A Handmade Farm: Frog Holler Organic Farm

Caring about this corner of the world is what makes that little quivery feeling inside my chest when I'm caught up in a lovely moment at a community event or notice something tender, like the unexpected generosity of a friend or a beautiful thing that someone has made. That, for better or worse but certainly for true, is how much of a sap I am.    


That feeling of appreciating what someone has made with their own hands, out of ingenuity and perseverance, is part of what is endlessly fascinating to me about our farms. I've observed that ingenuity generally makes an appearance in the beautiful sustainable, organic farms around here.  And because it's clear to me how little *food* is grown in this prime agricultural state (a state that produces mainly commodity crops like every other state in the country) - I see these ingenious farmers growing food for our communities as giving a gift to us all that deserves a whole lot more appreciation.   


I've been thinking this over since I visited Ken and Cathy King's Frog Holler Organic Farm  yesterday. I've probably been seeing Frog Holler at the market for 2 decades now without fully realizing what they do or how they do it.  I've bought their lovely produce and plants for years without fully appreciating what I was buying. Even with the adorable handmade signs for their plants. 


But last summer when I bought their strawberries, I had a crazy epiphany.  Something in those berries blew a gasket in the little gnomish workshop that is my mind.  Mmmm, sparkling ruby orbs. Something in them speaks to the perfection of the universe.  Since last year I've been anticipating strawberry season cycling back once more.  This is desire, a feeling I have never had before in a supermarket. Tromping through wet grass at Frog Holler in misty rain with Cathy I got my first chance to see the strawberry beds, mythic origin of perfection in a fruit. 


Ken and Cathy celebrated 35 years at Frog Holler last year. They bought the 125 acre parcel of mostly wooded land near Brooklyn, MI from a couple of long-time conservationists. It came with stipulations that there be no hunting on the land, that it be preserved as wildlife habitat, and that they keep the name "Frog Holler" in perpetuity. When they had the land assessed, it is so hilly and wooded it was deemed unfit for agriculture. One pond alone covers 5 acres.   I was very surprised to learn that everything they produce, organically, is grown on only 2.5 acres of intensively farmed land along with 3 (or was it 4?) hoophouse/greenhouse structures. 


On our first stop of the tour, Cathy took us into the greenhouse where she spends most of her time planting and babying little seedlings. She didn't know how many were in the wood-heated greenhouse, but a rough estimate based on the number of trays was about 10,000 plants.  Yes, I said wood-heated greenhouse.  One woodstove heats the whole greenhouse and another heats the big homemade warming table where the seeds germinate. 


Next, Cathy took us into a hoophouse (unheated greenhouse) that Ken built last year. I'm not sure you can tell in the photo, but the frame is made of wood that Ken cut and milled using their own sawmill (rather than the usual steel or aluminum frame) and their own wood. Inside, the heirloom tomatoes are getting an early start.  I loved the Daniel Boone era hand-hewn feeling of this hoophouse - it's beautiful.  An example of ingenious old ways mixed with new technology.  


In their first several years at Frog Holler, Cathy and Ken lived in a wood-heated cabin and Cathy cooked over a wood-fired stove. Their first son was born while they lived there.  The cabin is still back in the woods, two woodstoves still functional. I told Cathy I thought they needed to start some of that "agriturismo" stuff here in Michigan. The cabin is such a beautiful place and there's a perfect swimming pond out in front - I can think of a lot of people who would like to stay there if they happened to start the Frog Holler Bed and Breakfast Retreat. 


Their 35th anniversary party last year was such a thrill they're planning an even bigger Holler Fest 2 for this summer. Cathy said dozens of local bands are going to play Friday, Saturday, and Sunday August 22-24. They're planning for people to camp out and for plenty of food and festivity for the weekend. They have the stage built already, sitting at the bottom of a lovely, grassy natural amphitheater.


After our walk, the kind where your socks are completely wet, Cathy plied us with fresh rhubarb muffins, homemade jam and tea and more talk about the farm, plans for the future, and their involvement in Slow Food Huron Valley's upcoming Food and Film Tuesdays at the Chelsea Library.  I haven't heard enough yet about how their organic certification process is going and we still haven't met the 3 King sons who are all still working on the farm, one has his own band.  Next time. 


One of the things that most appeals to me about this obsession with food - this thinking about it, pursuing it, talking about it, finding out where it comes from - is it always, every time,  leads to something surprising, unexpected, and often beautiful. It's the complete opposite of the generic experience of getting in my car to drive to Meijer, buying a bunch of packages from someone I'll never see again, and then ferrying home the plastic bags and arranging the packages on my shelves. Why accept a continual stream of lowest common denominator experiences like that as our lives?  


Give me one handmade thing that I can love for my whole life over a thousand cheap plastic ones; one Frog Holler strawberry that makes my eyes roll back in my head over a bushel of something that comes in a plastic box.  


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