Organic, sustainable farming is growing in popularity. But how many places do you know who combine farming with education, family activities, and even athletic events? Well, there’s one just north of Chelsea, MI – right in my backyard – doing exactly that.
Robin Hills Farm was just scrubland in 2014 when the land was purchased, but it’s rapidly turning into a cutting-edge operation with diverse farming practices working together. Their focus is on zero – zero net energy, zero waste – using one product of the growing cycle to sustain another part.
When I happened across Robin Hills Farm on Facebook and saw it was hosting a “Zen Triathlon,” I had to find out more. So I emailed them, and not only did they invite me out to show me what they’re doing, they hired me to handle the zero waste activities for the event! So I packed up my trusty Jeep and headed out there the afternoon of the event.
Ben Wielechowski, the farm’s Education Director, welcomed me and explained the farm’s mission and how they’re developing their 129 acres. What had been neglected farmland, “covered in autumn olive,” Ben said, has transformed into an organic vegetable plot, animal pasture, and a mushroom forest, along with ponds, a running trail, and even an amphitheater.
But primarily, Ben explained, they want to be “an educational and eco-tourist business.” They invite people to work on the farm for a day (or longer) and want to be a destination for school field trips. Under construction were a visitor’s center and restaurant featuring the farm’s produce, which they hoped to complete in the fall for their official grand opening.
Among their innovative, mutually supporting practices is their “aquaponics” facility, in which waste from fish tanks provides nutrients to hydroponically grown vegetables. “This system uses 90 percent less water than conventional farming,” Ben explained. Solar panels are being installed on the buildings to cover their electricity needs, with no additional power from the grid.
The Zen Tri, part of what they’d called a “Summer Solstice Festival,” consisted of a 5K run followed by a yoga class and meditation session at the farm’s amphitheater. Live music, post-tri beer, and food offerings (wraps and soup) rounded out the evening. They also had a small farmstand with some of their produce, from which I took home freshly picked strawberries, mushrooms, and eggs.
Once I’d set up the Zero Waste tents and bins, I joined about a hundred people running the 5K. It was an untimed, low-key run, and with nothing to win, the participants could take their time and enjoy the evening and the trail. The gravel and wood chip path winds through fields, forests, and around the newly installed ponds, with just enough climbs and descents to make it interesting. Ben said they hope to attract high school cross-country teams to train on it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the evening there, and I encourage anyone interested in sustainable farming to check out Robin Hills Farm. More events are coming up, including the “Robin Run” in September, which is a low-key take on obstacle racing. You can see some photos from previous Robin Runs here.
Following is a short interview with Ben in which he talks about what Robin Hills is trying to do for the community and why he loves his role as Education Director.
– How did you get involved with Robin Hills Farm?
My introduction to them was a bit random and serendipitous. While teaching college English, my mornings were free and I wanted to get outside and get my hands in the dirt. My wife passed along a Craigslist ad that turned out to be for Robin Hills Farm. When the education director resigned, I decided I wanted to get more involved out at the farm and put in my application.
– What excites you most about the work you do?
Mainly it’s the opportunity to interact with the community while doing something I’m passionate about. I get to work with people of all ages, and the topics always revolve around where food comes from, environmental awareness, and connecting people to process and how things work. There’s something priceless about the excitement you see the first time a child tries a vegetable straight from the garden.
And the job has me constantly learning. About everything. Nature & ecology, agricultural, construction, organic methods, renewable energies, animal rehabilitation, conservation efforts around the globe, waste management, new and innovative practices, and the list goes on. It is truly a privilege to have so much opportunity to learn about so many things I care about but never thought I’d have the time to learn about it all.
– What’s the best moment/experience you’ve had so far?
One of my favorite experiences was co-caretaker of Jeremiah and Athena, two Nigerian dwarf goat kids. I’ve always loved animals, and being able to spend time with them while learning the nuts and bolts of animal husbandry are still some of my fondest memories at the farm.
Are you intrigued? Is this something you’d like to experience in person? Then get yourself out to Robin Hills Farm. If you support sustainable farming, I guarantee you’ll be blown away by what you see.