A new incubator program for farmers at the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy’s Maple Bay Farm promises to bring innovation and young talent to the area, drawing prospective farmers to relocate to Northern Michigan in order to learn fundamental farming techniques within the nuanced Northern Michigan food and drink industry.  Read on to learn more about the Northern Michigan farm program, called ISLAND, and how it’s reaching out to educate the next wave of area farmers from Bellaire, Michigan.

Photo courtesy of ISLAND.

Photo courtesy of ISLAND.

Farmer residency programs like the ISLAND farmer residency program at Maple Bay are on the rise across the country. These programs are just like business incubators in that they give farmers the chance to test out their idea — a farm with a crop and business plan of their choosing — for a set amount of time. While they have complete control of their farm, they must come up with a business plan with the help of a business counselor.

According to Amanda Kik, a co-director at ISLAND (Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, & Natural Design), this is a great program for people who are exploring farming as a career.

“[This program] offers people the chance to try farming for three years and know for certain if that is the career they want without investing thousands of dollars into a big piece of land,” she says.

The program also offers the important opportunity for farmers to get USDA funding, funding you can only get by demonstrating farm management experience — something that’s not all that easy to get. And, being a part of this program offers advantages spanning from land access to marketing.

“Along with having access to land, farmers will be mentored by area farms and can tap into their expertise. They will work on a business plan for their farm with a business counselor. And, the program will hopefully have a public face. The marketing is already done for them. They’ll be able to say that they were an ISLAND farmer and people will recognize the program,” she says.

This program works to solve a few major problems that farmers today face. First, there’s a problem with farmers jumping into farm ownership without a business or marketing plan. There are some farmers today that will, for example, plant an acre of carrots and when it comes time to harvest them, have no plan of who and where to sell them.

Another problem that’s affecting the state of Michigan today is the aging farmer population.

“There’s not enough young farmers [in Michigan] so the population continues to dwindle. What traditionally would happen is that the family farm would be passed to the children, but that isn’t happening anymore. We need to bring young people into the fold and keep growing food in Northern Lower Michigan,” she says.

And if you’re looking to support the ISLAND farmer residency program, farmers will typically be working with diversified vegetables, such as carrots, snap peas, and beets. With over 15 farmers’ markets within a 25-mile drive of Maple Bay Farm, check out these markets next year for local grown, Northern Michigan food that also benefits these farmers and the community. It’s a win-win—for both the ISLAND farmers and Michigan’s economy.

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