By Cassie Walker Burke / Photos by Bree McKenna
A hunter is walking up the drive, and that spells trouble. So begins the slow dance of damage control: The farmer scoops the last pancake from the griddle onto his wife’s plate, slides in socked feet to the door and yanks on rubber boots. He charges into the yard, and the farmhouse door slams shut behind him. Breakfast is now an afterthought.
Hunters and farmers share the land here in stark northeastern Michigan, but their interests often collide. The point of conflict this morning is a dog—actually, two—owned by the farmers, 32-year-old Lindsay Steele and his wife, Katie Cooper. Sometime in the early morning hours, Apollo, a fluffy white Great Pyrenees, and his sidekick Maia, a Border Collie mix, stealthily escaped the welded-wire fence that encloses the couple’s five-acre farm and hightailed it to a duck-filled marshland nearby. The hunters, who pay for the privilege of hunting that land, don’t react kindly to such disruption—particularly when they’re trying to stock their freezers on one of the last decent weekends of fall.
Most of the morning will be lost while Steele and Cooper search for their dogs, anxious to find them before one or both meets a bullet. “We patch one hole and then they make another and get out again,” Cooper says. “All we do is make constant mistakes,” she adds, laughing, “and try to live with them.”
Five years ago, Lindsay Steele was a graphic designer at a Chicago branding agency, and Katie played in a rock band. Their only brush with agriculture was a produce-stuffed CSA box they got every week or so from a Wisconsin farm through a city drop-off program. How they ended up taking the plunge and exchanging their urban lives for five acres in eastern Michigan is a story powered by equal parts stubbornness and serendipity. That—and a lot of farming videos on YouTube.
Then, just as the couple started making the final rounds of markets last fall, Katie discovered she was pregnant, and a whole new set of priorities slid into view. Babies have a way of forcing their parents to shuttle serendipity, especially in light of a particularly tough-to-swallow fact: It's still tough to earn a living off the land, even in the era of farm-to-table everything.
THE FARMHOUSE ISN'T JUST ANY FARMHOUSE. It’s a century-old, worn in many parts and currently missing most of the wall between the linoleum-covered kitchen and the modest living room with a warm wood-burning stove Steele installed himself.
The work on the house—well, that has to happen in the cold months. Since the couple moved here in 2012, the farm has been a whirlwind of sunup to sundown workdays from first thaw until winter. “Farming is a challenging choice. It just is,” Cooper says. “There is a really daunting place, where you start with whatever you have, which is usually next to nothing and really small—
Steele jumps in. “—you have to be crazy. If you look at it on paper, it is so complex. There are so many variables—how am I going to find land? how am I going to find equipment?—that are so expensive. There is an insane amount of questions, and you can’t always answer all of them. You have to just do it, and be OK that you don’t have all the answers.”
They are sitting on a hillside on a beautiful fall day, describing what may be the world’s hardest job in a practically perfect Midwestern setting. Crop beds line up in perfect geometric formations every direction we look. Chickens cluck an acre or so over, and a light breeze delicately blows their warbling your way. The air is crisp enough to sting our nostrils.
The setting wasn’t always so bucolic. When the couple moved here in 2012, the land hadn’t been used for farming in more than a generation. All possibility was buried under quackgrass, an invasive weed with a persistent root structure. There wasn’t even a garden.
Besides quackgrass, other things that needed clearing—namely, some dark corners of Katie’s childhood. The property actually had been in her family for a generation. Originally, the plan had been to crash and save some money before taking the plunge and buying land elsewhere. But a pit stop became a long-term residency once the cost of buying a plot of land elsewhere began to make their dream seem impossible. Not long after, Katie’s father signaled he might want to sell to the couple.
“I’ve always loved this property, and I do remember, when I was really little, actually thinking about owning this place one day,” she says. “I started thinking this could be a really empowering experience for me, to take something that has a lot of good memories—and a lot of not-so-good memories—to face those and turn them around a bit and build on that.”
Standing inside an old garage that he intended to convert into a greenhouse for winter seed starting, Lindsay handed Katie and her sister a sledgehammer. Clear out the ghosts of her parents’ fighting, her father’s depression, the ensuing divorce. Make it theirs.
