Farm will offer fresh produce to schools through one-of-a-kind Michigan program

IMG_7835A couple in Presque Isle County are on the front lines of a one of a kind program that is expanding the way schools and communities can get access to fresh, local produce.

I took the three-hour drive to Presque Isle Farm to see how a farm that’s been in the same family for five generations is going to change under its newest occupants.

“We kind of see ourselves as stewards.”

This is Molly Stepanski. She and her husband Dion moved back to take over the farm from Dion’s parents.

Molly said she met Dion as a base player in an electronica band. When they found out they were having a baby they started thinking about how they wanted to raise their child.

“You think you know how you want life to unfold and then you have a little one. That changes everything. Once we had him this idea of being closer to home and to family and making a world, it sounds so cliche, but making a world where we want him to exist.”

Molly takes me around the property. The backyard is covered with a series of long hoop-shaped tents, called low tunnels, that help keep the rows of vegetables warm.IMG_7839

“The bigger piece of it is there is just decreased sunlight. That’s the big part, just lack of light. With these structures, the low tunnels, it’s just an agro-bond fabric and PVC pipe.”

It’s not a huge amount of land, but the Stepanski’s said they’ll be able to produce a lot of food.

“So we are growing on just about an acre right now. It doesn’t seem like that much but part of the brilliant piece of this style is all of this will be turned over throughout our growing season probably five times. 100 foot bed of lettuce ends up producing about 5,000 heads.”

What makes it possible, said Molly, is using different crop covers to help extend the growing season.

That technology doesn’t come cheap however, so the Stepanski’s have applied to a couple of loans and grants to help pay for it.

One loan in particular, through Hoophouses for Health, has an interesting catch.

“Essentially how that works is they give us a 15,000 dollar credit to build a high tunnel and the contingency on that is we’re going to use that high tunnel to supply schools with fresh food. Basically the schools get 15,000 dollars worth of food from us and it pays off the high tunnel. It’s a win win. They’ve made it really appealing.”

That program, according to Tyler Vuillemont, program manager with Hoophouses for Health, is one of a kind.

“As far as we are aware there are no programs anywhere else in the country that follow this model. It’s only happening in Michigan right now but we’re hoping to see other states emulate it in the future.”

Vuillemont says the program has helped 50 farms across the state provide food for roughly 20 schools since it began in 2011. And, he said, it’s growing fast.

“Just last year we had forty-three farmers participating in the program at fifteen markets across the state. So this year we’re adding three markets and a handful of farmers to the program.”

So how do communities feel about all this new access to local food?

I drove up to Roger City High School to see how the students felt about getting organic food in the cafeteria.

Braden Idalski and Donovann Franzoni are both 9th graders.

Ben: Do you feel like you need more healthy food?
Braden: Yeah, I think we need more healthy food..
Ben: is it a lot of junk food?
Braden: Yeah, it could be. I don’t know but it definitely could be.
Donovann: Yeah, we need more greens.

Diane Schultz is the Director of Food Services for the Rogers City School District. She said she was surprised when the Stepanski’s reached out.

“We haven’t done this yet already? It’s a fabulous program we have a great need for that. Our budget is limited and getting produce locally will save us.”

Schultz said getting fresh food into the cafeteria isn’t always easy.

“The price of fresh produce is hard because it comes from so far away. If we can get it locally we can plan our salad bars to revolve around the items that we do get.”

For Molly Stepanski all of the positive feedback, not just from the school district but also from grocery stores and restaurants that they’ve taken their food to has made all the work worth it.

“I think people are ready. It’s Northern.. North Eastern Michigan’s time.”

With any luck Stepanski said, this is the start of a movement.