December 17, 2017

“Creating a cooperative growing environment in Flint,” The Hub Flint

By Serena Maria Daniels The link between eating right and growing a more vibrant community…


A person leads a choir practice inside a church, raising their hands in front of two other people who are singing and standing behind music stands. Stained glass windows are visible in the background, and the interior is adorned with wooden panels and religious decorations.

By Serena Maria Daniels

The link between eating right and growing a more vibrant community is palpable, says Rev. Dr. Tommy McDoniel.

Surround your environment with a garden plentiful in nutritious greens and fruits and good things happen. Eating habits start to change, resulting in improved health. You’re also more likely to invest time outdoors tending to that garden, which puts more eyes on the neighborhood. Soon, crime and blight decrease.

“Our connection to the earth is much more sacred and much more important than we recognize,” says McDoniel, pastor at Asbury Church, who is part of the effort behind the Flint Farming Project.

The project, developing on Flint’s east side by the Asbury Community Development Center (see TheHUB’s report here), aims to create productive market gardens that will provide healthy local food to residents of Flint.

What’s more, McDoniel is hopeful the effort will create a sustainable business model that will make farmers out of city dwellers and create new jobs.

The idea is to develop an incubator farm modeled like a cooperative.

Although a Flint-specific market study is not available, an economic analysis of Detroit’s food systems conducted in 2014 revealed that urban agriculture production in Detroit was estimated to be worth $3.8 million.

The campus would consist of a network of quarter-acre gardens, which a local resident would be trained to tend and would earn an income from the profits of each harvest. Each site would contain a hoop house, allowing for year-round access to locally-grown food options.

Members of the community would be able to pay for membership and own shares of the cooperative. Funds raised from membership would go toward its mission of providing job opportunities and fresh food options to the community.

As for equipment and supplies, those resources would be purchased in bulk or shared to offset the cost away from each farmer. For example, instead of purchasing 30 yards of compost — enough to cover one garden — the Asbury Community Development Corporation (CDC) would buy enough for all the properties. Instead of one tractor per site, a pool tractor would be shared by all the farmers.

While these ultimate goals are still very much in the planning phase, getting to this point was years in the making.

The CDC had already purchased some properties and leased other sites from the Genesee Land Bank, where the organization planted community gardens, orchards and constructed a hoop house. The hope at the time was to find a solution for blight in parts of the city and to provide more healthy food options for residents.

“Our connection to the earth is much more sacred and much more important than we recognize.” Rev. Dr. Tommy McDoniel, pastor, Asbury Church

Then the Flint water crisis hit and that focus on nutrition became even more pronounced.

As the city, state and federal environmental officials were investigating the causes of the crisis and reeling to figure out solutions, Israel Unger, a Michigan native who had completed a master’s degree in finance and economics in Europe, had come to the area to explore the possibility of drilling fresh water wells for residents.

What started out as a two-week trip turned into more than a year in Flint, as Unger developed what would turn out to be a pilot program dubbed “Flint Garden City” for what a farming incubator could look like, McDoniel says.

Using his background in micro-financing, Unger purchased 12 lots and leased others and started his own farm, taking care to keep detailed track of just what was needed to sustain the project.

To push the project forward, the CDC is consolidating Unger’s land with its own properties and is seeking funding for startup costs and operations from foundations. The nonprofit will manage funds raised, which will be used to purchase supplies, handle taxes and related costs and train and hire the residents who will build hoop houses and turn out to be the farmers in charge of each 1/4 acre plot of land.

The nonprofit has also partnered with Kettering University earlier this year to integrate productive solar energy systems to scale up its urban gardening efforts. The university was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Ford Motor Company Fund as part of a goal to use technology to improve urban agricultural outputs. The university’s students will assist by installing solar-assisted irrigation systems for the community gardens. The project will also use surface rain catchment to collect water.

Most recently, McDoniel took the unorthodox business model to the Business Boot Camp pitch competition, a three-day intensive training held the last week of October for Flint-area food businesses and sponsored by the Michigan Good Food Fund.

The winner, Happy Little Greens, walked away with $10,000 to be used to grow its operations (See TheHUB coverage here).

While Flint Farming Project didn’t win, McDoniel is encouraged the experience will help further the effort from idea to action.

“It’s not just a dream we’re thinking about, it’s a dream we’re implementing,” he says.

Urban Agriculture Trends

Detroit was the first city in the US to offer urban farming programs, according a published report by the  Michigan State University Extension.

In an economic analysis of Detroit’s food systems conducted in 2014, urban agriculture production in Detroit was estimated to be worth $3.8 million.

In 2016, Flint and Genesee County, the Genesee Conservation District, in partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service,  managed a seasonal high tunnel cost share initiative supporting 29 hoophouses (11 in the City of Flint).

An estimated 25 new applications will be processed by year-end, according to MSU Extension.  Hoophouse growers are partnering with Michigan State University Extension, the Genesee Conservation District and the Edible Flint urban agriculture organization.

First posted December 17, 2017 on The Hub Flint.

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