Buying a farm in Leelanau: meet Gaia Nesvacil

By Madeleine Vedel

Sun contributor

I feel I’ve been aiming in this direction all along, though it didn’t seem like it at times,” shared Gaia Nesvacil as we sipped a cup of coffee and watched the end of a summer storm approach from the west, wind and rain drops gathering force. “On and off these past three years I’ve been working towards the budding of a flower operation. This is my first year leasing a half acre in Leelanau County to grow cut flowers to take to the farmers market.”

Saturdays throughout the growing season, Gaia sets up her tent in downtown Traverse City, where she sells her cut flower arrangements, dried flower boutonnieres (or hairpins), and made to order flower crowns.

By design, my flower business has allowed me to be with my daughter Elka (now two and a half) and do another part-time job serving breakfast and lunch in Leland. I only go to market one day a week, but manage all of the operation to get there: weeding, prepping, cutting, buying supplies, washing buckets, arranging, wrapping, storing, cooling. I cut early in the morning, set the flowers in the lower earth normal temp of the root cellar, then take them out in the evening to arrange.”

Gaia is working her way towards her dream of owning a farm in Leelanau County with her partner and Elka’s father, Will Manty, produce buyer at Cherry Capital Foods. While Elka napped in the back room, Gaia confided to me the steps she’s taken on her path towards her goal: to own a farm in Leelanau County.

Born in Traverse City in an apartment across from The Blue Goat, Gaia moved to Leelanau County when she was a little girl. She was raised amidst a family garden, a vegetable stand, later a commercial nursery greenhouse, as well as a couple of horses, a barn, at times pigs and chickens, and even one goat. “My mom grew up in the generation where you always have a garden, do the work, pull the weeds, eat from it every day.”

Gaia’s formal education is in apparel and textile design, in which field she worked for close to 10 years; three in San Francisco, and back home in Michigan where she had her own custom hand-made clothing business, and where she met Will, recently returned home from working out of state.

Together they’ve spent two years working at Meadowlark Farm CSA in Lake Leelanau, then nearly three at Idyll Farms Goat Farm in Northport, gaining experience growing organic vegetables and flowers on a large scale, as well as farm management and animal husbandry. “Working for Jenny [Tutlis] and John [Watts], we were on the front lines of land stewardship and feeding people. My time at Idyll gave me the chance to work on one of my questions: how to strengthen relationships with people you work with. I got a lot of exercise with that, as well as how to provide a stable work environment. Farming, like so many things, is dependent on its workforce. If you can strategize and work towards that, it provides roots for a strong farming operation.”

Gaia and Will have had their hearts set on a farm in Isadore since 2011. “The vision for this farm that we are in love with … feels right. It’s taken us a long time to come to the terms of how to strategize to own this farm. It doesn’t come with a lot of infrastructure, but it’s in the heart of Leelanau County, which is what feels the most important to us. It was built by a builder from Poland, in the late 1800s, and still has that old-world feel.” Gaia hesitates. Verbalizing her dream out loud, will it help it come true? Or jinx it? She returns to the vision she and Will have refined over many discussions.

Whatever farm Will and I will have, we’ll design it with a division of labor. We complement one another, but we know we need to be managers of our own operations. Whether that means Will works off-farm or I work off-farm, or that our operations are in opposite seasons, or that I manage the cut flowers and he manages the livestock. We know we can’t have two cooks in the same kitchen. … Flowers will be the keystone of the farming I do. And Will, well, he’s really good at anything he does when he’s farming.”

For his part, Will, upon graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in hand, went to New York to learn bio-dynamic dairy and vegetable farming at Hawthorn Valley Farm and then followed it up with an apprenticeship downstate at Michigan’s Tiller’s International where the focus is on single-plow, draft-farming.

Plants are not vegetarians, flowers need fertility like all of us. So in order to set the pace and the timing on the farm, stewarding land with animals for me seems perfectly essential,” explained Gaia. “Will has an affinity for cows, so in some way or another we hope to have a happy herd of cows with us on our land.”

Tenacity is a word that comes to mind. Gaia and Will have and are investigating every option to purchase their dream farm, participating in young, new, and small farmer events, seeking out mentors, investigating state and federal farm loans, small business advisors, and simply doing their homework. “We had to get some education and some experience. We look at this as a puzzle. We have to write our solid business plan and do the math, and work the math into what our hearts desire. Any commitment we make is not with the faint heart. Having Elka, having a baby, we are committed to providing a farm upbringing for our child. We always knew we wanted to farm. We always felt ourselves as farmers. It’s not linear. But having a baby brings it all to the light.”

Returning to the moment at hand, the storm outside now a steady drizzle, Gaia tells me, “This year it’s all about learning what is truly needed to grow flowers on my own. I’ve always seen little bits and parts of operations, lots of ad hoc, and other places that incorporate it into their vegetable growing rotation. This is my year to learn what is needed, what types of soil amendments are needed, so that we could build our life on this. The whole point of doing cut flowers is to work our family into a farm, our own.”