The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that seeks to engage members of the Michigan community in sustainable agriculture. Using a agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability, and community, while simultaneously building reducing socioeconomic disparity.
We’re a non-profit in the Detroit’s north end neighborhood. We’ve got a 3 acre campus
The work that we do falls into 1 of 3 categories
- 1st structural quality in the food system by increased act of locally sourced produce
- driving innovation through blooming green infrastructure
- Challenging the urban development paradigm through piloting this America’s first sustainable Agrihood model.
100% volunteer run
That was a lot of descriptive words in a very short amount of time. What is an agrihood? I did also talk to 3 other amazing rockstar millennials from that area:Tess Burzynski , Adam Pruett andJamie Todek.
What ‘s an Agrihood?
Agrihood is an emerging residential development strategy that basically is taking a working urban farm and is centering it as the main part of a residential development
There are about 200 of them across the country
- located in rural or suburban areas
- likend to the modern golf course
- often a really beautiful green space
that is often leveraged as an amenity to increase the attractiveness or walkability or property values interesting-ness of a neighborhood. Probably the most famous example is Serenbe in GA if you look across the different Agrihood models fairly high income. So it’s sort of you talk to a lot of urban planners and developers.
bring up urban agriculture
academics super interested who don’t really understand the industry, in theory it makes a lot of sense but if you look at numbers, it’s not the highest and best use
urban ag isn’t performing really well as far as the performance on the land itself but the impact that it has demonstrated to have on adjacent property values.
It may be an opportunity what sustainable land use in urban.
So I am going to back up, incase you haven’t understood or missed it, so it’s basically like a mini central park except a farm in the middle of a community. Is it the size of a football field or a track? How big is it visual?
The campus itself is 3 acres
The production farm is one acre
So a typical lot is what a 1/3 of an acre? It seems like there are a lot of houses of it.
so the campus is not where the housing
a typical lot is 30 feet by 100 feet
We are located on 3 acres, it’s 19 parcels total. Of that 1 acre is production farm and the other 2 acres are our:
- community center
- intern house
- children’s garden
The housing around is part of that Agrihood model but not within the campus itself.
The food that’s grown there do the people come grow the food or who eats it? Do they buy it?
All the food is free for anybody that wants it!
And who grows it? The people who live near there?
its mostly volunteers of the non-profit
people who live near by that are involved.
We have a ton of volunteers
It’s not like a community garden where people come in manage their own plot. The non-profit basically through it’s own resources manages the farm. We harvest everything, basically if you are somebody who wants produce you can come to the farm whenever you want and we’ll do the harvesting for you. You can have as much as you want as we physically have. We do the harvesting and weigh it out.
Priority is sort of given to area residents but we don’t turn anyone away.
How long has it been there?
6 1/2 years.
Are you the founder? How did you come up with this idea? What’s your story?
Yes, it started very different then it is today.
I was in college, I am now sort of a college drop out and I work 80 hours a week
When I go through changes like that I say, like when I bought my first real estate investment my realtors license expired so I said I graduated to real estate investor so you could just say you are graduating to an entrepreneur.
Sometimes that works and others I say what am I doing with my life?
very small scale vision to build a community garden
developed incrementally over time
The housing angle
Is a conflict that we’ve been having with the city here
the Government in Detroit doesn’t like us
It’s such a rabbit hole if I go into the details so I will spare everyone
The city wants to put apartment complexes everywhere, and they don’t really like it when commmuniy groups have control over their neighborhoods
top down culture
we are sort of
living testament to an alternative route for development
it’s been test
basically we realized our farm and campus was driving a substantial degree of residential development on it’s own. The city is
actually do you realize has driven 2 million dollars worth of investment
100+ houseing stock that takes a fortune to
You take a typical home that costs $2-400k to rehab it’s value the most you’d get is less then $200k it’s really hard to find a way to get these homes rehabbed because it isn’t incentivized so you have to create these
We have managed to orchestrate this market that isn’t supported by the market on it’s own.
People are effectively willing to lose money on their homes value because the value of living near something like living near the farm is worth it to them. That’s a really powerful thing. Especially at a time where the role of urban ag is land use and urban framework is
View urban ag as transitional land use
well do this until there is sufficient development pressure to engage in more traditional development.
existing urban ag
we might not exist in the future and the powers taht be are banking on that but if we can show that this farm is capable of driving the investment and the land use the city claims it wants can also be used as non-going assets that maintains property values that is a really profound thing!
That is how we ended up where we are today in this existential crisis and lengthy battle that’s still ongoing, the future is uncertain.
Why are you a non-profit then?
