Dexter farm aims to be community resource for arts, gardens

Juliana Lumaj
The Ann Arbor News

Dexter — It’s a farm perhaps best known for its vegetable stand at the edge of Dancer Road near Dexter.

But Dancing Willow Farm wants to become more of a community resource that features artists and offers concerts, community gardens and classes, owners Christopher Lemon and Mai Hitotsuyanagi said.

Lemon and Hitotsuyanagi purchased the 35-acre farm at 230 N. Dancer Road about two years ago to create a space to support what the community wants, Lemon said.

Christopher Lemon weeds around some plants on his farm, Dancing Willow Farms, on his property in Dexter on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

“Dancing Willow farm strives to be an inclusive community that allows individuals to be seen, heard, and supported without judgment or discrimination,” Lemon told The Ann Arbor News.

Lemon and Hitotsuyanagi have heard from multiple artists about how difficult it’s been to schedule a performance in Washtenaw County, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, they would like to provide an outdoor venue, Lemon said.

The couple organized a GoFundMe on May 3 for an outdoor community stage, and the initial goal of $3,000 was met within a week.

“(That) doesn’t necessarily cover the entire stage that we want to build, but we wanted to lean into this slowly,” Lemon said. “If we go above and beyond that $3,000 mark, that’s fantastic, because that’s simply going to allow us to expand the stage to the level that we eventually want it to be.”

The intent is to have a stage safe and reliable for all performances and activities, Lemon said.

“If you’re doing dance, you won’t worry about stepping into an uneven piece of grass, because it is a working farm, It’s not a perfectly leveled lawn,” Lemon said. "We don’t want anybody obviously getting hurt.”

Ann Arbor natives, Lemon and Hitotsuyanagi, have been together for about six years and met through the Ann Arbor rock climbing community.

Christopher Lemon tills the summer garden on his farm, Dancing Willow Farms, on his property in Dexter on Saturday, May 8, 2021. Root and vine vegetables will go into the space. Dancing Willow Farms with also have a farm stand at the end of the driveway seven days a week during harvest season.

“We were living in Ann Arbor and we both had this passion to get back out into the country again,” Lemon said. “We have this dream of creating a community-based farm to set our roots in and see where the journey takes us.”

The couple’s first focus was to grow food for the farm stand, which is typically open seven days a week from July to September. And what they decide to grow is based on community input, Lemon said.

“We grow all kinds of vegetables. Everything from tomatoes and peppers, onions, kale, pumpkins, you name it,” Lemon said. “Last year, our most demanded vegetable was Japanese eggplant, we couldn’t grow them fast enough. So this year we have quadrupled our goal of Japanese eggplant.”

As they thought of the future and what more they could do with the farm, Lemon and Hitotsuyanagi considered hosting a fall harvest concert this year. However, in fall 2020, Shelley Catalan, lead singer of Jive Colossus, told Lemon of her band’s difficulty in finding venues to schedule a performance.

“And that’s when I realized, wait a minute, maybe there was an opportunity to escalate our timeline, to do something sooner rather than later,” Lemon said.

Dancing Willow Farms in Dexter on Saturday, May 8, 2021. The farm enjoys serving the community with food and with their land which is about 35 acres. They are raising money to build an outdoor stage for local artists.

So, in September 2020, Jive Colossus performed a concert before 70 people at Dancing Willow Farm. Since the farm is so large, people could sit 10 feet apart to have proper social distancing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, Lemon said.

Entry was donation based and all proceeds went to the band, Lemon said.

“We recognize that everyone has been impacted differently by COVID and having a set ticket price, that may make it so that some people couldn’t actually come,” Lemon said. “Our goal was to raise money to support the artists.”

The response was “phenomenal,” Lemon said. As a result, dancers, yoga instructors, theater troupes and other bands have approached Lemon and Hitotsuyanagi asking to perform at the farm, he said.

A chicken visits Christopher Lemon while he weeds around some plants on Dancing Willow Farms on his property in Dexter on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

“We wanted to support the artists and so much of our focus on the farm is trying to find ways to support those who do the work,” Lemon said. “But it was also evident that the event supported those who attended. We saw more laughter, we saw so much spontaneous dancing and laughing. And when you can find an opportunity to laugh and dance and sing in the midst of a pandemic, you know, that’s a real gift.”

Depending on the course of the pandemic, the couple hopes to have welding classes, jewelry artists and food trucks on the farm this summer, Lemon said.

Community gardens that allow residents to grow their own food on the farm is also on the list, but that’s a project the farm will save for next year, Lemon said.