Today that greenhouse is full of light and, in late fall, full of empty seed trays that will come into service around the first signals of spring.
STEELE IS HOLDING A PLUG OF SOIL THE SIZE OF A GENEROUS ICE CUBE. The cube is his own adaptation of a recipe by Eliot Coleman, better known as the "godfather" of the organic movement. It contains peat moss, compost, a healthy dose of the native soil, perlite, kelp meal, and, for PH balance, lime. Like the cube of dirt that he is slowly turning around in his hand, each deliberate action is a building block for a tightly choreographed system that the couple describe as “moreganic.”
There are other words for it that are clinical-sounding words—but they don’t really capture the warm, fuzzy feeling of rolling hillsides, homemade chicken coops and a simple and stubborn conviction that peppers any discussion about what happens here. Call it regenerative farming. Call it agro-ecological. Just don’t call it organic.
The conversation at the farmers’ market in South Lyon typically goes like this. A shopper comes up to the couple and asks if their farm is organic. No, they reply, "We’re 'moreganic.'"
"What’s that?" the shopper asks.
"Better than organic."
"What’s better than organic?"
Steele has his answer down: Organic farming is a great idea philosophically but at some point it was hijacked by laws and big ag. Today, for example, organic farms in the United States can still use certain pesticides, which he refuses to use.
In a 2012 survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of organic farms tallied slightly more than 14,000. States such as California and Wisconsin and Minnesota led the pack with the low thousands. Michigan, with nearly 332 in 2012, fell in the middle.
Of those 14,000 farms, 3 in 5 reported annual sales of less than $100,000.
Steele’s farm doesn’t even get counted in those numbers since it isn’t organic by government standards. This is what you call renegade in a region known more for auto parts than heirloom squash. “There are lots of different interpretations for what we’re doing,” Steele says, going on to explain how their farm operates as close as it can to closed-loop agricultural system. Their chief mode of fertilizer is a moveable chicken coop—a homegrown shit delivery service on wheels that prevents them from having to purchase manure or chemicals from the outside. They use intensive planting techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, aggressive composting and all that chicken manure to maximize soil health and deter pests. Data—reams and reams of data that Steele has laboriously catalogued—determine how much of which crops to plant and when and what seedlings should be rotated in. Nitrogen to nitrogen, dust to dust. That, and a heavy reliance on Wi-Fi.
For all of the ancient techniques the couple employs here, they readily recognize the virtues of technology. Their WiFi-enabled soil whispering is informed by a Facebook group of like-minded farmers who happily dispense advice to one another; by YouTube videos from clean farming advocates whose advice is hallowed in certain agricultural circles; by podcasts with quirky titles like Permaculture Voices; and by detailed crop rotation charts that Steele designs on the graphic design software Adobe Illustrator. This is a talent from his former life in Chicago that has proved particularly handy.
Try unpacking all that in a quick conversation at a farmers’ market when someone stops to quickly buy fresh-farmed eggs. Bending customers’ minds at small town markets, Lindsay says, is “exciting—but challenging. There are people out there who know we are growing this produce the way we are, and they understand the quality that it is, and we have them hooked.
“But it’s a challenge—because the other side of that is that people are used to the other vendors at the farmers’ market," he continues. "There is this one big farm: They grow 40 acres of produce, they spray it all the time, they sell their produce really cheap. Sometimes they’re just straight up undercutting us, like, ‘Oh he’s selling his peppers for $1.50 a piece, we’ll sell ours three for $1.’”
He adds: “I don’t want to sink a farmer, but I want them to farm better.”
As he explains, you hear more examples of Steele’s former ad agency life proving useful in other ways. Rather than a past life, his agency work is essential DNA upon which he is building something new, from the clever name of the farm—Garden Fort—to the logo that is stamped on each box of fresh-laid farm eggs. He and Katie even have a tagline for Garden Fort: the really real.