Oh, no. We can pay for the land. We are not being given the opportunity to purchase it.
Who owns it?
the land that we are on we own just under 1/2 of it
it was a number
we could demonstrate good stewardship, then the administration changed and said
“oh no we want this land”
There have been a lot of things that have happened, it is basically owned by the Detroit land bank. We have basically been like name your price we will buy it, not because we have the money, but we have built such a support network and we have enough emphasizers who say if you can get the deed we’ll pay for it
but we’re not given the opportunity to do so
1/3 of the land is owned by this quasi governmental isn’t beholden to this democracy city government is.
Let’s talk about something else because I can talk about controversy theories all day.
Tell us a little about yourself. Tell me about your first gardening experience?
I grew up in Ann Arbor mostly did a lot of gardening with my Mom
Growing up I grew a lot of tomatoes and eggplants with my mom and grandpa
I did landscaping for 7-8 years
Kind of grew up doing it. That’s kind of my gardening background experience.
How did you learn how to garden organically?
It was so long ago with my grandpa, I think he did everything organically, but I can’t say for sure
My mom used miracle grow
The farm itself is organic, that’s just sort of the model we have chosen to take.
I don’t have this philosophical. I think fertilizers play an important role in supporting a global food system.
Were developed in a systemic place
We are at a point where industry is adapting to our heightened consumer awareness
We not worried about if we are eating but what we are eating so that produces better products
the farm itself is organic, the way that we learned how to do it
through trial and error
We spent a lot of time on google
just follow the instruction
only products we use on the farm
liquified worm poop
We won a contest where we literally won a metric ton of liquid worm poop
Idk how this came to be has sustained us for the last 3-4 years
A lot of people ask us about our soil quality.
that and water
test all of our soil
our soil is well below the points to plant tubers
Our location is on formally residential land
I read a thing from an engineering firm
90% of soil in Detroit is totally fine unless you were on a former industrial site you are gonna be ok. That has been our experience not only was the soil contaminate free but it was super nutrient rich
It sat vacant without a structure on it for 15-20 years, so there was over a decade of natural organic buildup that put us in shape for growing.
Where’s Flint in relation to you?
IDK I’m really bad in geography? I’m good at using certain words to make me which is critical in the non-profit world.
Well don’t worry about because you are pretty well versed in Public Land Management and the Urban Real Estate and Sustainable Ag. I talked to this other Rockstar Millennial Danny Swan from the Ohio Valley and he’s a lot like you doing a similar reclamation project. The similarity ends as far as their soil was not good.
They’re the enemy we have no reason to hate our neighbors, it makes no sense but we grow up trained to hate Michigan people to hate people from Ohio!
Are they doing sunflower reclamation?
They are using compost and anything they can get to help the soil.
Tell us about something that grew well this year.
It’s funny this last year was the most removed I have been removed from the farm itself. I work 80 hours a week and it’s hard to make the admin stuff work.
This year I was like farm interns make it happen, it was chaotic but it was good!
what grew well
We do really well with collards!
We could turn the whole farm into a whole collard production field and we could not make a dent in the demand! People love them.
If we grow any category we do multiple varieties
model we use is really focused on crop diversity
zones and tracks
if we grow any category
type of crop
- 22 varieties of tomatoes
- 11 varieties of eggplant
come in every size shape and color
first hand experience
expose people to how our food system operates
carrot that is purple IDK this was even a possibility
Let’s talk about the force and kind and what led you to believe carrots were only orange. Turns into a way to talk about market forces shape.
Why do you grow 11 varieties of tomatoes and eggplant?
What type of space and how many tomato plants
21 plants for each variety
Whatever 22 x 21 is.
462 tomato plants
- 18″ spacing
- 2 rows per bed
- rows were a foot apart
- stagger them
- everything is on a trellis system
each bed is 10-12 foot post then we run tomato line. IDK if this is the best way, but what we are doing now.
metal wire between the two posts
net of tomato twine running down
grew and gained weight they would pull everything down.
now we have created like a matrix, it’s like a net or a mesh system
weight a little better
a lot easier if you are going to do this going in
We do the same thing with eggplants.
I wouldn’t have any idea what you are talking about if I hadn’t just gone on a Farm Tour of Mandy Gerth’s place. So I would recommend going to the MUFI website or on a farm tour. And I rememberAdam Pruett talking about how much he loved tying up tomatoes.
I will admit that I spend more time then is really optimal
pull a flood light out and run an extension cord and you get into a grove you’ve got your
- tomato twine and pruning shears and you end up flying through it.
