A look at our future

At a new staff orientation that took place on January 30, I had a chance to meet some great new colleagues. During my comments to the participants, I tried to convey what I think makes Michigan State University Extension professionals special people. The curiosity to gather all the information you can before offering advice, the innate response to teach and facilitate in any setting and with any resources, and the drive, the insistence to make a difference in the lives of others – all of these are what I see as defining an effective Extension professional. I told them that I consider myself extremely fortunate to get to work with a group of colleagues who fit that description.

Then I went to lunch and got a dose of what makes Extension professionals special in our discussion around the lunch table. I heard some fascinating life stories, and I want to share some of those in MSUE Spotlight over time because they are instructive and inspiring for me and I think they may be for you as well.

The first story I want to share is from Margaret (Maggie) Kantola. Maggie joined MSUE in August 2012 and works as a nutrition program instructor in our Nutrition and Physical Activity work group, based in Detroit. When Maggie moved to Detroit earlier last year, she rented an apartment. The landlord asked her if she had any ideas about what to do with a 1/4-acre parcel of land next to the apartment building. Maggie asked if the landlord minded if she made money from the land and he said it was fine.

In short order, Maggie converted the vacant lot into a beautiful market garden called CommonHarvest and produced a bounty.

Vacant lot in Detroit, spring 2012, will become CommonHarvest.

Vacant lot in Detroit, spring 2012, will become CommonHarvest.
Photo credit: Margaret Kantola.

In her words, “We sold the variety of produce at Eastern Market at the Grown in Detroit table in addition to some wholesale to local restaurants. And of course we had plenty of fresh food all season long and froze, canned and dried plenty of the vegetables that we are now enjoying during these winter months.”

I was impressed by the story and impressed even more by the photos she shared with me after our luncheon discussion. I share them with you here.

Soil prepared for planting in the CommonHarvest lot.

Soil prepared for planting in the CommonHarvest lot.
Photo credit: Margaret Kantola.

I shared Maggie’s story in a presentation I gave two weeks ago at the Agricultural Outlook Forum 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. The forum is an event hosted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack each year. I was invited to speak about the work of Cooperative Extension in fostering the development of local food systems – growing, distributing, processing and marketing food for consumers who live near the producers. Much of the media attention has focused on food systems developing in urban communities. Our MSUE Community Food Systems work group is working in urban and rural communities, and they provided valuable stories for me to share in my presentation.

Janelle Palmer plants crops in the CommonHarvest lot.

Janelle Palmer plants crops in the CommonHarvest lot.
Photo credit: Margaret Kantola.

I began my presentation with Maggie’s story as a way to convey what I see as the key driver behind the success of local food systems. I explained that this garden was something that Maggie did on her own, not as part of her responsibilities in MSUE. She was entrepreneurial in her approach, had technical knowledge that she could apply, and used her skills and knowledge to improve her community, and to improve her life and the lives of others. She made a difference in the lives of others.

CommonHarvest shows steady growth.

CommonHarvest shows steady growth.
Photo credit: Margaret Kantola.

That energy – whether it comes from Extension professionals or others – is making new neighborhoods, new economic activity and new ways of living in our urban communities. If you go to a meeting of people involved in local food systems, if you shop at a farmers market, if you hang around Extension professionals like Maggie, you can feel the energy and take hope from the fact that THIS is what is helping to create our cities of the future. Creating the parts of new food systems won’t solve all of our challenges in urban and rural communities across Michigan. But it sure will help move us in a productive direction.

Urban garden nears harvest.

Urban garden nears harvest.
Photo credit: Margaret Kantola.

It’s easy to show photos of urban decay and ring our hands. It’s easy to read stories of urban violence and run away. It’s easy to read about government financial distress and give up. In the midst of that, the human spirit needs to grow something, and Maggie showed me how simple that can be and how much it can change perspectives on vacant lots, stressed social interactions and hopeless financial circumstances. I don’t know the answers to those challenges, but I’m willing to bet that the work of young and old in constructive ways like Maggie’s CommonHarvest is laying the foundation for the solutions we’re seeking. Thanks, Maggie, for giving me a story that illustrates what we do as Extension professionals.

Heirloom tomatoes from CommonHarvest offered for sale in fall 2012 at the Detroit Eastern Market.

Heirloom tomatoes from CommonHarvest offered for sale in fall 2012 at the Detroit Eastern Market.
Photo credit: Margaret Kantola.

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