A series on local Community Supported Agriculture
Text: R. Collins
Across its 264 acres in western Grand Rapids, including the conservation acquisition of the former Highlands Golf Club, the Blandford Nature Center is devoted to preserving the interconnected ecosystems of its West Michigan location and educating local communities about the natural rhythms that underscore each.
Whether interacting with the nature center’s “Wildlife Ambassadors,” participating in activities like maple tree tapping, or trekking through the area’s expansive trail system carved by wetlands, woodlands, and their inhabitants, there’s countless ways the nature center piques the interests of an estimated 60,000 visitors each year. One major facet to the Nature Center is its 2.5 acre farm and its diverse, delicious Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA program.
“[The CSA] gives the farm a chance to become more connected with the surrounding community and provides an opportunity for folks to become more connected with the seasonality and rhythms of the growing season in this particular area,” said Elizabeth Visser, farm manager at the Blandford Nature Center.
Since 2010, the farm has been growing more than 200 different varieties of vegetables and educating visitors about local agriculture which, when experienced in CSA form, brings seasonal produce at peak flavor and nutrition mere miles to local homes. The exchange is doubly advantageous since it provides reliable income for farmers to keep up their work, while making everyday meals healthier for consumers.
“A CSA is a good way to provide folks a direct connection to the farm that grows their food, and the CSA model provides income to the farm at the beginning of the season for purchasing vital tools and supplies, such as potting soil, seeds, and equipment and building maintenance,” Visser said.
The start of spring means the Nature Center’s farm is gearing up for a busy—and flavorful—summer CSA season that will roll into early fall. It will include 20 weeks of seasonal vegetables and 10 weeks of fresh herb bunches and flower bouquets in the form of half and full shares, which vary in price between members and non-members.
Tried-and-true kitchen staples like basil, garlic, and peppers come alongside more adventurous additions like shiso and Mexican mint marigold, which can be used to garnish fish, rice, tempura, and soups, sauces, and medicinal teas, respectively. Summer shares also bring kale, tomatoes, and cucumbers to the kitchen, while the flower-share program offers snapdragons, sunflowers, and other seasonal bouquets to keep or gift.
Beautiful produce aside, the processes and agricultural science behind the farm’s 2.5-acre system make each tableside ingredient easy to appreciate. As a Certified Naturally Grown farm also certified with the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) and Slow Food of West Michigan, the nature center farm does everything possible to limit its environmental impact.
Besides using reliable methods like crop rotation and cover crops to prevent erosion and nutrient depletion, the farm uses alternatives to herbicides and pesticides to control pests, such as manual removal and releasing beneficial insects like ladybugs. The farm even uses an annual soil test to inform a custom compost blend that avoids excess nutrients which could make their way into water systems.
“Recently, we are experimenting with no-till raised beds. I plan on expanding this section in the hopes of reducing heavy equipment use on the farm,” said Visser in reference to new progresses. “Farming in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible is a constant learning process, and I am always open to learning better ways to tend to the soil and grow the highest quality produce possible.”
From the newest of visitors to seasoned farm staff, there are always natural wonders and learning opportunities to experience when studying the innerworkings of an ecosystem. With this year’s warm weather, Visser is looking forward to seeing the first blooms of last fall’s tulip and daffodil plantings, as well as the germination from her favorite heirloom tomato seeds.
Currently, the nature center is in the middle of sugarbush season, collecting sap from trees across the land and converting it to syrup in The Sugarhouse on-site—a process visitors can partake in during the season’s sugarbush season activities. When not scouting for fresh sap, the farm team is beginning to seed in the greenhouse and taking inventory for a likely busy season ahead. Especially as appreciations have grown this past year for the renewing power of the outdoors and their effects on overall health, the nature center stands ready to further investments in our surroundings through education, exploration, and connecting people with the best of local agriculture.
Photography: Blandford Nature Center