Sunday, February 27, 2011

Meet Pete Robertson -- New Farm Manager at the Nature Center


A similar article about Pete and DeLano Farms
appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette on Sunday, February 27.


It's interesting happenstance to reach middle age and discover that you have all the education, talent and experience necessary to venture forth in a new frontier.

Pete Robertson is discovering just that as he assumes the newly-created position of farm manager at the Kalamazoo Nature Center's DeLano Farms.

Robertson's first taste of farming began at home.  His parents both grew up on a farm and his father worked in the food processing industry.  His family always maintained some connection to the land through a garden and through his aunts and uncles who continued to farm.  His mother cooked daily and canned fruits and vegetables.

Robertson studied agriculture at the University of Illinois and after graduation in 1983 he went to Chicago to work in a bank.

After two years in the city he yearned for the dirt under his fingernails and planted his own backyard garden—this was way before gardening and the local food movement emerged.

He then started his own small business, a bicycle shop, but after 15 years when sales began to decline, he sought greener pastures.  Literally.  That's when he realized that he really loved growing vegetables.

In 2007 through a cooperative arrangement with a bed & breakfast owner in Sturgis, he planted a two-acre garden and sold fresh produce at the farmers market.  A year later he set up a CSA. 

Unfortunately, the 2008 foreclosure crisis hit the B&B and the owner was faced with having to vacate her home in 30 days.  Robertson, too, was affected since he was in the middle of the growing season and had delivery obligations to meet.

Things worked out, however.  The B&B owner was able to save her home and Robertson was able to see through the growing season.

However, this experience led him to decide that if he were to continue his agricultural work, he would need to find land.

Serendipity touched him again.  The farm manager job at the Nature Center became available, he applied and got it.

“I see my backyard garden as my primary school education and the CSA as my college education,” quipped Robertson.  “Now that I've 'graduated,' I'm ready to get to work.”

The DeLano Farms will certainly provide him with that challenge as its mission seeks not only to connect children and adults with the land but to teach them how food is grown, how to recognize healthy and nutritious food and how to purchase food.

“Deciding what to do with DeLano Farms has always been a struggle as we tried to figure out how to tie it in with nature,” said President and CEO Willard Rose. 

The DeLano homestead was settled in the 1860s and has been popular place for families and school groups to visit.  Since the 1970s interpretive programs aptly illustrated pioneer life but DeLano was not utilized to its fullest potential, said Rose.

Three or four years ago a board member suggested the idea of turning DeLano Farms into a working farm.  Rose and Jenn Wright, vice president for education at the Nature Center, explored farm-based educational programs, especially in the Northeast where they are most prominent.

Later, consultants from the Farm-Based Education Association (www.farmbasededucation.org) came to look at the DeLano property and talk with board members, community stakeholders and staff, said Wright.  They suggested the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model for the farm because it could be financially self-supporting

CSA is a local food distribution model based on a mutually beneficial relationship between farmers and the members of the CSA.  Members “buy into” the farm early in the season and commit to share in the harvest, its bounty, its seasonality and occasionally its unpredictability.  Farmers supply produce for weekly pick-ups and are insured a steady market independent of yearly and seasonal fluctuations.  Both parties benefit from this relationship, especially the opportunity to know the people on both ends of the exchange.

“As we considered what was happening in our community where interest in local foods, health, nutrition and sustainability was growing, we discovered that turning DeLano into a working farm tied into the Nature Center’s mission of ‘inspiring people to care for the environment by providing experiences that lead them to understand their connection to the natural world.’  Agriculture is certainly part of nature,” said Rose. 

“All the staff voted for it, said Wright, “including those who have worked with DeLano for 20 years.  It was a definite hit from the beginning.”

Plans are also in the works to incorporate the farm with the Nature Center’s summer camp program where kids will plant, weed and harvest vegetables. 

“We visited a farm-based program in Vermont and found inner-city New York kids mesmerized by what was happening,” said Rose.  “They helped take care of animals and shovel manure but they loved it and did not complain.  When they returned to school, the teachers saw how the farm had changed the lives of the kids and that they participated more in class.”

The Nature Center has been leasing 400 of its 1140 acres to farmers who raise hay, corn and soybeans.  It will dedicate 25 acres to the DeLano Farms Program.

Robertson plans to start a market-oriented CSA with around 70 vegetables.  The long-term goal is to include dairy and meats as well.

“We're not trying to undercut anybody else or take away their customers,” said Robertson.  “We're trying to bring new people into the CSA.  Besides, each CSA has its own personality and products.”

This year DeLano Farms will sell 100 shares at $600 each or $550 for Nature Center members.  It will run 21 weeks from May 31 until October 22 with pick-ups before both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Usually CSAs have a pick-up station where people get their weekly box of vegetables.  The DeLano Farms CSA will have people come to the farm and select their vegetables from an assortment.

“Making trips to the farm connects shareholders to it and their food in a more physical way,” said Robertson, who also hopes this will also inspire people to grow their own gardens.  Various classes on gardening, food preparation and preservation will be offered. Shareholders will also be encouraged to volunteer some time at the farm and learn about new foods and products.

To run the farm Robertson will recruit interns, seasonal workers and volunteers who will apply organic growing methods in sustainable ways in order to produce fresh, nutrient-dense foods that will vary with the season.  For example, spring brings in greens, radishes, peas, turnips, carrots, parsley and cilantro.  Summer provides more variety with tomatoes, melons, peppers, beans, beets, onions, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli and cabbage while the fall sees squashes and potatoes.

“People are astounded at what can come from our local Michigan farms,” said Robertson.  “This, in itself, is a learning experience for most people.”

Robertson said some restaurant chefs have approached him about supplying vegetables from the DeLano Farms.  He will work with them and various food-oriented organizations, including community food banks and kitchens.

“The Nature Center really wants to raise all boats in marketing high quality foods to consumers,” he said.  “We want to be good neighbors.”

DeLano Farms aims to encourage future farmers through its volunteer and worker educational program. 

“Farming is a skill,” said Robertson.  “It requires physical energy, tools, equipment and knowing how to use power.”

He added that DeLano Farms will work with the Michigan State University Extension Service, schools and colleges to accomplish this goal.

“I consider myself to be very lucky to be here,” said Robertson.  “I also feel a responsibility to bring people to the CSA, to fulfill the mission of the Nature Center and to be a good steward of the land.”

Planting begins in March, depending on the weather, said Robertson, and a blog will soon be started under the domain name of www.DeLanoFarmsCSA.org.  For more information about the CSA, contact DeLano Farms at 269.381.1574 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              269.381.1574      end_of_the_skype_highlighting ext. 26 or see the website:  www.naturecenter.org/DeLanoFarms.aspx.

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