Located near the intersection of three major highways and just over the rise from a sprawling shopping mall, there is a 160-acre oasis of rolling hills, green pastures and unbroken swaths of woodland: the Michigan State University Tollgate Education Center and Farm. “It is the last piece of farm history in the city of Novi,” says Farm Manager Roy Prentice.
Marked by a white wooden fence that surrounds much of the property, Tollgate transports visitors back in time to the agricultural landscape that once surrounded the Detroit suburbs.
In 1951, Adolph H. Meyer, a businessman from Birmingham, and his wife, Ginger, purchased the property from the Bassett family, who had been farming it since 1831. Meyer always intended that it remain a working farm, so he hired Ernie Morris as farm manager in 1956.
Through the years, outside pressure to develop the property increased as the surrounding area was overcome by commercial, retail and residential development. Meyer wrote about how important it was to save the farm, especially as a place where people can visit and learn where food comes from. Meyer was adamant that development not be allowed to push out farms, saying, “New buildings or ideas will never replace the essential and prime need for a farm—food and a natural environment.”
According to Marlene Fluharty, executive director of the Americana Foundation, Meyer said that only a country that can feed its people can stay strong. He believed passionately in the American agrarian tradition and that urban communities need to preserve open space for agriculture. Meyer had to fight hard to ensure that the Tollgate property remain preserved and that is one of the main reasons he and Ginger set up a trust in 1962 that would turn into the Americana Foundation in 1978.
The Americana Foundation’s mission is to support the preservation of American agriculture, land and natural resources and to support the protection and presentation of America’s heritage. Meyer donated the farm to the foundation, and then in 1987 Americana donated 60 acres to Michigan State University for public agricultural education. The remaining 100 acres is also used by MSU, although it remains under the ownership of the Foundation.
MSU has transformed the site into a public learning center that hosts a wide variety of educational, research and demonstration projects. One current research project is exploring tree species that may prove resistant to the Emerald Ash Borer—an invasive exotic beetle discovered in Michigan in 2002 that has wiped out tens of millions of ash trees in this region alone. There is an arboretum with 40 species of trees showing full-grown examples of alternatives to ash. The site also hosts a wastewater training area as well as a maple syrup project that taps nearly 100 trees and culminates in a festive pancake breakfast. In addition, many of the gardens at Tollgate are demonstration areas with plants adapted to specific environments or specific gardening techniques.
All of the gardens on the property, including the numerous specialty gardens, are funded, maintained and managed by a strong volunteer program. Developing out of the Master Gardener classes held at the site, the program currently has close to 200 volunteers. Many continue to come to Tollgate to socialize with like-minded people with a passion for gardening. “I’ve volunteered at other places, but here, I can learn,” says volunteer Sue Janczarek. “When you finish the classes, you realize how much you don’t know. But then you can come and weed next to someone on activity day and ask questions.”
Each June the volunteers hold a sale with plants donated by volunteers from their home gardens as well as divisions from the Tollgate gardens. During midsummer, the volunteers host an open house garden tour with volunteers on hand to share information about good gardening practices and general information about the farm. The fall brings the largest event of the year: the Fall Fair. The fair provides a full day of farm activities with garden tours, fishing in the pond, craft Nicole Ray is an Ann Arbor–based freelance writer and illustrator. She enjoys foraging for fiddleheads, pouncing on purslane and diving into dessert. Photograph: Roy Prentice demonstrations, hayrides and family-oriented fun where children can see cows and sheep up close and learn about life on the farm. The event continues to grow each year; last year’s fair drew in more than 2,500 children.
The variety of gardens at Tollgate is ever growing, with one dedicated volunteer overseeing each specialty area. Visitors can go through an archway built by Eagle Scouts into the interactive Children’s Garden. This area has a touch and smell section for children to get up close to the plants. There is a pizza garden with wheat for the crust and tomatoes for the sauce and a burbling water feature live with amphibians.
In the Xeriscape Garden, visitors can learn about varieties of drought-tolerant plants, and in the high-density orchard they can learn about peach and apple trees. The Enabling Garden is designed to allow access to container plantings for those who use a variety of mobility aids, such as wheelchairs or walkers and canes. “There is something here for everyone,” says volunteer Larry Bolam, who heads up the Plant-A-Row for the Hungry vegetable garden. Each year that garden produces more than 2,000 pounds of produce that is distributed to local food banks through Forgotten Harvest.
Volunteer Sue Janczarek remembers driving by the farm as a child, and the property looks pretty much the same today. “To me it’s the jewel of Novi,” Janczarek explains. It would seem that Adolph and Ginger Meyer’s vision to conserve a piece of American history and provide a public educational farm has been achieved.
Nicole Ray is an Ann Arbor–based freelance writer and illustrator. She enjoys foraging for fiddleheads, pouncing on purslane and diving into dessert. This article was originally published in Edible WOW’s Summer Issue in 2010. Learn about Tollgate Farm’s current happenings in our 2018 Guide to Local Food for Southeast Michigan.
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