When the couple describes their farm of the future, they don’t talk in terms of acquiring more acreage. Rather, they dream of fostering an experimental station that can be a stop along the way for others who, like them, are the wayward agricurious—be it renegade beekeepers or goat farmers with dreams of being artisanal cheese mongers. Land is hard to come by, and expensive. But they can help others crack the code and share what they've learned. Perhaps this sort of residency program can even become part of the business plan and yield modest rental fees or more goods for market.
Already, an artist friend of theirs has been driving in on occasion from Chicago and painting her signature flower motif on the sides of their barns and fences, in essence bartering her talent for a quiet place to recharge. Like the seed trays in spring, she's an early sign of what could be a budding agri-art commune on property that was, a decade ago, just an old dilapidated house surrounded by lots of grass.
STILL, AS MUCH AS STEELE HATES TO ADMIT IT, FARMING IS TOUGH ECONOMICS. After three years, the couple was first able to pay themselves a wage this past summer. Consider the math: a good week of farmers’ markets and some wholesale to grocers and restaurants can yield $1,200 to $2,000. Multiply that by 25 or so weeks of produce-rich summer and fall for a combined annual income that is in the five figures—one that has to cover mortgage, equipment repair, seedlings, before anything goes to the people tending the land.
To make the numbers work, Steele picked up freelance graphic design projects. His wife worked in the off-season a natural food market in nearby Brighton.
The numbers were barely adding up when Cooper found out she was pregnant. It was around the time the root vegetables were going to market. Talking about the plans for the baby, she was glowing, Lindsay was glowing, the dogs—which had come bounding back safely after their adventure with the hunters—were practically glowing. But the coming baby forced a reckoning with reality for two people who had previously let creativity and serendipity be their guides.
Lindsay considered some hard choices: try to muscle through another season short a laborer—that is, his wife, who'd be occupied tending to the baby. Or he could take out a loan so he could invest in some critical tools, irrigation materials and manpower that would help the farm be more productive—but require an undesirable lien on the farmhouse. There was a third option: step back, dive back into his old life as a freelance graphic designer and steadily try to build back his bank account. The trade-off would be putting the farm on hiatus for the coming year.
"Flying by the seat of our pants, being creative, using what we have, and muscling through has been a good approach while we figure out exactly what it is we're doing and continue to learn," he said. "But we aren't going to survive without establishing better systems and putting in place the infrastructure needed to be more efficient and productive," from better irrigation and hoop houses to some equipment essentials such as a walk-in cooler and a proper pack shed.
When a little girl arrived two weeks early, on Easter Day, the right direction seemed immediately clear. Here was a new life around the time of the first spring plantings. Only Steele wouldn't be planting much this year: He decided to plunge his energies into graphic design and being a new father. He'd still farm but mainly for his growing family; any spare cash and spare time he'd pour into infrastructure improvements on the property with the hopes that Garden Fort would be fully operational again in 2017.
Before Steele decided to slow down operations, he had been thinking of taking on an employee. A cousin of his wife's—a young German woman—had paid the farm an extended visit and become an indispensable resource while the expectant mama had been sidelined by first trimester nausea.
At night, Steele says he and their visitor had plenty of conversations about whether she could start something similar in Germany. It’s tough to say what’s more daunting to an aspiring farmer: The cost of land, and the lack of farmland in general, or the knowledge gap that has widened as the number of farmers dwindled over generations. If those things don’t scare people away, the idea of toiling away 80 hours a week for a barely livable wage can.
Still, Steele says he coached his wife's cousin to take the plunge and let instinct lead her. “Once you start doing it, people start to believe you.” He points out that, once he did, plenty of small miracles happened. Other farmers willingly offered critical advice. He used real estate records online to find the owner of the land adjacent to his farm, and she let him use it for free. Ultimately, Katie’s father decided to sell the house to the couple.
“This isn’t what we envisioned,” says Cooper. Steele picks up her thought. “Trying to come to terms with your life—trying to come to terms with what you actually have to do to do it—is hard.”
“Which is interesting,” he says, “because I am waiting for that person, for those people to show up and say, should I do this?”
What would he say?, you ask.
Yes, he says. “I would say yes.”