- 12 hours straight
- no breaks
- really cathartic activity
I’ll bet there’s a lot of listeners out there who are like that is totally the solution I am looking for! Are you following a book or a plan or this is the system you’ve created over time for this area? Where’s your guidebook?
That’s such an amalgam of stuff that we’ve found or tested or developed ourselves.
There is no one living document that we reference or have to reference
the tomatoes we call it
they have the florida weave and there is an industry standard for tomato trellising
Gersh weave system even though it’s probably not the best system but what we are trying to brand (as a joke)
Johnny’s seed companies our go-to resource for stuff
go there first and then vet what they say across a few different websites vs where our experience has been.
I agree. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be an intern or hiring interns?
As far as we go we accept anyone who wants to come.
People are gonna figure out their own living arrangements so we end up with a lot of students.
Anyone who wants to come, I don’t think we have never said no to anyone we kind of feel we can teach anybody anything
sometimes it’s chaotic
- different skill people
- professional ideological backgrounds
those looking to host interns
People that like agriculture are an interesting group of people especially those who have some gardening experience on their own, often a lot of people who come are opinionated ideas about what’s best
really important to
- you always want to learn from other people
- but you have to have standards for your space
want to place the best strategy and we need consistency across the board
standardizing to reduce the chaos
So when we get a volunteers
we will have situations where we will have a volunteer who says ” no I know better”
hey and we will have to be like that’s just not how we do things here
- we appreciate the input
- this is the route we have been going
- we can pilot that strategy at an offsite location
- will create more work then the value
- mix happening simultaneously
just be prepared for very strong views on things that may directly conflict with your own and be prepared to handle that and be comfortable saying this is how we do thing here
- to learn and to teach
- respect the space and culture established
I think you are probably dropping golden seeds for people who are thinking wow I never thought of that, and you must be doing things right because you are getting a lot of volunteers
You say you have all these volunteers all people are equal
- equally equipped to perform the same task
volunteer management is a huge thing and it’s really hard
just because you have a working body doesn’t mean it’s going to add more value then it’s going to cost.
really careful about
a few different places
an internship is ethically is supposed to be a wash in terms of what it adds to the host so the intern is supposed to take as many resources as they offer so youre supposed to be investing in educating the intern.
seen educating as much as benefiting
the purpose of an internship isn’t free labor it’s too teach
magic bullet that solves the problem free labor
you’re not understanding the purpose of the internship and you are going to be very surprised when you’re actually
My success with volunteers has always been matching the strengths of the person with the job. Not everyone wants to come and sit and read a book to the kids. Not everyone wants to come weed the garden, but finding something to match their strengths. Dads might want to come put up insulation on the windows, or maybe a busy mom who works, wants to cut out art projects, or cook or donate or something.
And then making them feel extremely appreciated. Also a volunteer is different then an intern who’s getting college credit compared to a volunteer who wants to share in the food or just doing something nice.
Volunteers are a different animal from interns for sure!
Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?
Right now I’m just yesterday I just ordered some green malibar it’s like malibar spinach
- climbing vine
- leafy thing
- sort of like a purslane with big leaves that climb
tastes kind of like spinach
other people do
We are rehabbing our community center in terms of what I think is going to add the most value to the non-profit
For actual practices on the field excited to see where they are coming from.
We’re using some compostable mulches from BASF
chemical company that has a strong presence here in Michigan
basically anything in your house at some point
certified organic yet
GM wants to hear .01 decibals of less echoing when the passenger sneezers as when heard from the driver seat, BASF will be like we can calibrate a spray foam for that
matches high performance chemistry with the vendors across different entities
huge presences in agriculture
sort of one of the driving forces in pushing sustainable products forward as well
susstainablity is through chemistry
I think we demonize the word chemical
There is a bizarre propaganda campaign we can service towards a lot of gardeners
sort of trained
anti- anything with certain
BSAF making a lot of products
whether they are selling the product or the company that m
pretty good working relationship
few products they are developing we excited to try out
Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season?
We didn’t finish an irrigation system set up that I thought we would, that will save us a lot of time and energy. We basically took a basement of a home to set up a rainwater harvesting system that automatically irrigates the farm through this pressurized solar drip system
it really is
been able to come up with this concept it’s a very scalable
if it works? I am confident it will
It is a very scaleable model that should be implemented elsewhere!
- removed the super structure
- left the basement intact
- lined the basement with rubber pond liner
- filled it with storm tank modules which are like an upside milkcrate
- stand above the water but tub holds the water
- hold the weight of a fire truck
- wrap the top with gravel around it
creates this load baring cavity that’s underground that can hold this huge volume of liquid, then we have a pump that sits outside that is hidden under this light decorative rock that looks real!
