“Chickens eat tomatoes and blueberries”: a bit of trivia shared by five-year-old Zoe VanderBrug. “Tomatoes have bugs”: another little-known fact to most grocery cart–riding youngsters.
Teaching their children — Zoe and three-year-old Pieter — about farming, the earth and creation is a natural and important by-product of what Michael VanderBrug ’97 and Anja VanderBrug Mast ’91 are doing on about 50 acres of farmland in Jenison, Michigan, just outside of Grand Rapids.
Raising pesticide-free crops without the use of chemical fertilizers for consumption by themselves and other “shareholders” of Trillium Haven Farm is the top priority for these young entrepreneurs.
While farming had been in the VanderBrug and Mast families for generations, the young couple had no prior experience in it themselves.
“My grandfather found farming to be difficult and risky,” said Michael. “He didn’t feel the need to pass it on.”
“Our grandparents wanted something ‘better’ for us than they’d had for themselves,” added Anja. “Both sets of our parents went to Calvin. Education was extremely important in our families.”
Michael graduated from Calvin with a degree in psychology; Anja majored in English and political science.
“At Calvin I developed an interest in maintaining community,” said Michael. “I became a cultural critic and felt that we were losing a lot as we were losing community.” With these feelings ruminating, Michael spent a few years working for Pine Rest Christian Hospital. During this time he met and married Anja, who had similar ideas about fostering community.
So with absolutely no background in farming, the young couple sold their home in urban Grand Rapids and purchased the Jenison farm from Michael’s grandfather with the intention of turning the land into an arrangement called community-supported agriculture (CSA).
“I had had a few backyard gardens before with a few vegetables and flowers,” said Michael, “but I had never seen a broccoli plant before.”
Ditto for Anja, who has a master’s degree in composition and rhetoric.
“Our families thought, ‘This is crazy,’” said Anja. “I know they thought, ‘There goes thousands of dollars in education down the drain’ because we’re going to start a farm. I see the connection of education to what we do clearly, though. We use what we received at Calvin every day. We educate people; that’s what we do.”
What Trillium Haven Farms does is provide members with a variety of produce harvested every week during the growing season — enough for a family of two to five, or about one to two grocery bags a week. In exchange, members purchase a share of the harvest before the season begins — about $350 a year. This provides the VanderBrugs with the necessary capital to purchase seeds and equipment.
While CSA farms are a relatively new trend, the principles are old fashioned.
“We believe that small-scale farming is a better way to farm,” said Anja. “God has called us to be earthkeepers; that is very, very important to both of us, and we’re pretty blatant about it. To us that means not just caring for the earth but making it better. We work with the earth, not abusing it in any way.”
But how does no-pesticide, no-chemical farming work?
“A healthy, strong, natural plant is almost pest resistant,” said Anja. “A balanced system also draws natural predators. When we first started on the farm, there were no grasshoppers, no bluebirds, no orioles. Now we attract certain birds, predator wasps; the more you do for the ecosystem, the more it works for you.”
"As Christian environmentalists, we are trying to connect people to God’s beauty. There aren’t many things more miraculous than seeing an enormous broccoli plant come from a tiny seed.” — Anja VanderBrug MastIn addition to avoiding harmful chemicals and pesticides, the VanderBrugs also grow a wide variety of crops — everything from arugula to radicchio, from lavender potatoes to green zebra tomatoes.
“It’s a huge world out there,” said Anja. “At one time there were millions of kinds of vegetables out there, and we’ve lost 80 percent of them. In the U.S. we’re getting down to raising one kind of cow and pig and chicken and even one type of corn and soybean. It’s become so industrialized. Did you know that Mexico once had 30,000 different kinds of corn, and in India there were 45,000 different kinds of rice? But once a variety is gone, it’s gone forever.”
For Trillium Haven members Bob and Darlene Meyering, the “adventure veggies” are sometimes the most fun. “Some of our favorites have been celaric, kohlrabi and daikon radish,” said Darlene. “With the help of Anja’s recommended cookbook — From Asparagus to Zucchini — I have learned to cook, store and preserve seasonal vegetables.”
The VanderBrugs have made it part of their mission not only to produce different varieties of vegetables, but also to introduce them to shareholders like the Meyerings.
“I’ll have people come up to me and say, ‘Kohlrabi? I don’t know what that is or what to do with it.’ We give it to them anyway — with recipes,” said Anja.
In fact, it’s the principle of variety that makes CSA farms work. “If you only grew lettuce and onions, who would want that every week?” Anja said.
“We find that we enjoy eating healthily and have become salad snobs,” said Darlene. “We no longer enjoy eating bagged salads or iceberg lettuce. Why would you want that when you have freshly picked spring greens, scallions and spinach?”
With a growing recognition of the benefits of organic farming, Trillium Haven Farms has grown from 30 shareholders in 2001 to about 225 in 2005.
Shareholders who wish to lower their cost can agree to work on the farm. This is a benefit of CSA farms that the VanderBrugs like to promote.
“Life slows down here,” said Anja. “The natural world helps the stress level.”
Added Michael: “For so many people, it’s been a long time since they’ve dug in the dirt, gotten their hands dirty. It becomes a physical connection with the earth.”
And an education.
“As Christian environmentalists, we are trying to connect people to God’s beauty,” said Anja. “There aren’t many things more miraculous than seeing an enormous broccoli plant come from a tiny seed.”
A return to rudimentary farming brings us closer to God’s word, too, she said.
“As we get further and further away from nature, the Bible becomes a more difficult read,” she said. “We no longer understand seasons and harvests or mustard seeds or sheaves of wheat.”
So what Trillium Haven tries to do is the “right thing,” according to Anja. “We don’t just feed people’s stomachs; we feed their souls.”
— Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark
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