Growing food, jobs, jam and community on an urban farm

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Afro Jam is a revenue-producer for Detroit's Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. Image: Eric Freedman

Afro Jam is a revenue-producer for Detroit’s Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. Image: Eric Freedman

Commentary

By Eric Freedman

In recent years I’ve read a lot about — and written a little about — urban farming but hadn’t put my boots on the ground at one until recently when I joined Michigan State University faculty members and grad students on a tour of the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit’s North End.

It’s a place of contrasts, physical and otherwise. There’s the agricultural activity — raised vegetable and flower beds, pear trees, 120 blueberry bushes, rows of tomato plants, two hoop houses and large piles of compost and mulch. There are bee hives, beets, butterflies, empty small chicken coop and plans for an apple orchard

On Saturdays, a farmers market occupies a grassy area facing Oakland Avenue.

There are sculptures, solar panels and brightly painted murals, including one on the wall of the adjacent church, St. John’s Evangelist Temple of Truth and School of Wisdom.

During our visit, we heard the piercing wail of an ambulance — and the jingle of an ice cream truck. Directly across the street are an empty weed-strewn lot and a boarded-up two-story commercial building.

Our visit was part of a six-day MSU Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project (SMEP) retreat. SMEP describes itself as “a catalyst and convener of interdisciplinary dialogue and research around existing and emerging sustainability topics.”

“There’s quite a need for fresh, locally grown food,” says Renee Wallace, the executive director of Food Plus Detroit. She showed us around with Jerry Hebron, the executive director of the Northend Christian Community Development Corp., which operates the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm.

“We have both challenges and opportunities when it comes to land in Detroit for agriculture,” Wallace says.

And Hebron says, “Our mission is to get people to grow something healthy.”

As the farm’s Facebook page explains, it’s committed to “improving the quality of life by making locally grown fruits and vegetables available, providing healthy eating/cooking education and creating green jobs.”

To further that mission, the urban farm provides free compost and mulch for home gardeners, as well as loaning garden tools to neighborhood residents.

The opportunities include jobs, although low-paying, for 11 local employees and paid internships for teens. More than 1,500 youth have received training about food and nutrition since 2009, we’re told.

The project started in 2008-09 as a small-scale community garden on 10 lots and has gradually expanded to what will be 4.8 acres when it completes its acquisition of another nine lots. Most of the lots are 30-by-100-feet in size each.

Two lots came from private purchases, but most were bought through the city’s auctions and the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

The process hasn’t always run smoothly. For example, the urban farm’s organizers have wrestled with city bureaucracy and ordinances and with state regulations, as well as the debate over what constitutes the “highest and best use” of abandoned land in Detroit.

One goal of the organizers is to influence the land acquisition process in the city to make it easier for similar initiatives to develop and succeed.

From the beginning, the organizers have relied on extensive participation by community residents, as when all the neighbors were canvassed for their opinions about the proposal to raise chickens there. When one resident asked if there would be roosters, she was told no, and the farm shared with the neighbors the 15 eggs laid during the first week of the trial program.

There’s also been a bit of sub rosa self-help — as when it unilaterally assumed responsibility for clearing and planting on vacant lots it didn’t yet own.

A relatively new part of the initiative was creation of a revenue-generating enterprise, AfroJam, based in a renovated house on the property.

As for abandoned houses on the newly acquired lots, the plan is to renovate and reuse them — for a cultural learning lab, employee housing, internship residence, even an Airbnb — rather than knock them down. An arts group and gallery may share the AfroJam house.

Eric Freedman is the director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism which publishes Great Lakes Echo. This column first appeared on the center’s website.

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