Farm manager reflects on six years

Staff Transitions

Jon Zirkle

Farm Manager Jon Zirkle will conclude his employment with Merry Lea at the end of March 2019 after nearly six years.

Looking back over those years, Jon has a long list of favorite things about his job: Tree pruning, cover cropping, watching students be transformed by working with their hands. Hearing the birds, seeing the seasons change, working with volunteers and co-workers.

The Merry Lea Sustainable Farm (MLSF) has developed a good deal since Jon arrived. “When I first got here, the Hess Barn did not exist. Bill Minter was pulling roots and tree stumps out of what is now pasture for the cows, and the Woody Perennial Polyculture (WPP)was still a conversation,” Jon recalls. Now the barn hosts pigs, goats and turkeys and some of the trees in the WPP are ten feet tall.

“I’ve seen the gardens really improve too. In our market garden, we have permanent walking paths and beds. They look sharp and are consistent,” Jon says. This makes tending the garden easier from year to year and enables groups of children to move through the garden. Jon was part of the team that brought the Exploring the Merry Lea Sustainable Farm program into existence in 2016 and participated in “meet the farmer” interviews with the children.

The Merry Lea Sustainable Farm began marketing food during Jon’s tenure. This included sales at a booth at the Goshen Farmer’s Market, to Goshen College, to undergraduates studying at Rieth Village and to customers on the Goshen College campus via a community supported agriculture model. Jon found it particularly meaningful to provide farm fresh food to students since it has the potential to make buying local food a habit throughout their adult lives.

Interim ASI Director

One critical role that Jon played during his time at Merry Lea was his service as interim director of the Agroecology Summer Intensive (ASI) following the illness and death of Dale Hess, the former director, in 2015.

“He was the man of the hour,” observes Executive Director Luke Gascho, referring to Jon’s ability to gracefully bridge multiple roles during a transition. “In the midst of all those challenges, he managed to be a compassionate and caring person,” Luke adds.

John Mischler, current director of the ASI, describes Jon as a jack of all trades, stepping in and stepping up as needed. “He’s someone who is really passionate about building connections across multiple communities. It reassures me that he plans to stay involved with the Elkhart County Food Council and sustainable food systems in the area,” John said.

Jon looks forward to a future that includes writing and adopting a child with his wife, Adrienne. He will return to Merry Lea in the summer of 2019 to teach Crop and Soil Management in the ASI.