Scripture: Living and Active

Scripture: Living and Active
Our most significant scriptures are marked with post it notes.

Continuing the work of Jesus, simply, peacefully, JOYFULLY, together.

We gather for worship at 9:30 am on Sunday.
Children go to Sunday school following their special time in worship, about 10:15 am.
Potluck is the first Sunday of the month.

17975 Centreville-Constantine Road, Constantine, MI 49042

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Forever a Farm: Henry and Martha Miller Easement Preserves Land, Rural Heritage

Someone gave Kathy Fenton-Miller the Landscapes magazine as part of her wetlands class. Otherwise we would not have known it had a feature article about Henry and Martha Miller. They have decided to protect their farmland for the future by placing portions of it in “conservancy.” This kind of devotion to good farming and the land is not something Henry would share about himself. But it is “good news,” so read on!

EXCERPT from Landscapes; magazine of Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, vol 18, No. 1 (Go to for the full article including the story of Henry and Martha’s romance in Costa Rica J)

Spend five minutes with Henry and you see it’s not just crops yields and profits that excite him. What keeps this denim clad 61-year old dynamo energized is the cerebral challenge of agriculature: the daily chess game, of sorts, to find the right balance of moisture, fertilility, and pest controls that allow edible green things to grow and flourish.

A case in point is the 187-acre parcel that he’s standing on. It’s one of three adjacent properties —totaling 347 acres — that Henry recently protected with a SWMLC conservation easement.

“When I bought this field in 1991, it had been continuously planted to corn,” said Henry, as his gaze scanned the horizon. “I’ve been rotating crops on a yearly basis ever since — with green beans, navy beans, soy beans, corn, and now wheat. “The rotation helps break up the life cycle of weeds and insects, which means we can use less chemicals. We also plant cover crops in between harvests, so the ground’s never bare. All this organic residue cycles into the ground, where it decomposes to help next year’s crop. So, although it’s a farm, it acts a lot like the natural soil in the woods across the street.”

As good farmers have always known, take care of the soil and the soil will take care of you. As proof, this particular field is among the county’s top producers of Pioneer brand seed corn. And that’s saying a lot, since St. Joseph County annually produces 25 percent of the entire world’s seed corn crop.

Despite its value as first-rate cropland, southern Michigan properties like this one are under constant threat of development. That’s because the sandy loam soils are equally well-suited for a more permanent crop: suburban houses and “mini-farm” estates. It’s this vulnerability that interested SWMLC in the Miller property, says Geoff Cripe, land protection specialist.

Henry Miller’s farm represents two extremes for us,” Geoff said. “It’s the biggest piece of ag property we’ve ever protected and the most intensely farmed. But it also includes the biggest stretch of undeveloped river frontage — more than a mile of wooded corridor along the Portage River. It’s a clear, clean river and a first-rate smallmouth bass fishery.”

And for Henry, it’s simply unacceptable that this land becomes anything but a place that grows food for the world.

“This is our legacy,” he says with conviction. “We want this to be open space 200 years from now. It really disturbs me to see people buy 20-40 acres of prime ag land in places like Park Township and then build a house in the middle of it.

“We can’t keep doing that. It takes good land out of production, fragments fields, and makes the practicality of farming very difficult. A few years down the road, who’s going to farm it?”

…The Villa-Mil Farms sign in their front yard reflects the commitment [to honor Martha’s Costa Rican culture]. Villa is short for Villalobos (literally village wolf ) which is Martha’s maiden name.

As befits a farm family, the Millers have sunk deep roots into their community. Both are active in the Florence Church of the Brethren, a rural congregation of Mennonite heritage. Martha has worked for the court system, hospitals, and local businesses as an interpreter. For 10 years, she taught nutrition and breast cancer awareness for Michigan State University Extension.

And Henry? He’s known and respected countywide as a successful, detail-oriented innovator who adapts new techniques before other farmers even know they exist.

“Henry’s on an intellectual quest to do modern farming — big farming — as sustainably as it can be done.” says Tim Peterson, program director for the St. Joseph County Conservation District. “We look to him to see where everyone else will be five years from now.

“And his analytical skills are incredible. He’ll delve into the inner workings of the soil and ask little questions about things like pollination or irrigation rates that most farmers don’t take time to think about.”

On a tour of Henry’s Pinhook Road parcel east of Parkville, that extra care is evident. The field borders the Portage River, and many farmers would run their plows almost to the river’s edge. Not so here. He’s planted a 50-foot wide buffer strip of hardy perennial grass that gradually gives way to raspberries, woodland sunflowers, and oak trees as it nears the river. It’s a farming practice, Henry says, that prevents fertilizer overspray and soil runoff from entering the water. It also leaves more elbow room for wildlife.

“Over there, did you see them?” says Martha, from the cab of Henry’s jostling pick-up truck, “the flock of turkeys?”

“Nope, I missed ‘em,” says Henry. “But I saw something interesting by the river last week: it was a mink chasing a rabbit —and neither one was worried about me.”

Under the Miller conservation easement, all this will remain. What’s grown here may change: the tilled land could revert to prairie, or if oil prices place a premium on locally grown food, it could become an orchard or vegetable farm. But what it won’t become is a subdivision, despite the lucrative deals that Henry could make with would-be developers.

“We talked this over and the kids support us,” Martha said. “Besides, we just can’t let this become anything but a farm. Who would want to have that on their conscience?”

—Tom Springer
Tom Springer is a former board member.
He is currently senior editor with the W.K.
Kellogg Foundation and a freelance writer.

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