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Article by Jeanne Lesinski
Neil Frank, registered architect and avid gardener, is the proud owner of Saginaw Meadows, a Community Supported Garden (CSA) farm at 1100 Kochville Road near I-675 and I-75. What is a CSA farm? It is a farm from which shareholders purchase shares and over the growing season are allotted their share's worth of the crops grown on that farm. After a first year of growing and selling vegetables and small fruits, Frank has happy shareholders ready to sign on for another season's worth of “produce grown the way Mother Nature intended.”
During a handful of years living on the West Coast and after returning to his home state, Frank had participated in community supported agriculture by buying produce from CSA farms in the West and in the Thumb and south central Michigan. He identified the need for a farm more convenient to Saginaw residents, so became the grower and has stewarded what began as a hobby into a small business.
Over an 18-week long season that begins in June, shareholders take home their produce on one of two pickup days. A full share amounts to a selection of organically grown vegetables and small fruits that are enough to feed a family of four. “Many people who bought half-shares during the 2010 growing season have been so happy with the product and the experience, that they've bought full shares this year,” Frank says. He is offering 30 full shares for the 2011 growing season. With half already sold, interested buyers need to contact him right away.
Although Frank follows the guidelines and practices set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for organic farms, his is not certified organic because the registration process isn't cost-effective for such a small farm. So, while he can't legally advertise his crops as “organic,” they are grown without using chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers.
Instead, Frank uses fertilizers made from plants in the form of compost, as well minerals from inorganic sources. As a vegan, someone who avoids consuming foods made from animal products, he also avoids using animal byproducts in his farming practices.
Nurturing healthy soil eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides because healthy plants can stand some insect damage. As Frank explains, “I'm out there every day. If I see a problem with something, I get to dealing with it right away before it becomes a bigger problem.” For example, sprinkling wheat flower on the leaves of cabbage family plants will gum up the works for cabbage moth larva and put them out of commission. Cover nets prevent birds from eating strawberries.
He uses intensive farming practices, such as swath gardening. As shown in the photos above, this means that he grows plants closely in 4 foot wide swathes as long as 75 feet. “Essentially I don't have to weed much because plants cover the area,” he says. “I do all the watering by hand and this way conserves moisture and creates microclimates.” A microclimate is an area, even a very small one, where the climate is different from the surrounding area. “Raised beds mean that the soil warms up faster in the spring.” Swath gardening also makes it easy for farmers to use floating row covers, a form of fabric put over plants that allows sunlight to come through and at the same time hold in heat and moisture.
With the unpredictable Michigan spring and sometimes early frosts in fall, these techniques can mean a difference in weeks to the first produce harvest and later extend the growing season for some weeks.
Not only does Frank produce food, but he wants to educate families about food. “People need to know where their food comes from, and kids will try new foods if you give them the chance,” he says. Publishing a bi-monthly newsletter with recipes for the crops in season is one way to help even adults become more adventuresome. “I talk to shareholders and encourage them to swap recipes. It's all important to the process to get to know your grower, to know what's being done. And if you have a recipe in your basket with the produce, you're more likely to try it out.” Pickup days are Monday and Thursday, from 5-7pm. Thursdays include special family activities. “I label the plants in the field with metal plant markers, and I also make self-directed activities, like a scavenger hunt,” says Frank. “I encourage people to make the pickup a family activity, instead of just a grab and go.”
Frank says, “My first priority is my shareholders.” Yet, if he has any, he may sell extra produce at the Downtown Saginaw Farmers Market and at a new farmers market starting this season at the VA Hospital in Saginaw.
For more information, contact Saginaw Meadows: farm[at]saginawmeadows.com.
© Jeanne Lesinski, 2011