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The fields were alive on a recent Friday morning in Fenton as more than 200 people picked sweet corn at Forgotten Harvest Farms.
“It was an army of volunteers, and to watch those full trucks leaving with all that food -– there is nothing better,” said Farm Manager Mike Yancho. “That’s for people who won’t have to go hungry, families who don’t have to tell their kids there is nothing for dinner tonight. More than forty-six thousand meals could be eaten because of what we did today.”
That corn was among the nearly one million pounds of fresh vegetables grown at the 125-acre Forgotten Harvest Farms and distributed through more than 250 food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens and faith-based organizations in Macomb, Wayne and Oakland counties. Forgotten Harvest’s mission is to help the more than 589,000 people – nearly one in six individuals – in metro Detroit who face hunger, and reduce the shocking amount of food that is wasted (nearly 70 billion pounds) each year.
The yield from Forgotten Harvest’s farm-to-pantry program, established in 2013 on land donated by the Moroun family, is all the more impressive when you realize that the farm has just four paid workers on staff. Since its inception, the farm has harvested 4.5 million pounds of food, and it’s the 3,000 volunteers who come out each year who really make it happen. As Yancho noted, “If we had to pay these workers, it would be impossible.”
Forgotten Harvest Farms expects to harvest around one million pounds of nutrient-rich food each year.
The farm, a picturesque enclave of rolling hills, thriving fields, vintage silos and antique barns, has 104 tillable acres that produce a host of crops, including corn, squash, zucchini, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, potatoes, turnips, beets and watermelon. The goal is to make every acre as productive as possible to help feed as many people as possible.
One section is devoted to collard greens and kale – nutritious leafy greens that are high in calcium, iron and vitamin C – grown specifically for the city of Flint. Many residents face long-term health challenges from the tainted water they consumed in 2014-15. This was the second season for Flint Field, and the farm sent 50,000 pounds of vegetables this year that help reduce the absorption of lead in the body.
It Takes a Village
Volunteers at the farm begin their five-hour shift with a brief orientation that stresses the importance of food safety; Forgotten Harvest even supplies the gloves they’ll wear to ensure the food is uncontaminated.
After hands-on training in the field, they are set to work planting, weeding, harvesting, sorting and loading trucks, and by 1 p.m., “they are tired, sweaty, sore and dirty,” said Yancho with a smile. “We gather everyone back together and let them know their impact – it’s always huge – and we do everything we can to maximize their enjoyment. If they enjoy themselves they will be enthused to volunteer elsewhere and keep that community spirit alive. And it’s extremely important that they come back!”
Most do; the experience averages 4.9 out of a possible 5 based on the satisfaction of volunteers who complete an email survey.
All kinds of people contribute all kinds of skills. Engineers from the Big Three help repair equipment, retired workers from IBEW Local 58 help troubleshoot electrical problems, and sheet metal workers from Local Union 80 recently built a large and efficient hand-washing station where each volunteer begins their shift.
Last year, Kevin Cragg of Bloomfield Hills raised more than $17,000 as an Eagle Scout project to purchase a large greenhouse that has the flexibility to roll over to other plots of land for a new crop, allowing for year-round growing. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to move that greenhouse,” Yancho said.
Another Eagle Scout, Dean Hosler of Bloomfield Hills, restored and painted an old shed that is now a beautifully organized storage space for tools and supplies.
Individual volunteers are as welcome as the large groups who come from corporations, schools and other organizations. Jim Dunn, a retired electrician, begins each week at the farm. “I’m Mr. Fix It, and I do whatever they ask me to,” said the 87-year-old resident of Highland, who Yancho affectionately calls “Monday Jim” for his reliability.
When the rods on the potato harvester needed welding, Dunn arranged for the work to be done by apprentices at the Detroit Electrical Industry Training Center in Warren for the bargain price of $5 apiece. “That saved us $700 or $800,” said Yancho. “With every dollar Forgotten Harvest can provide four meals, so that is over 3,000 meals.”
Squeezing every penny out of a dollar is a big part of Yancho’s job, and he scours Craig’s List and other sources for used equipment.
Donations come in all shapes and forms, including more than $400,000 worth of heavy equipment from the GM Foundation, Ram Truck, Case IH and New Holland. “We would not be where we are without this equipment,” said Yancho, who noted that the farm started out with just a 1951 tractor.
Colonies of all-important bumblebees and honey bees donated by Koppert Biological Systems help keep things buzzing. “We were having problems with incomplete pollination in the squash until they came,” Yancho said.
Plotting for the Future
Forgotten Harvest Farms works closely with Michigan State University Extension to fine-tune techniques to use less water, cut down on weeds and insects (thus requiring less pesticide) and keep the soil viable, all with the goal of producing as much food as possible at the lowest possible cost.
They’ve been particularly successful with the experimental planting of cereal rye as a winter cover crop. Forgotten Harvest Farms was fortunate to work Michigan State University Extension using a Michigan Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development “Specialty Crop” grant. Forgotten Harvest and MSU have shared the results and lessons learned with many other growers.
“Vegetables are pretty nutrient-rich so they take a lot out of the soil,” noted Ben Phillips, MSU vegetable extension educator, who has advised the farm since its inception. “Farmers hate weeds and traditionally do a lot of tillage to keep the soil bare, but then you are losing nutrients. Using cover crops in the off-season can replenish some of that soil structure, apply nitrogen to the soil and help retain moisture.”
The use of cereal rye as a cover crop in a field of butternut squash has been so successful that Yancho and Phillips have presented their findings at several farming conferences and in a webinar.
“There has been a lot of interest in this,” Phillips said. “Forgotten Harvest is doing a great service to other growers by donating that space for research.”
Learn more about Forgotten Harvest and Forgotten Harvest Farms, including how you can help its mission to reduce food waste and alleviate hunger, by visiting forgottenharvest.org.
This story is provided and presented by our sponsor Forgotten Harvest.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.