Born and raised in the suburbs, Gina Wertz made the radical decision in her early twenties to become a farmer. Her motivation was sustainability; a move toward environmental and personal health and away from fossil fuel dependence. She began as an apprentice on farms in Maine, where along with produce farming she was introduced to animal-power. In 2012 she came to Tillers International as an intern and has since become involved in Tillers’ farmer incubation program- something she thinks of as a “Graduate Program for Farmers”. Tillers International is a working farm and educational facility dedicated to keeping old craft alive. As a renter of land and structure from Tillers, Gina is lent resources that help her small farm and business become established. One of these resources is something at the heart of what Gina does and center of what makes her a unique and valuable local farmer: the use of live-stock exclusively for plowing, tilling and harvesting.
Gina’s dedication to becoming a trusted resource for a sustainable future found her persevering for months to learn to use animal power instead fuel powered tractor. From never having worked with animals before, Gina grew to gain the respect and control of giants like the Belgian draft horses and oxen she works with today. Gina has found that the horses can make it through muddy ground better than machines while compacting the soil less than a tractor would. She continues to learn and grow in her use of animal power, just recently mastering the use of the horses and a potato plow for harvesting. The team of three Belgians and four oxen at Tillers is a good one, well trained and well behaved. Looking into the future, Gina hopes to get and train a team of her own.
Another way that Gina employs her commitment to sustainability, and provides exceptional products, is through her dedication to the “cold-chain” method of harvesting and storing produce. Customers comment regularly on the freshness and extended life of her produce. This freshness comes from absolute commitment to keeping things shaded and cold, even without the use of electric refrigeration. Gina shared with us what it looks like to harvest a row of cucumbers: Pick, set in shade, pick set in shade, move cukes into a cold water bath and into cellar conditions before continuing. From harvest to market, Gina takes this cold-chain seriously, her efforts apparent in the crispness of her cucumbers.
Our visit to Under the Stone Garden showed us lovely fields of cabbage, kohlrabi, onions, shallots, beets, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, summer & winter squash, lettuces and wine cap mushrooms. We also got a close up look at a beautiful row of amaranth- an ancient grain growing as a shock of fuchsia atop a tall stalk. We saw magnificent animals, strong and full of grace. And we met a farmer dedicated to a way of life and a brighter future who is happy to talk about her ideas and experiences. In her second year of farming at Tillers International, Gina has grown her plot from just under one acre to over 1.5 acres, and has an eye on expanding further. Find her at the 100-Mile Market and the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market and hear more about her unique practices. And as long as you’re there, I recommend the cucumbers.
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