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Eighth Day Farm is a faith-based, urban farming operation in Holland, Michigan. Founded in 2010, they offer a CSA* share program and farm market. They also donate produce and flowers to community partners, redirect local food waste, host workshops and educational programs, partner with a Montessori school, employ interns, and engage their community in numerous other ways. In 2016, they shifted their main growing area to a two-acre site on a repurposed strip-mall parking lot.
Recently, I had a chance to talk with Farm Director Andy Rozendaal about his work.
Debra: How did Eighth Day Farm folks get the idea to tear up a parking lot in the middle of Holland and start a farm there?
Andy: People weren’t going to the Holland Town Center to shop anymore—it was wasted space. So the management company started looking at how they could put something else there that was creative and useful for the community. The local property manager urged the owners (who are based in Virginia) to work with Eighth Day to tear up the parking lot. The management company did a lot of the investment into the property and then our team started bringing in soil and compost and building it back—because when you take that asphalt out, you’ve got sand, so it’s nothing you’d ever want to grow in.
Someday, the Town Center property is probably going to be a building with a parking lot again. The property is for sale. So one of our challenges is that we’re not permanent. For our other, smaller property, we’ve got a ten-year lease with Zion Lutheran Church, and we’d love to buy that property from them. That would give us a home base that’s truly more permanent.
Debra: It’s almost a parable: you serve faithfully where you are, in the moment, not knowing what’s going to happen next. What kind of farming do you practice?
Andy: It’s called intense micro-farming. The other aspect is regenerative agriculture. This is the idea is that you’re constantly focusing on the soil, making sure the soil is healthy, not depleting it but improving it. We avoid pesticides, don’t practice deep tillage, use cover crops to restore nutrients, and so on. Everything we grow is Certified Naturally Grown, which is a peer-driven way to assure the customer that our seedlings and crops are following organic practices. [For more on this system, see this.]
What you put on your soil affects the microbes which then affects how healthy the plants are. So regenerative agriculture is focused on making sure that the soil is healthier for the next generation and beyond. This is why composting is so important for us.
Debra: I hear you use brewery waste in your compost. Can I buy some of your “drunken compost”? (Marketing idea for you there…)
Andy: Early on, brewery waste was the base for making a lot of our compost, but now there’s only one local brewery that brings their food waste to us.
Debra: One of the common themes in urban farming and gardening is the beautiful way it can create community. Do you see community happening at your farm site?
Andy: We want people to see the farm as a place where they can be involved. Not only by volunteering if they want to, but also by learning to grow their own food in their own backyard. We do a plant sale in the spring as part of our educational programming. We’ve got Certified Naturally Grown plants available and then we answer questions and provide compost as well.
We actually get very little of our budget from donations. We want people to buy our produce, plants, and compost or buy our services in order to support what we do. We’re good at farming, at building up the soil, and we can help other people learn how to do that, too.
Debra: Does the farm help people cross social strata? Are you able to connect people who wouldn’t otherwise be connected?
Andy: That’s one of the challenges. Community gardening and urban farming does draw in diverse people. Many people who visit tell us about their own experiences growing food. They grew up in the South and did gardening with their grandparents or something. There was one gentleman who wanted to buy some peppers last year. He had grown up in Mexico, and he was talking about how he grew all these peppers and, you know, he can’t do that anymore because he’s older and physically can’t.
We also try to build partnerships with organizations. When we started our compost programs, we collected food waste residentially, and then had a few commercial accounts.
Debra: Eighth Day Farm is one of a few farms I’m aware of run by seminarians or seminary graduates. Why are seminarians getting involved in farming? What’s going on there?
Andy: I don’t know! I studied agriculture at Iowa State and I’ve always wanted to work with my hands. After seminary, when I was working in a church, I was behind a desk, but I was always wanting to be doing service projects or mission trips. I wanted to keep my hands dirty.
So maybe it’s this feeling of seminarians not wanting to have only the impact of preaching or doing a typical church or parish ministry. And gardening is such a great way to connect with people. Calvary Church in Holland tore up their front yard and then put a garden in. They realized that when people walk by the garden, you can engage them. You can draw people into your church faster through a garden because it connects people on so many more levels—even without a shared language. You can draw people in more than your sign will do to bring them to a worship service.
