carrots, and tomatoes, or brassica, beans, and tomatoes. He also plants nasturtiums and marigolds at the end of the row, to deter rabbits. This mix of vegetables also provides backup if any one crop fails, although so far, it looks like his plants are coming in strong.
The field may have a disheveled charm, but don't be fooled: Ryan is an knowledgeable farmer, thanks to several years of experience working and managing farms in California. There he took volunteer and paid positions on everything from homesteads to huge monoculture farms, and his own gardening philosophies arose from those experiences. Now he wants to put the “community” back into “Community Support Agriculture,” by involving members in his farm. He said didn't realize that farming would also mean educating the public on healthy farming practices, and even teaching customers about unfamiliar vegetables. “I've met kids who didn't know tomatoes grow on a plant,” he said. He would love to have CSA members and volunteers visit the garden, which he believes would go a long way in fostering appreciation for local farms.
At the moment, Ryan is still growing his customer base, although his bicycle deliveries and carefully-labeled heirloom varieties have certainly caught some eyes. He is grateful for Argus Farm Stop, which he said is a major part of his current business. Unlike the hours spent at a farmer's market, at the Farm Stop he can “just deliver and go” (after buying some chocolate chip cookies). But at the moment he only has three CSA members, and is trying to stay hopeful that he can continue farming in the years to come. He works to feed the community, but it is hard to make a living doing it. “It's up to the community,” he said. “We need to change the perception of value for food.” He referenced government-subsidized corn, soybeans, and wheat – “Cheap food isn't really cheap!” – in contrast to the intensity of his own investment in his vegetables. He might easily work 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week, spending hours in each plant, including preparation, tilling, potting, seeds, and watering.
So why farm at all? “I have a passion for it,” he says. “I don't know what else I would be doing.” He spends his days outside, getting his hands dirty, and he loves it. “I'm never upset that I'm here.” With a little luck, and community investment, he will be able to farm at Tilian for years to come.
-- Post by Rose Miller