Tollgate Farm Education Center – Strategic Planning Process Begins

Recently, I was invited to help program staff members and building management personnel at the Tollgate Farm Education Center through a strategic planning process.Tollgate_Office_House_1 Jointly held by the Americana Foundation and Michigan State University, the Tollgate Farm Education Center is an incredible resource for food and farming education in an urban setting. As I see it, Tollgate is poised to teach the basics of urban agriculture and food-systems management for greater community resilience across Southeast Michigan.

Hemmed in by the 12-Oaks Mall, the City of Novi, all that Oakland County sprawl, there’s a 160-acre farm that dates back to Michigan’s beginnings. ducksMoving to the property in 1836, John Basset later built the farm house that still stands on Meadowbrook Road at the Tollgate Farm Education Center. Adolph and Ginger Meyer bought the farm in the 1950s and preserved it as a working farm and educational resource held in trust by the Americana Foundation.

Thanks to an unusual partnership between the Americana Foundation and Tollgate_Goat_edited-1Michigan State University (MSU), the bucolic and picturesque Tollgate Farm Education Center remains an important historic resource for people throughout Michigan. Tollgate now offers a variety of facilities, programs and support to an array of groups, including a 4H youth group, science and farming summer camps for youth, bee-keeper education and catered business group meetings.

Alan Jaros is the new director for educational programming under Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) at Tollgate. Hitting the ground running, Alan has been pushing to build urban agriculture training opportunities, enhance educational resources on site and increase visitation. All of which add new demands on the facilities and staff members and requires inter-organizational and inter-agency cooperation.

Thankfully, his colleagues at MSU, the Americana Foundation and a number of community-based organizations have agreed to joinTollgate_classroom_1_small_file Alan in a discussion about the future. And all agree that Tollgate is a critical resource for natural resources, agriculture, and food-systems training in Southeast Michigan. With some work and thoughtful dialogue, there will soon be a plan for coordinated action that provides a clear vision and achievable goals for immediate and long-term development of Tollgate Farm Education Center

A Note on FacilitatorsTollgate_Greenhouse_1

Sometimes long-standing and mature organizations need to occasionally to re-evaluate their mission and goals, assess progress, and consider changing conditions. Facilitated discussions can help managers and program staff reaffirm effective relationships and respond creatively to the opportunities emerging from change.

BOOK REVIEW: The Big Ratchet by Ruth DeFries

In one of his most influential and important works, The Practice of the Wild (1990), Gary Snyder reminds us of the conditional nature of life on earth. As he put it:  Two conditions – gravity and a livable temperature range between freezing and boiling – have given us fluids and flesh. Thankfully, our planet is in just the right orbital around the sun, massive enough to hold an atmosphere, a stable tilt providing predictable seasons, a molten core that recycles carbon, and a magnetic field that protects us from the solar wind. In a relatively short time of stability, humans have evolved. Snyder points out that fingers and toes, eyes and ears, even our wagging tongues owe something to our evolution as land-striders, tree climbers and weather-watchers.Big_Ratchet_Cover

Something in Snyder’s earth sense was brought to mind while reading this brand new book by Ruth DeFries, The Big Ratchet – How Humanity Thrives in theFace of Natural Crisis (Basic Books, 2014). While not a poet, DeFries shares a perspective with Snyder that comes from careful observation and deep reflection. As a geographer and environmental scientist, she’s taken a different road to understanding earth systems and human systems, but her conclusions are similar to the Buddhist poet.

To be sure, this is a short, easy-reading book with a conversational tone. The language is straightforward and approachable, offering a clear narrative interlacing stories of technical innovations with the exponential growth of human populations. What makes us different from other species, DeFries says, is not our ability to manipulate our surroundings; rather, we have developed and extraordinary ability to twist food from nature. Our ability to pass knowledge across generations has given us a remarkable capacity to try, fail and adapt. If one experiment fails, we lurch, stumble, and try some other path.

And that is a key focus of the book, how human populations and societies have grown or ratcheted up to the limits of food production, suffered starvation and other loss (i.e., the hatchet), but somehow managed to discover or unearth a solution (i.e., pivot). For example, DeFries reminds us that natural limits to bio-available nitrogen once greatly limited food production. By the nineteenth century, expanding urban populations were facing food shortages as all the supplies of recycled wastes and imported guano failed to keep pace with demand. Then, German chemist Fritz Haber came along to add a spark to humanity’s accumulated knowledge and show how electricity could be used to fix nitrogen from the air producing ammonia fertilizer. Cleverly joining invention, innovation with accumulated knowledge, human kind has continued to prosper and grow at an exponential rate.

This is a hopeful story, a hopeful book – within limits. DeFries clearly states that: there are three fundamental requirements needed for a habitable planet: a stable climate, a planetary recycling apparatus and a smorgasbord of life. As she points out, there are limits to planet’s support system and the massive increase in population and food demand over the last 60 years or so strikes at these fundamental requirements. An increasingly unstable climate threatens to disrupt food production across the globe. Unpredictable planting seasons, drought, heat waves and storms are worldwide climatic changes that threaten food supplies everywhere. We greatly complicate matters by disrupting the recycling of nutrients, discharging them as sewage to rivers  and oceans and into the air.

Still, DeFries takes a long view and sees reason for hope. In the final chapter of her book, she says that human ingenuity is once again leading to positive change. While acknowledging the impacts of exponential population growth, she says the end of the demographic upheaval is in sight. She also sees humanity beginning to pivot away from wasteful business-as-usual, finding new ways to recycle nutrients, re-localize food production, reduce food wastes, and adopt healthier diets.

However, she leaves us with caution. After the big ratchet up of population over the last century, we face a time of great change and global challenges. She says we are learning that urban lives are connected with nature only against strong headwinds driven by the push to consume more. All of us, she says, need to do much more to keep the hatchets from falling too severely.