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Growing new life for Poor Farm Barn

June 18, 2018

MAPLE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Steve Stier watches horses plow the Poor Farm Barn’s new community garden with a smile.

For him, it’s a long-fought victory.

″(Leelanau) County has owned this land, the Poor Farm, since the early 20th century. It’s always been for public benefit,” Stier said of the historic site, which once served the county’s indigent population. “Even though this event is not about the barn, it shows that the same spirit of helping people in need is carried on today — and on the same land.”

The land almost wasn’t. Stier and his organization, the Leelanau County Historical Preservation Society, signed a 25-year lease on the Poor Farm and its barn in April after fighting the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners’ plans to demolish the long-unused structure.

A 5,000-square-foot community garden — which will house kale, tomatoes, summer and winter squash, peppers and salad greens — is the first breath of life for the lot, and the society’s late May Plow Day celebration rang it in.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reports that the garden is a joint effort of the society and Buckets of Rain, a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating community gardens, mainly in impoverished neighborhoods in Detroit.

Organization volunteers will spend the summer weeding, watering and harvesting the Poor Farm garden.

“The synergy between our mission and theirs is just wonderful,” said Laurel Jeris, Historical Preservation Society secretary. “It’s reaching out to people. It’s a total partnership.”

The barn’s first harvest will be split between those in need locally and in the Detroit area. Anything left over will be offered at a produce stand on the nearby Cold Springs Road.

Nothing at the stand will be priced, Jeris said. A donation box will instead accompany the stand so people can leave what they can afford.

Every seedling for the garden, too, is a community effort. Students of Karen Richard’s Envirothon Team at Glen Lake Community Schools grow the plants during the school year. Richard and her students donate thousands of plants to Buckets of Rain each year.

This is the first time they’re getting to see a local impact from their work.

“It’s really exciting — I’m glad our project is going to get noticed outside of the school and help the community,” said student Max Lerchen. “I think I’ll come out (and volunteer in the summer), and I might try to get some other guys out here too — make it more of a community effort.”

Lerchen and fellow team members enjoyed Plow Day’s demonstrations and then, were put to work. The teens rolled out a weed barrier and set up planter boxes for difficult-to-harvest produce like bush beans.

Before that, teams of horses from Fantail Farm and Big Butt Farms prepared the plot.

“We’re so happy to be involved,” said Kathy Schutt, of Big Butt Farms. “Anytime anybody can help someone else out, they should do it.”

That’s the Poor Farm’s nature.

The county erected the Poor Farm Barn in the early 1900s to serve the area’s poor. Restoration efforts began last year when the county began plans to demolish the barn — the last standing structure of the Leelanau County Poor Farm.

“Happening right here in my county? I had to get involved,” said Stier, also vice president of the Michigan Barn Preservation Network.

Stier rallied community members and began speaking at county meetings on the barn’s behalf.

“At first, it was pretty rough because the commissioners were really dead-set against preserving it — they thought it was ready to collapse,” he said. “But we were persistent enough that we kind of changing their minds. I think we gained their confidence — they knew our group was going to be able to do something positive.”

Commissioners gave Stier and members of what would become the Historical Preservation Society six months to formulate a plan. They came back with one in five.

The county agreed to lease the land to the society for the next 25 years, at a rate of $1 per year. The group’s restoration of the barn should begin this summer, and Jeris said a structural engineer estimated the first, three-year phase of work to stabilize the building will run $100,000.

The Historical Preservation Society is about halfway to that goal. A grant from the Michigan Humanities Council has helped the society provide programming like Plow Day and soon, summertime Discovery Days.

Garden work is ongoing, too — volunteers are still needed to pitch in throughout the summer.

“I’ve had faith people in the county will come out and support this. And we think it’s especially fitting the garden will be using the land just as it once was — to help those in need,” Stier said. “We’re determined to make repairing the barn a community effort, and use of the barn a community benefit.”


Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, http://www.record-eagle.com

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