July 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman

Volunteers power Forgotten Harvest's seed-to-table farming effort

Volunteers work four-hour shifts in Deerfield Township at the 125-acre Forgotten Harvest Farms, a project of the food rescue charity. (Photos by Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Their backs bent over in the hot summer sun, they work long shifts for no pay, separating golden summer squash from thick vines as they wipe sweat from their brows.

This isn’t worker oppression, it is innovative volunteerism — a farming effort that’s projected to harvest 2.8 million pounds of food from a rolling 125-acre farm in Deerfield Township for Forgotten Harvest, the food rescue charity. This Livingston County farm is growing corn, potatoes, carrots, cabbages, three kinds of squash, green beans and peppers.

From the farm in any given week, tons of vegetables will be loaded onto refrigerated trucks, driven to an Oak Park plant, cleaned and weighed and divided into five-pound packages for delivery.

This is Forgotten Harvest Farms, a 3-year-old, already successful experiment in growing vegetables for tables where the need is great. It’s overseen by professional farm manager Mike Yancho, a University of Michigan philosophy graduate who worked for two decades on his family’s farm before deciding, “I could do more in life than grow organic vegetables for people who have a lot of money.”

It was made possible by Nora Moroun, a board member at Forgotten Harvest and wife of Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun. Nora Moroun donated use of the Moroun family’s century-old farm when Forgotten Harvest’s leaders decided to try scaling up an initial effort at “seed to table” farming. A serious gardener, Moroun has refurbished a house on the property for events and had the barns and out-buildings painted and upgraded.

“We had been leasing the tillable land to a dairy and I thought this was perfect,” she says.

While community gardens are everywhere, Forgottten Harvest Farms is different: It’s a professional farm, designed to produce at high yields to ensure a reliable supply of fresh vegetables year-round. It’s the latest innovation at a charity that’s found ways to rescue tomatoes from Ontario greenhouses, pluck unused sausages from factories and baked goods from supermarkets as part of a high-powered, mega-organized scavenger hunt for unused food.

The farm is powered largely by goodwill, using tractors donated by Chrysler and GM and other corporations, and the effort of nearly 3,000 volunteers — workers who don’t get paid but have their own requirements: You can’t make them suffer too much.

For farm manager Yancho, the volunteers — who cheerfully bend, sweat and pick during four-hour shifts — were a new wrinkle. “I was used to handling crowds and growing crops with agricultural workers, but with volunteers you have to make sure they enjoy the experience. We’re looking for ways that we can use them profitably,” he says.

It’s one of only two such charity farms in the nation, says John Owens, Forgotten Harvest’s spokesman. “Nobody comes close to us in per-pound yield,” he says. Much of the produce is portioned and frozen, enabling the nonprofit to control its inventory and maintain a supply of vegetables all year long.

In addition to its volunteers, the farm employs four staff members, including manager Yancho, a volunteer coordinator and two part-time farmhands. Last Friday, the charity’s executives were working in the field, including interim CEO Bill Bernstein, who says the farm is a financially viable approach to distributing food. “We have donated equipment, some donated seed and chemicals, and the huge contribution from people who volunteer to work here.”

Although the farm isn’t entirely organic, the farmers try to minimize the use of chemicals, spraying only when crops are in danger. But the farm isn’t only producing food for low-income people: it energizes volunteers, inspires gardening and educates everyone from middle-schoolers to senior citizens about the way that zucchini gets to your table.

“This is my new office,” says Cathy Gillis, a retired automotive executive secretary from Novi, as she picks squash. “We see these vegetables go from the farm to the truck to the warehouse and into five-pound bags that are distributed around the city. You see the whole timeline, and it’s addictive. I love to come out.”

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Interim CEO Bill Bernstein says the farm is a financially viable way to ... (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)