Relationships are the most important part of any farm – relationships between soil, water, crops, and farmer of course. On an urban farm, the community relationship is most important of all, and no one understands this better than the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. Founded in 2013, the non-profit has championed the community they serve at every turn, making over the blighted Detroit landscape of vacant lots to engage with, and meet the needs of, its residents. With a demonstration farm, a full-scale production farm and training centre, housing opportunities, and more, MIUFI is providing a long-term solution to the problem of food insecurity in Detroit’s urban areas. The team at MIUFI is all about driving innovation and building infrastructure to combat vacant land, unemployment, access to nutritious food, and food literacy in a city facing challenges that would be foreign to most North Americans.
MIUFI won a Gardens for Good grant in their inaugural year, and have since been busy transforming vacant lots in Detroit’s inner city from liability to community asset as produce-packed urban farms that empower urban residents and provide fresh, healthy fare to those most in need. We connected with founder Tyson Gersh, who updated us on MIUFI’s inspiring story of urban renewal.
What are the unique needs of your community?
Detroit has a lot of challenges to economic and community well being. There are 80,000 blighted properties in Detroit, and demolishing a property costs between 10-15k. We have 40 square miles of vacant lad. Water is super expensive, and is controlled by a private company, so access is limited. There’s a real lack of use of the built environment for areas slated for blue and green initiatives – projects focusing on water and agriculture. Take Detroit Futures Initiatives, for example. While it’s really cool and innovative, they assume they’re starting with a blank canvas.
We’re trying to do cost effective de-construction of blighted properties so they can be used for blue and green initiatives. So, rather than completely razing a property, we’ll put a membrane over the existing foundation for an irrigation pond – we repurpose existing infrastructure to act as blue infrastructure, which can then act in tandem with urban agriculture. It costs a fraction what it would for the city to demolish it, and we turn it into something useful and of greater value to community.
Who do your programs reach?
We don’t target a specific demographic. Our goal is to be relevant to everyone in the community. That’s a key part of what we’re doing. We want to offer local residents food, education, and housing opportunities. We’re also working with Millenials in SE Michigan who want to return to Detroit and become equitable partners in the future of the city. We also engage in private partnerships to channel their resources into greater use to the community.
Tell us about the people who help make your programs a success.
Currently we are 100% volunteer run. In the past three years, we’ve worked with over 5,000 volunteers, making up 50,000 volunteer hours. They come from all over the place, as far as Europe, but 40% of our workforce is from within Detroit, and another 30% from SE Michigan and the wider Detroit area. Any volunteers who took a leadership role were offered a more formal position on the board. Half of our board lives in view of the farm, all people who stepped up to do something and continued to do so.
What inspired you to start an urban gardening project?
I studied psychology, and have no background in agriculture whatsoever. I was working a job looking at nutritional literacy and oral health, and seeing the relationship with our food system. We saw lots of mothers with soda pop in their baby bottles, thinking it was orange juice. If you don’t have the tools early on, marketing can really exploit these gaps in knowledge. Working with the 200 participants of that work gave me insight into how broken our food system is.
What was your experience participating in Gardens for Good?
It was so exciting. I harassed every single person I had ever interacted with online and went to shameless lengths to get votes.
Did you find that the community rallied behind you?
I don’t even know if they had a choice! People get excited about things like this. It unites them around a common goal.
What advice do you have for communities looking to replicate your success?
Gardens for Good should really be reserved for groups that are newer and have younger leadership, who can’t access other fundraising avenues. Contests like these allow people to network, filling a niche. You’re either a huge non-profit with lots of funders, or you’re totally and utterly screwed. Smaller scale nonprofits are doing amazing work, but struggling to find funding.
What did you do with your Gardens for Good grant, and what else have you been up to since you won?
We funded the entire farm for the whole year – all our seeds, an industrial grade tiller, hand tools, power tools, trellises. We were able to expand the farm 30-40% because of the grant.
Since that time, we have invested in 5 structures, from large apartment complexes to single story bungalows. We’re channeling our efforts into dealing with blight and refining our practices to urban agriculture.
We currently have a big structure that we’re converting to a community resource centre – we’ve been operating without a flushing toilet, and we just got electricity, which is very exciting for us. We’re trying to renovate and get together a functional space for a commercial community kitchen and education centre.
What’s your trademark crop?
We currently grow over 100 varieties of vegetables. The thing we seem to do best with are our green tomatoes. We didn’t think that would be a thing, but people just love them!
Do you have an urban garden project of your own, or know someone who does? Follow us down the garden path and apply for your own Gardens for Good grant before June 22—you could win $15,000 to grow your farm and create lasting change in your community.
All photos courtesy of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.