Hand Sown Farm Grows Organic in Manchester
Advice from Hand Sown Farm: Don’t Cut Corners
By her own account, Megan DeLeeuw checks the weather at least eight times a day. Nonetheless, a sudden storm managed to take her completely by surprise.
“One of my farmer teachers told me to never cut corners,” says Megan. “Well, we’ve cut a few corners. And last year, one of them was to not re-anchor our portable hoop house.” When the storm blew in, Megan panicked, thinking that the 30- by 48-foot hoop house would blow into the 1839 farmhouse where she and husband Andrew live.
With their apprentices, they sprang into action, frantically wielding drills and post drivers to secure the anchors. One apprentice managed to aim a tool incorrectly and nearly sever his finger. As Megan drove him to the hospital, she thought, “I’m not cut out for this.”
“This” refers to the DeLeeuw’s labor of love, Hand Sown Farm in Manchester, just west of the M52. The hoop house in question is a Rolling Thunder model built on tracks.
Megan starts a crop of greens—for instance, arugula—in February. By late March or April, she can keep the arugula in place and simply move the greenhouse on the tracks to start another crop. “It’s not that big of a deal, other than having to remove all the anchors and then re-anchor them in the new location, which is a pain. And that’s why we kept putting it off, and that’s why the storm sent us into a panic.”
Megan doesn’t come from a farm background; she grew up in Canton, and attended Central Michigan University, studying political science and philosophy, with her eye on law school. “I got a job working for a public research group and worked for them in Boston. But I found fighting against things emotionally exhausting, and I realized it wasn’t my niche.”
She worked on a farm in France, following up with an apprenticeship at Seeds of Solidarity, an educational organization in Orange, MA, whose website states its goal is to “awaken the power of youth, schools and families to Grow Food Everywhere.”
"I loved it,” says Megan. “I realized that local food is a way to impact so many different aspects of society in positive way.”
She went on to work with FoodCorps, part of the AmeriCorps National Service Network, helping to grow urban gardens in Detroit and getting plenty of experience building greenhouses. “Now I just had to figure out how to make my own farm happen,” she says. “Fortunately, I fell in love with the right person.”
She met Andrew while both worked on an urban farming service project in Benton Harbor. Megan loved the western side of the state, but Andrew—who grew up in Holland, MI—wanted to head east to study public policy at UM; Megan took advantage of the relocation to take part in the Organic Farmer Training Program at the Student Organic Farm at MSU.
When Andrew began working in finance as a consultant for Washtenaw County, the couple began searching for a nearby farm. Their requirements were for a flat site with southern exposure. They soon found 10 acres with an 1839 farmhouse onsite.
Wind is the biggest challenge, which is why the farm has, in addition to the Rolling Thunder, three 30- by 96-foot unheated passive solar hoop houses, as well as one transplant production greenhouse that uses wood heat. “With the climate even more unreliable than it’s ever been,” she says, “the greenhouse environments extend the market time and helps even out sales.”
Primary produce includes salad mix, heirloom tomatoes, carrots and leafy greens like kale and chard. Current plans are to ramp up salad production; a number of Busch’s stores currently feature Hand Sown produce, and the farm is dedicated to meeting the demand, as well as to continuing its burgeoning CSA program. As a sideline, Megan particularly enjoys rounding up the farm’s plethora of wildflowers into arrangements for weddings.
“Early on, I wanted to grow everything, including some animals, and do it well. But it’s important to Andrew and I that we do this sustainably, that we actually can make this a viable business and provide employment for people,” says Megan. The farm has earned its certified organic designation, and the DeLeeuws are looking to hire at least one full-time employee in addition to the apprentices and volunteers that currently help them make the farm thrive.
Having begun as an apprentice farmer herself, Megan highly recommends aspiring farmers take the same route. “There are a lot of romantic notions out there about farming,” she says. “We once had a lovely apprentice who came in starry-eyed, and we could tell after one month that she was miserable. And that’s really OK. There are so many different roles for people to play. Honestly, my first couple of years I was a basket case.”
But not anymore. “I have so many moments, on any afternoon or evening—really, any time of day where it’s beautiful and peaceful. And I think, ‘This is my office, this is so cool. This didn’t exist before we were here. Our CSA members are like family.’ That always energizes me, even at the end of the week.”
As for sudden storms, she laughs. “You know, I’m someone who likes control and planning. But I’ve learned to just be at peace. Things are going to happen that you don’t expect. But it’ll all work out. You know what? If the hoop house blows away, we have insurance.”
Find out more at Hand Sown Farm