Beginning Reflections : The New VISTA in Town

Early in my time here, Heather Ratliffe, one of my supervisors and co-chair of the Northwestern Michigan Food and Farming Network, explained something very essential to me, “In the national movement of food system change, the thing that sets Michigan apart from everywhere else is collaboration. We have networks of networks. Northern Michigan is the heart of this statewide model, as the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network partners work together despite potential for competition— we realize that we’re all working towards the same mission of reinventing a localized food system.” This sentiment really stuck with me. As the new Americorps VISTA for the network, it helped set the stage for my year of service catalyzing positive change within the food and farming community of this region.  

 A few weeks after this conversation, I experienced firsthand the commitment to collaboration that Heather spoke of. We had our first network meeting of the season, and I witnessed about twenty folks from a range of different organizations and backgrounds come together to share successes, goals, and opportunities within the food system. I was impressed when one woman presented a grant and specifically requested partners in the process, stating that she did not wish to exclude others from the potential funding. This sort of emphasis on the collective is at the heart of the Food and Farming Network, and creates strong and friendly bonds between members. Everyone seemed energized and motivated after the meeting, with various new ideas and tasks bred out of our meeting of the minds.

My exposure to the collaborative spirit in this community continued at the Third Annual Fufillament event, where praised community leaders told stories of the connections between their careers, communities and lives. I was very inspired by the story of Little Fleet owner Gary Jonas, who could not stress enough how important the community’s support and his well-contented staff are to his success. My heart swelled as Kate Pearson from the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy recounted the touching stories she hears everyday when people choose to donate to collectively preserve the vibrant natural wonders that give this region it’s soul. Bill Palladino, my other supervisor, made a strong emotional case for eating local as he challenged the audience to consider who grew and prepared their next bite of food. Clearly there is something to this feeling of making a difference together, in our own community— a feeling that anchors us all to a place and a culture greater than ourselves.

It’s now been about two months since I have moved up here after graduating from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, with my environmental studies degree and an open mind. I’ve taken a second job at Idyll Farms, a humane goat dairy that is close to my home in Northport. My days are long and satisfying, and I’ve quickly discovered that milking a goat is way harder than it looks. The lesson in collaboration continues there as I learn how to integrate into the daily ebbs and flows of the teamwork needed to manage animals. Between these two occupations, some wonderful new friends and a sense of constant novelty, every day has been a blessing.


Maddy Baroli is working as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the NW Michigan Food and Farming Network. Contact her at [email protected]