When I arrived at the Tilian Farm Development Center, the farmers were in the midst of a minor crisis. Although the skies that morning were blue and beautiful, the night before had brought five inches of rain to already soaked ground, and parts of the fields were flooded. Ryan Padgett, the farmer behind Radicle Roots Community Farm, was worried that he'd lost half the crops in the hoop house – all that work for nothing. Stefanie T. Stauffer, PhD. – manager at Tilian since August – was more upbeat, joking about all the shorebirds already wading in the new “Lake Tilian.”
Let me put your mind at ease – Ryan ended up borrowing a water pump, and most of his crops are fine. But the incident was a reminder that farming is risky, which is part of what makes Tilian such a valuable home for beginning farmers. Tilian is an “incubator" farm, which means that its 44 acres of township-owned, conserved farm land are divided between a collective of small farmers, who rent the land and hoophouses for 2-3 years at a time, often as a kind of “stepping stone” toward buying their own land.
Thanks to Stefanie's recruiting efforts, there are eleven farmers growing this year – up from two last year – which is the most that have ever grown here, and perhaps evidence that Tilian's farming model is catching on. (Argus producers Green Things Farm and Seeley Farm also used to grow at Tilian, before moving on to their own land). Rather than making prohibitively expensive and risky investments on their own, these farmers can enjoy Tilian's shared resources, including grant-funded tractors and other equipment. Ryan explained that while a hoop house might cost $10,000 to purchase on his own, at Tilian he can simply rent some space, without the up-front costs.
Although Tilian is just a few miles outside of Ann Arbor, and visitors are always welcome, the farm is something of a hidden gem. Tilian has been protected farmland, owned by Ann Arbor, since 2011, and began as just a 14-acre incubator farm. The collective recently came under the management of Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MFFS), a membership-based nonprofit that manages three other similar incubator farms in the state, and has worked since 1998 to provide resources to beginning and underserved farmers. With this new management came a fresh, evolving vision for Tilian's future, and the farm's mission now is to grow as a productive and educational community space: they hope to host tours, hold farming workshops, and even have farm-to-table events. Stefanie explained that the farm plans to add a fruit and veggie stand on-site this summer, to encourage community members to stop by the farm. The hope is that these ventures will also be profitable enough to keep Tilian more self-sufficiently operational.
Because Tilian is going through a transitional period, it's an exciting time to be a farmer there. This plot of farmland – which may unfortunately may soon be surrounded on all sides by subdivisions, further proving its value – manages to support diverse fruit and veggie crops, along with egg and meat chickens, bees, aquaponics, and even a vermiculture system installed through a community partnership with Starr Valley Farms. Soon there may even be livestock! As a unique part of the Ann Arbor greenbelt, and a vital resource for beginning farmers, Tilian is a community venture worth supporting.
I took the time to talk to two of the farmers at Tilian – Ryan Padgett from Radicle Roots Community Farm, and Hannah Rose Weber from The Land Loom. Read more on the Argus Blog! And follow the Tilian Farm Development Center on Facebook.
Want to visit? Tilian Farm Development Center is located at 4400 Pontiac Trail, Ann Arbor MI.
-- Post by Rose Miller