There are 40 million acres of lawns the U.S. And the church owns a lot of lawns and property. Some of that land could be transformed and become spaces where life happens, where interactions happen that wouldn’t happen inside the church.
So I wish that churches would begin to do community gardening more. Some churches try it with volunteer labor and it’s hard to do with volunteers. It’s another program for a church and another committee that has to meet and all those things.
But gardening and farming are opportunities for people to interact in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise, across race and income levels—you’re all dressed in grubby clothes and there’s no sense of class and you can explain things with your hands and just show somebody. You don’t need a shared language as much.
We’ve connected with a farm in Jenison where a couple of refugee families wanted to grow some eggplant. So they’re growing three acres of eggplant, selling it as a specialty crop. It’s kind of neat to see these little pockets of people from different cultures who want to grow in sustainable ways. I think the world needs more initiatives like this, especially the church.
Debra: What will happen if, eventually, you lose that farm you’ve built in the Holland Town Center?
Andy: We love it there because we’re trying to be uniquely urban. The property is literally where the sidewalk ends. We’ve spent so much time and energy to build it. We would hate to lose it and have it just be turned into a parking lot again.
But we’re kind of hedging our bets. We’ve worked with a local guy who has a family trust. He’s got some land that we’ve acquired through an informal lease, and we’re going to try to get the soil to organic standards. It’s commercially farmed, but as big as the farm is, they couldn’t get the big equipment in and out of this area.
So I contacted a friend of mine, and they’re going to put some in some alfalfa as a cover crop. It will take years to make the soil organic, but if we lose our property in town, we have somewhere to go and the soil has been built up and ready for us.
We’re doing the work on the farm where we are now, allowing our farm to share our story and to benefit the community. But we’re also building capacity for expanding or doing something different if we do lose this space. Microbes spread, right? So if you’ve got this biology in one little location, it’s going to ultimately spread eventually.
Debra: I love the idea that the microbes you’re allowing to proliferate on your farm right now could essentially be transported to another spot. They’re portable!
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Andy: There’s just so much that goes into it. You have to be a marketer, you have to be an artist, a writer, a speaker. You’ve got to be creative.
Or I can simply say the hardest thing is weeds, right? Making sure the weeds get pulled out. Also, I think the challenge is there’s always something new. As the climate changes, the parking lot is hotter. By the time we figure out a certain pest and it’s gone off our property, a new one shows up. That’s the challenge for us, not only tweaking our systems so it’s sustainable for us and for the planet, but just staying in the middle of it, and we can only do so much.
There’s constant learning. One year, you plant something too far apart or too close together and it doesn’t work right. Well, after a few years, you start to hone it in and then you can be the person that shares that knowledge with somebody else, how to do it.
So the constant learning is the hardest part, but it’s also the biggest joy because I love learning. I like those challenges.
Debra: What’s your favorite vegetable?
Andy: I like raw sweet corn, but I love our arugula. I love the prettiness of it, the uniqueness of it, that bitterness which means it’s healthier for you, giving you those antioxidant powers. The other thing I would say is a tomato in season. You can’t beat it. People who say they don’t like tomatoes should try a tomato from good soil grown in the middle of the summer.
Debra: What’s a vegetable you cannot get yourself to like, even though you probably should?
Andy: Parsnips is one of those winter crops, I just haven’t, I don’t know if—I don’t, I can’t.
Debra: What can I expect in my first CSA share?
Andy: First CSA shares are always kind of rough, gotta warn ya. You have to remember that the CSA season is a bell curve and August is coming, when you get a lot of things. We start out with some greens—hopefully we’ll have some lettuce, a few weeks of pea shoots, there’s always an herb. There’s going to be kale.
Debra: There is always kale. It’s been a pleasure, Andy. Thank you so much.
Many thanks to Andy Rozendaal for taking the time to talk with me.
* CSA means “community-supported agriculture.” Customers invest in the farm by purchasing a share of the produce ahead of time. This provides capital for the farmer before the season and fresh produce for the investor during the season.