It’s like why is this rock here? We don’t have rocks on our farm
irrigates the farm through a drip tape system
We’re working on an added feature that uses technology to measure the rate of photosynthesis of each of the beds as a measure of hydration of the crops
The idea being that when the crops are dehydrated the system will be trigger the system to automatically irrigate them. Maybe we’ll have that flushed out this year. Maybe we’ll have that successfully implemented.
Automated irrigation system is a definite tip. Mike worked at this place las year and what I realized most of all is t’s way easier and more effective then I ever thought
automation in irrigation
- technology is there
- everybody can do it!
- can get it at home depot
- really accessible
- DIY friendly
- I strongly recommend everyone and anyone to automate their irrigation
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Now Let’s Get to the Root of Things!
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden?
mmmm… nothing come’s to mind.
OK, Well come back to that.
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden?
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
Off the top of my head, I don’t have any profound nugget of wisdom
But if I could make an abstract principal that I have adopted that I think is really valuable is to
be really systems minded
People get caught up in the details
change my answer
I think there is so much misinformation and pseudo science in the garden space.
I have heard so many people who will speak as an authority and heard someone say something once that’s not true
word of mouth
passed on knowledge
but there are so many people that are committed to inefficient practices because someone said it cool one day or they saw a meme on Facebook and I feel part of being responsible and really reaching your own potential in the garden space is to
be humble one
what you have been told and what you think you know is completely false
being a life long learner and to be always actively seeking out new knowledge and verify things
be really discerning with the information you recieve
and cautious about charisma
I see people who are really passionate about what they think about gardening!
People who are just in love with the idea of using newspapers in gardening which isn’t necessarily the baddest thing but they are just so in love with it, and they haven’t done it that much and they will sort of insists in spaces that this is the best way of doing things
And they will be silencing people in a similar space and might even know more or have a better way
if you really want to experience all there is in gardening you have to test your own knowledge and sort of like pursue absolute truth
- defer to science
- vet things
- don’t just do something because somebody made it sound good.
You need to have proof that it works
- comfortable experiment
- goal is to maximize production
an open but critical mind
Critical thinking skills are something we talk about at school all the time, not as much memorizing facts as knowing if things are credible, what I remember after 8th grade, we spent every day memorizing battles from Gettysburg. One of my first Youtube videos I made was on climate change from 350.org.
Media literacy is something we talk about a lot too. I saw this thing on Vinegar and salt mixture to get rid of knapweed using vinegar and salt, did I do it wrong? IDK it didn’t work for me.
best resource for primary source publications
really useful if you are trying to understand the science and efficacy
agriculture is one of the oldest industries and professions in human history
lots of great knowledge
- tested and comprehensively evaluated
- Our food system is essential for survival
- there is good quality scientific research on everything
- meta analysis
- high density to tailor crop per maximizing production
amazing high quality literature there is on it that has been
tested and you can really see what works
Maybe you should compile it for some of us who are not that so academically minded
We are! We literally are!
We are working on making a list of best practices and here’s a hyperlink you can see why we did it this way.
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be.
I think the brand is hydro farm
$10-7 pair of pruning shears
Pruning sheers are the most useful tool to have on the farm
prodcut I really like hydrofarm- curved blade
find a lot of pot shops, I don’t grow pot, but they are a cheap pair of shears you don’t mind if they break. I buy a new one every year. They come with a belt holster that you can have all the time. I buy a new pair each spring.
It’s amazing what you can use that tool
I’ve tested out a number of other pruning shears
snip with your index and ring finger
I’ve tried to like the $80 pruning shears and by far the bst ones I’ve had are the hydrofarm cheap $7.99 shears
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
I don’t cook.
Nothing? Do you just eat it raw in a salad?
I like sun gold tomatoes. That’s my favorite actual thing that I grow. I like to eat them raw.
A favorite internet resource?
And then Johnny’s seed companies
those guys really understand how to organize information that is intuitively navigatable
- charts that are comparison
- they have a ton of resources
- they’ve done a really good job
- product is the highest quality there is
A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?
- one and the same
- They send out emails
- this particular variety is performing well
So like, easter egg radishes is having an issue with this thing so be prepared
If you have a business to you have any advice for our listeners about how to sell extra produce or get started in the industry?
joking but seriously
your not gonna make money by selling vegetables. I’m not always a popular person for saying this
ag is a commodity market
our food system works on subsidize if you are going to subsidize something food is something we need
selling vegetables you’d be lucky to profit at all, my experience is very limited to urban ag.
