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Posted on Wed, Apr 6, 2011 : 10:34 a.m.

A visit to Tilian Farm Development Center: a vision of our local food future

By Corinna Borden


The first full time chicken residents to the Tilian Farm Development Center moved in at the end of March.

Corinna Borden | Contributor

Merely five miles north on Pontiac Trail, a vision is taking on substance. Tilian Farm Development Center is about to burst forth with active vegetables, animals and people. As with so many things, it is nice to see a “before” picture — this is that picture.

As I noted in January, Tilian Farm Development Center is the larger envelope enclosing the Four Season Farmer Development Program (FSFDP), currently using 16 acres owned by Ann Arbor Township. The township’s acreage extends for 150 acres around an old barn (with a new roof courtesy of the township) and a crumbling side building. Three inaugural farms will share the land, the resources and the community’s support as the first wave of entrepreneurship under the Tilian umbrella.

The purpose of Tilian is to create new farms in our area. As such, there will be a rotation of new farmers coming in new every year on two-year rotations. Andrea Ridgard, project manager, shares: “The first year of the program is really focused on getting the farms started and sustainable with their own markets. The energy of the program in the second year will be more focused on the farmers leaving the land and surviving on their own.”


The newest farmers to join the Ann Arbor community served breakfast at Selma Cafe last Friday. From left to right: Ben Fidler, Nate Lada, Alex Cacciari, Mark Nowak and Jill Sweetman.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Gottlieb.

Of the FSFDP applicants, three farms were chosen as the inaugural cohort. Nate Lada and Jill Sweetman of Green Things Farm are starting a small vegetable and egg CSA (memberships available).

Alex Cacciari and Mark Nowak, of Seeley Farm , are looking for wholesale customers for their greens.

Benjamin Fidler, of Bending Sickle Community Farm, will be doing a pork and poultry CSA.

As Nate Lada explained to me when I asked about growing practices: “We are all doing ecologically sustainable practices, using insecticidal soap for example. But we are not going to be certified organic.”

The young farmers benefit from the FSFDP advisory committee with a broad range and depth of knowledge: Jane Bush (Grazing Fields egg cooperative and Food System Economic Partnership), Tomm Becker (Sunseed Farm), Shannon Brines (Brines Farm), Jennifer Kangas (Capella Farm), Victoria Bennett (WCC), Jeff Holden (Allegiance Health) and Dan Carroll (Zingermans Bakehouse).

Fueled by potlucks, the veterans “volunteer their time,” shares Jill Sweetman. “They have given us advice on our seed order, business planning, doing the LLC and financial stuff.”

Tilian Farm Development Center is guided by a steering committee equally impressive in its knowledge and dedication: Jeff McCabe (Repasts Present & Future and Selma Cafe), Andrea Ridgard, Jennifer Fike (FSEP), Jeremy Mogheter (MSU Student Organic Farm), Dan Bair (The Farm at St. Joes), Shannon Brines and Jessica Neasfey (SNRE student and landscape designer).

Selma Cafe formed the Four Season Farmer Development Program with funds from a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The two-year grant pays for 25 hours of work a week, a mobile hoop house, a washpack (where food can be, you guessed it, washed and packed), a root cellar and $3,000 worth of tools.

As such, the farmers have put together a "Tools to Till Tilian" campaign on to raise $12,000 to purchase fencing, a tractor and capital necessities that should last beyond their two years on the land.

If you choose not to contribute to the campaign, you can help grow more farms in Washtenaw by literally building a hoop house. The first hoop build of 2011 will happen at Tilian on April 16. You can sign up here.

The day I visited, the lone chicken coop surrounded by electric fence highlighted the wide expanse of, as yet, empty land. One brave Bantam rooster crowed against the wind and the wilderness. Not for long will he be the only one making noise on that land.

Corinna writes about many things and spoils her backyard chickens.