A piece of the earth

The wind is strong and unseasonably warm as farmer Danny Lutz strides across his field to shake a visitor’s hand.

"Nice day?" he asks cordially, and waits for a yes before launching into his reply: "Weather now is lovely, right? It’s great, right? But it’s not right. It’s wrong. Humans have set their hands on things, and our planet’s weather is all fouled up."

Instead of simply agonizing about the environment, Lutz, 41, has taken a proactive tack. Five years ago, together with his wife and three children, Lutz bought 80 acres near Port Huron, renounced city life and founded Maple Creek Farm.

It sounds quixotic to try running a farm – especially a small-scale one – when statistics show that since 1981 more than 620,000 farms have disappeared in the United States. To hedge their bets, more than 500 organic farmers across the country, including the Lutzes, have turned to city dwellers for help.

Through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) partnerships, urban dwellers can pay an annual fee (usually about $350), then sit back and reap the farm’s bounty. The system began in the United States more than a decade ago in Massachusetts, following a pattern already well-established in Europe and Japan.

Each week during the five- to six-month growing season, members receive a farm-fresh parcel of food delivered to their home or to a central drop-off site.

Last year, Maple Creek had 100 subscribers. This year, they’re hoping to take on as many as 200.

The parcels the subscribers receive have included salad greens, red peppers, gingko, eggplants, flower bouquets, maple syrup, eggs, raspberries, melons, beets, scallions, thyme and marjoram, corn, tomatoes, carrots, butternut squash and much more.

Besides having the farm come to them, city dwellers can also visit their food where it grows. The Lutzes take a genuine delight when visitors marvel as rusty-red hens scratch, goats bleat, buzzing honeybees swarm, and two greenhouses promise herbs, flowers and vegetables all year long.

"People come out and they can’t believe that this is how things grow," Michelle says.

Shelby Township physical therapist Brian Macks joined the Maple Creek CSA last year, at his wife’s urging.

"We joined because we’re concerned about our health and our children’s health," he explains. "We’re very aware of all the toxins in our environment and the pesticides and preservatives in our food, especially since we have two young children and we know that this is a critical period in their growth and development. Kids’ bodies can’t handle the toxins like adults can. It’s important they eat healthy, non-toxic food."

Macks says the family immediately tasted a difference between organic and even the freshest nonorganic produce.

"It’s amazing. You can’t go back once you taste the difference – and I can’t even think of eating fast food now."

If CSAs mean health benefits to subscribers, they mean a shared risk – and therefore better financial security – to farmers.

American CSA founder Robyn Van En once wrote, "After a rainstorm dumped eight inches of rain in three hours, the winter baking squash had to be picked prematurely. Everyone froze, dried and ate as much as they could. It was a $35 loss to each subscriber, but that would have been a $3,500 loss to an individual farmer."

"Extremes are the life of a farmer," Michelle Lutz notes. "You could be the best farmer there is, and nature controls it all. CSA is a shared risk program. If Mother Nature comes in and wreaks havoc, we know we have some backup. We know we won’t lose it all."

For the Lutzes, Maple Creek is a stab at self-sufficiency, a concept that deeply appeals to the hardworking pair (Michelle also holds down a full-time desk job with Spirit Airlines).

"I’d like to go back to the days when I trade you the wheat for the rye ... but we’re still normal people. We still stop at the grocery store," Michelle says.

The farm also represents their commitment to nurturing the earth: They use only "sustainable" growing methods, such as crop rotation, and protect their water, air, wildlife and human resources.

The Lutzes never use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, even though it means more work for less produce.

"If you spray your fields, you can yield 70 to 80 bushels of soy per acre," says Michelle. "If you do it organically, you’ll get about half. The quality is better, and you don’t have to worry about pesticides, but we have to work about 100 times as hard. We hand weed, hand-pick insects off our crops, or spray them with soapy mixtures. It’s very labor intensive."

Of 1.8 million United States farms, perhaps 40,000 to 80,000 (2 percent to 4 percent) use sustainable methods, according to the nonprofit Community Alliance of Family Farmers.

To Danny Lutz, the organic trade-off is worthwhile. "Maybe (pesticides) aren’t really that bad. But I doubt it. I’ve seen them spray and not one bug – good or bad – remains alive," he says.

"Organics are important to us for health reasons, and more," adds Michelle. "We bought a piece of the earth. It wasn’t in great shape when we bought it. There was a lot of trash around, the soil was thin. We have taken care of the place, and I’m really proud of it. It’s our own little Woodstock. This is our corner of the planet."

For more information on joining Maple Creek Farm’s CSA program call 810-387-4365.

Jump on the farm wagon

Some community supported agriculture resources:

Community Farm of Ann Arbor is one of North America’s first CSAs. Sells mainly to its members but on-farm sales are available. Call ahead, at 734-994-9136.

Five Springs Farm, Bear Lake CSA (south of Traverse City) also publishes The Community Farm, a national newsletter for CSA farmers and members. Call 616-889-3216.

Organic Farms

Braun Organic Farm in Ann Arbor offers grain and feed for livestock. Visitors are welcome to this 150-year-old family farm. Call 734-662-9907.

Swan Creek Farm offers veal in the fall, eggs in the spring and chickens, if prearranged. Call 517-523-3308.

Earth Thyme Organics, Monroe County. Call 734-854-6911.

Organic Growers of Michigan is a non-profit organization of more that 200 organic farmers, gardeners and friends. For info on the Southeast Michigan Chapter, contact Gita Posselt at 734-439-8249.

Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting organic methods of food production, can be reached by writing PO Box 530, Hartland, MI, 48353-0530.

– A.M.

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