A five-digit federal grant to a nonprofit focused on sustainable food development in Southeast Michigan may result in more farms popping up in the region and a greater variety of vegetables at local farmers’ markets.

The organization, the Food System Economic Partnership, will receive $91,840 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market Promotion Program. The grant, which was announced on Oct. 13, is the largest of the nine grants allocated to cities in Michigan. The funding will be used to purchase a tractor, baler, heated greenhouse and other farm implements for the Tilian Farm Development Center — a 153-acre plot farm incubator on the outskirts of Ann Arbor Township.

The investments will allow Tilian to expand its incubation of farm start-ups with the hope that they will spur economic growth for sustainable agriculture in Southeast Michigan. People involved in the project also hope the grant will create opportunities for collaboration between the farm start-ups, the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and the University.

Jennifer Fike, executive director of the Food System Economic Partnership, has arranged sales between the farms at the Tilian Center and the East Quad dining hall since 2006. She said the grant will offer young farmers an opportunity to start their own ventures, specifically those whose parents did not bequeath them land and agricultural infrastructure.

“It’s very difficult to make a living at farming, and so we’re trying to help remove some of the barriers that new farmers are experiencing,” Fike said. “There are people who want to go into farming, but it takes a lot of money to be able to do that.”

She added that the shortage of young farmers compounds the importance of the Tilian Center’s task. The Partnership’s 2010 Future Farmer Research Report found 76 percent of the surveyed farmers in Jackson, Lenawee and Monroe, Mich. were age 50 and older.

Through the Tilian Center, Southeast Michigan has the land resources necessary to shift that demographic, Fike said.

“Now, through this grant, there’s access to capital,” she said.

There are currently three farms on the Tilian Center Land, two of which — Seeley Farms and Green Things Farm — sell their vegetables at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in Kerrytown. Fike said she would like to see the Ann Arbor Farmers Market grow along with the Tilian Center.

Regarding the federal grant’s impact on the University, University Housing spokesman Peter Logan said the grant does not necessarily present an opening for increased business between the University and the farm start-ups. However, the University has purchased food from local and sustainable sources for the past few years, Logan said. He pointed to East Quad chef Buzz Cummings who requests locally grown foods through the Partnership.

Fike said she hopes the University will increase its purchasing of sustainable food from these farm start-ups.

“Our experience in working with the University is that they are interested in local purchasing, and I could see that there could be room for growth in other areas of the campus,” she said.

Like Fike, Larissa Larsen, an associate professor of urban planning at the University, and Molly Notarianni, manager of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, said increased collaboration with local farms would be beneficial to all parties involved and has the potential to improve Southeast Michigan’s economy.

Larsen, who was the faculty leader of the food team on University President Mary Sue Coleman’s sustainability initiative, said such relationships could bring about a multiplier effect in which aspects of agriculture production to consumption within local frameworks amplifies the effect on the local economy.

“It’s good to encourage or retain the agricultural production within this area,” Larsen said. “If we keep money locally, it employs local people, it’s good for our local economy — those have benefits.”

Larsen said farm incubators like the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vt. are successful and she hopes similar results can be replicated in Ann Arbor. She also said she foresees the future start-ups at the Tilian Center helping to achieve the University’s goal of bringing in a portion of its food from within 150 miles of Ann Arbor.

“I know that the University is interested in meeting their stated goal, so I don’t see why not,” Larsen said. “For the farmers to know that there is a demand is really powerful.”

Notarianni said the demand will be evident at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, where the two vendors from Tilian Farms already experienced success by selling less popular vegetables.

“There is always more room for people with innovative products at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market,” she said. “A lot of the vendors who’ve been part of the market for a really long time don’t really have children who want to carry on their farms. So I think that at some point in the next 10 to 15 years, there’s going to be a big change.”

Notarianni thinks the grant and the opportunities it will spark might also help boost enthusiasm about the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and the local pride and promise of sustainability it represents.

“I think that there’s a lot of excitement and momentum around local food in Washtenaw County and Southeast Michigan, and continuing to fuel that momentum will be good,” Notarianni said.

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