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State honors landscaper for 'effective land stewardship'

Tom Lepping, owner of Oxford Ornamentals, Inc. has been honored by the state. Photo by Lance Farrell (click for larger version)
May 30, 2012 - Oxford Ornamentals, Inc., a landscape contracting company owned and operated by Tom Lepping of Oxford, was verified for the second time by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) and the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).

MAEAP is a pollution prevention program started in 1998 by a partnership between agriculture, environmental, commodity, and state interests. MAEAP honored Lepping and Oxford Ornamentals for voluntary implementation of "effective land stewardship practices."

Farmers can be verified in three categories: farmstead, cropping or livestock. Farmstead verification refers to the entire farm operation, while cropping focuses on crop production issues. MAEAP livestock verification deals with issues directly related to the maintenance and production of farm animals and how these practices impact water and soil conservation efforts.

Verification in any of these MAEAP categories comes from participation in a three-part process: First, farmers like Lepping must attend an educational seminar that updates them on "new and emerging regulations and opportunities affecting agriculture." Second, a participant will subject his or her specific farm to a risk assessment.

The third step consists of a) verification of the first two, b) farm compliance with Michigan's Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMP), and c) confirmation that MAEAP system requirements have been implemented.

Oxford Ornamentals CEO Tom Lepping said he first learned about MAEAP through Farm Bureau and decided to enroll in the program, even though "none of (his) customers knew about it; (he) just wanted to do the right thing."

Lepping, an approachable gentleman with a ready anecdote and laugh, is a Michigan-certified Nurseryman and a nationally certified arborist. A lifelong Michigander, he moved to Oakland County in 1965; by age 11 he had found his career. "I was lucky . . . I was young when I knew I wanted to do this, so I didn't waste a lot of time," Lepping said.

Lepping began his own landscaping business in high school, which he incorporated when he arrived in Lansing for college. Beginning as a landscape architecture major at MSU, he soon learned he "didn't want to sit at a drawing board all day; (he) wanted to be out with the trees." This epiphany led him to transfer into nursery management and finally into landscape management. Lepping said it was this training combination that helped him land his first job with Oakland County in 1971, where he stayed until 2004.

During this time, Lepping began a landscape contracting company called Oxford Ornamentals, doing street and golf course plantings, "all custom stuff," he said. Most business came through referral, and soon he had established a niche growing "trees and shrubs (not available) from wholesalers."

In addition to the nearly 30 acres of ornamentals he has planted off Baldwin Road, Lepping has two donkeys that he refers to affectionately as his "fertilizer factory." He quipped that instead of the Budweiser wagon pulled by the Anheiser-Busch behemoths, Lepping has a "shrubweiser" wagon for his donkeys Chico and Guisseppe to pull.

Lepping joined the MAEAP for many reasons, but mainly because, as an agricultural producer, "I didn't want to do anything that's gonna get the neighbors honked off," he said. Lepping wanted his neighbors "to feel comfortable that (he was) not contaminating the groundwater."

That's not surprising, according to MAEAP Program Manager Jan Witford. She said it is often "critically important" for farmers like Lepping to have "peace of mind" and to know they are doing what's best for their community. But verified members do incur more tangible benefits as well. For instance, Witford said, MAEAP provides litigation protection for verified members, and members will also generally receive an insurance break from Farm Bureau.

According to MAEAP documents, the agency's objective is to teach "farmers how to identify and prevent environmental risks and work to comply with state and federal environmental regulations." Now verified, Oxford Ornamentals joins an elite corps of farms; of the 55,000 farms in the state, only 1,100 are verified by MAEAP.

Lepping was gracious in acceptance of the MAEAP verification. "I recommended anyone involved in agriculture should participate. It's easy to do; I think more people should try to get verified."

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