VICKSBURG, Mich. (WOOD) — Land surrounding an ongoing redevelopment project in Vicksburg is now environmentally verified by the state, thanks to a partnership that includes a local business and its four-legged workers.

Lauren Burns is the owner and head grazer of Kalamazoo-based Tending Tilth, whose trained sheep grazed on land surrounding the still-under construction Mill at Vicksburg project that were previously seeded with pasture mix. Over the summer, they feasted on about 16 acres.

“There’s clover… orchard grass… timothy (grass)… all sorts of grasses out there,” she explained. “But what is really lacking is soil health. Through grazing, we’re building organic matter in the soil and we’re also helping with better water filtration and water retention.”

Tending Tilth sheep grazing. (Courtesy)
Tending Tilth sheep grazing. (Courtesy)

Gabriel Francisco, a conservation technician with the Van Buren Conservation District, explained keeping the sheep moving through prescribed and rotational grazing allows the roots to continue photosynthesis and live.

“The plant needs the carbon dioxide. It pulls it out of the air and puts it back into its roots so that it can grow better,” he said. “All of that carbon dioxide that was in the air, that plant has now grabbed it and locked it into the soil, so it’s no longer contributing to climate change.”

It is those practices that got the 16 acres environmentally verified by the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. Burns and those with The Mill agree their partnership is an opportunity to create an ecosystem with a biodiverse grassland.

The Mill at Vicksburg has been environmentally verified by the state. (Oct. 17, 2023)
The Mill at Vicksburg has been environmentally verified by the state. (Oct. 17, 2023)

“(It’s also) a heightened awareness to keep and generate interest in this building that is very expensive and it’s taking a very long time to rehab this whole thing. But this is a campus-wide initiative for the Mill,” said John Kern, who has multiple roles with The Mill at Vicksburg, which will give new life to a former paper mill. “Knowing that these animals will eat basically an acre of land every two to three days is also fascinating. It’s so soothing to go over there and just watch them work as they merrily munch along.”

Burns added, “It’s pretty exciting to have an impact that’s wider than just what we’re doing on these 16 acres and I’m really proud of that.”

The sheep are done for the season, Burns said, but they will be back at The Mill starting in May next year to feast some more.

Once complete, the renovated Mill at Vicksburg will have a hotel, event space and room for small businesses.