In the Buburbs

June 20, 2010

Kudos today to Laura DeLind and Laura Anderson. Yesterday’s open house celebrated the opening of Urbandale Farm. The farm is located in Lansing’s Urbandale neighborhood. The farm’s produce will be sold at a farm stand on the premises, primarily to Urbandale residents (who will receive a discount). It will be operated by volunteers as a non-profit organization. Some volunteers will come from the Urbandale neighborhood while others, like DeLind and Anderson themselves, will be contributing time in hopes that the farm will improve diets and build community to an underserved population.

So if a “Bubba” is slang for a farmboy in a gimmee cap (remember, that’s what they called Clinton), and a suburb is a an area located adjacent to a city, I guess that makes Urbandale a “Buburb”. (I’m really sorry for this folks, but Diane keeps insisting that I find some way to inject humor into these blogs. Blame her.)

As it happens, I stopped by the Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit on Friday. This Buburb venture has been operating in one form or another for over a hundred years. The current farm is on the premises of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which has been offering free meals to all comers ever since the Great Depression. The site itself, however, was farmed well before that under the auspices of the Capuchin Franciscans. I highly recommend some time on the Earthworks website, perusing their program and learning how they have organized a longstanding charitable mission first around providing subsistence, but now around the idea that growing food can be an empowering way to build community and personal capability. The Earthworks Urban Farm is, according to them, at least, the only certified organic farm currently operating within the city limits of Detroit.

People may have had the idea that people eating in the kitchen were growing their own food, but that has not actually been the case. The farm was, like the kitchen itself, operated by a blend of paid staff, interns and volunteers, and the whole (as mentioned above) is operated as a mission of the Catholic Church. There is an extensive youth program that involves children and young people in developing both kitchen and gardening skills. For its first decade after food production resumed in 1997, most of the food from the Buburb was actually sold in local markets and farmstands. In an effort to close the gap between perception and reality a bit the basic idea here since 2008 is that food grown on site goes into the food served in the kitchen.Some of the food continues to be sold at markets and farm stands, which are a part of the youth education program. What is more, this activity supports food access for people in the neighborhood. I believe I was told that Earthworks has also made some efforts to find ways that soup kitchen clients can be more fully integrated into the volunteer program when they show some interest in doing so, but I don’t find any confirmation of that on the website.

In my all too brief visit, Lisa Richter was showing us some small four-by-four plots, each totally unique and bearing sometimes colorful name tags. The plots are a new project on the farm that has been started in response to some pushback the farm staff was getting from local volunteers who had been enlisted to help with some of the farm work. If I have this right (and given the quick nature of our visit, it’s entirely possible that I don’t), volunteer clients were quite willing to help, but some were not really responding all that well to the instruction that leadership in the farming operation were trying to provide. They did not want to be told that the tomato plants needed to be planted eighteen inches apart. They did not want to work on the asparagus because they, in fact, did not particularly like asparagus. And they did not like to be told that they must pick the broccoli before it went to seed. I remember that President George H.W. Bush did not like broccoli, and presumably he would have been pleased with this outcome. The point, however, is that they wanted to experiment and learn for themselves.

The result is pretty amazing. I wish there was a picture of these plots on the website, for they are a true cacophony of garlic, potatoes, tomatoes (growing too close together) and in a few cases, weeds. One plot, but only one, was almost totally brown. There may not be much harvested from these Buburb plots, but there may be more than one lesson that can be learned from them.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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