If you value time and energy at all it would be an accomplishment
need to recognize that. We often romanticize what urban ag and what it does
If you really look at the numbers it is not an industry that you’re gonna like make money on
- step one
- step two
- step three profit
Value added products yes! I think that is a really promising space
- think in terms of
- building wealth
- It’s not tech
- shouldn’t talk about
- Ag is sort of in a lot of entrepreneurship spaces
- my philosophy
If that can save someone a lot of time and energy building a business model that will pan out
don’t mean to be negative
I interviewed Anastasia Cole Plakais from the Farm on the Roof and she talks a lot about they wanted to be a profitable business, having different branches, education was a piece, using the space for events, having added value products and events, they are also very very in touch with their data and what sells well, what profit we’re gonna make, looking at your markets and thinking what can I make from this. You have said you’ve had to step away from the growing and work on the admin.
If we wanted to sell every ounce of what we grew, I have no doubt of that, we have done it. It’s just the most amount of money you can make is very small. It is an industry that works that works on economies of scale, the profit margin is so small, and that is by design it is a commodity market which is fine.
- specialty crops
- cash crops
- there is so much to it
- building relationships
- having things on time
Sorry I’m going on a tangent
What your friend said is having diversified revenue resources
growing vegetables lucky if you don’t go in the hole
be prepared to lose money
people love to be around plants
event space models
huge part of that
place that’s really beautiful
There is a woman you should consider hosting her, Rohani Foulkes she is one of the owners of a place called the Farmer’s Hand in Detroit. She’s from Australia, did her graduate studies
farm themed bsuinesses across the world
I remember talking with her one day, she was saying looking at all these different businesses
never making meaningful amount of money, but all the businesses working directly in tandem are experiencing a huge bump in performance. That’s where farms can be profitable and lucrative
in the act of itself
not the farm in Australia but the air b n b or restaurant in the middle of the farm that is going to bring in the funds
- place based experience
- successful models
- finding their success
- leveraging the ag to increase tangental
- related business
Yeah! I think a lot of my listeners are interested in those types of businesses, I keep thinking about Jean Martin Fortier who’s making a good living up in Canada, but of course he has other things on too.
if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
I would like to see more automation technology. I think that is where the real opportunity for
- scaleable practices
is going to come from.
Direct human involvement is one of the most damaging things on our planet and the inefficencies that it creates
The removal of that ineficency is where we will stand to benefit the most
Do you have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
I think that there are few activities in the world that are as empowering as using your own two hands to physically shape the world around you
gardening and farming is one of the best examples
nothing will make you fee like you can make a difference to make change or make you feel like you have agency or autonomy in the world asgrowing something from a seed
Empowering experience that all people should have and to treasure it for that in and of itself.
That’s so interesting when you say you’d like to see automation and technology as your biggest change. Am I misunderstanding you want to see more automation in the garden?
Yes, like the irrigation stuff we were talking about. We are so wasteful with water, not just the water that is not hitting the plant directly.
irrigating during non-peak time
human involvement is inefficient thing, if we instead channel our
time money and energy into building more efficient systems
that’s what’s gonna experience of growing something is personal and a different one
serving different purposes
global food system that is not the space for people doing personal development
It needs to function at a high level of efficiency and it’s too important for inefficiency
more tech, responsible technology of course
The more we can leverage tech in that space in that sustainable space the better for the planet, the cleaner more efficient it can be, it still important for people to have that personal hobby level.
I’m with you there, I’m a total efficiency freak. I made this book about the Green Queen you would make the perfect Green King. She’s out there with her sunflower wand yelling at the golf course guy out there watering in the middle of the hot afternoon.
There’s this huge issue the thing I like least about the urban ag community is this sort of belief that if you didn’t break your back, and grow something really inefficiently, it has less value
the interest in hand-crafted or artisnal goods in our culture around is socially damaging, the technology and greenhouse production you can still taste the real difference between outdoor tomatoes
doesn’t one is bad ~ we need to be pushing that tech forward
population of people that if humans weren’t sufferreing in create something it’s of less value.
unless I see someone like a senior citizen that this tomato isn’t good enough for me. The need to do things in inefficient unnecessary ways the idea that people have to do things inefficiently for products to have quality.
I understand what you are saying, like I was saying about Jay and Mandy Gerth who are gonna feed 500 families this summer, they are the most efficient people. She talks about her index cards being the ultimate tetrus game because they have their growing schedule down! To be able to do all that on a small piece of land, feeding that many people they have to be efficient.
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We’re very text friendly
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come as long or whenever
relaxed about admin and management
free to make donations
- We rely heavily on those
- We’re trying to build new and efficient models
- to make the world a better place
- I feel like that is a worthy thing to donate to, you can do that online too!
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