The Michigan economy took a severe hit when the auto industry began to collapse. Thousands of jobs in Lansing, Flint and Detroit were taken away, leaving millions with very little room for economic opportunity. The struggle of how to increase the number of jobs continues today, with cuts being made to social services and school systems. If asked how to help restore the economy, one answer that may puzzle many, is farming.
It is a common sight in major cities like Flint and Detroit: vast wastelands that were once occupied with beautiful homes, businesses and people. Much of those vacant spaces are now abandoned, but an emerging trend could soon see those places being put back to use.
Urban farming, which sounds like a contradiction initially, is an option that Michigan residents are now looking toward to provide some help in the failing economy. Jacky and Dora King began the Harvest Earth Farm in Flint, with the hope that it would someday become a self sustaining source that stimulates the local economy.
The Kings are the subject of “The Kings of Flint”, a documentary produced by Geri Zeldes and Troy Hale. Zeldes and Hale met the Kings in 2009 after being invited to learn about urban farms. Hale recorded some of their meeting and edited it into a minute and a half video which was then uploaded to YouTube.
After the video gained some attention, the Associated Press contacted Hale and Zeldes for an interview. The two had been interested in making a documentary on the Kings. Media interest that followed the publication of their AP interview influenced them to make it a full length project. The team made visits to the Kings from August 2009 until February of this year, and began editing the footage last summer.
When asked how it compared to previous films she had worked on, Zeldes said the project was a new experience. While the subject is about a way to survive in a tough economy, Zeldes says the project is “fun from each angle you look at it”. Her earlier work focused on things that were controversial, but with “Kings”, she was able to find more people who were willing to talk.
One of the people who she was able to talk to for the film, was Michael Hamm, who is the professor of sustainable agriculture for the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU, started in 2003. Hamm said that there has been no analysis done about Lansing, but there are an estimated 500 potential acres for farming in Flint, and almost 20 times that in Detroit.
Hamm said that something that must be noted in this topic is the difference between an urban farm and a community garden. An urban farm produces for a market, while a community garden focuses on self-providing. According to Hamm, the Midwest has the most potential for urban farming compared to anywhere else in U.S. This is due to the number of Rust Belt cities. In Michigan those include Detroit, Flint, Lansing and Benton Harbor.
Over the next 30-50 years, Hamm said politicians should be asking the question of how to make use of infrastructure and how to make opportunities. This is part of the Kings’ philosophy.
The Kings were able to create the farming opportunity by first finding some people to teach about farming. This was done by opening a karate school. Yes, the Kings use martial arts to help educate children about growing their own food. The goal behind this is to teach children that they must work hard to achieve, and that they must take care of themselves.
After deciding to establish a farm, they received funding from the Ruth Mott Foundation, who also provided the funding for “The Kings of Flint”. The vacant land, that would eventually become the farm, took two years to clean up. After the debris was cleared, organic soil was then shipped. The Kings now teach their students how to grow a variety of crops, some of which are sold to the people in the community and others which are taken home by the students. They plan on it becoming the number one site for urban farming in the United States in the next 10 years.
Hamm said that if urban farming is going to be a staple of the economy, the urban and rural communities will need to establish some common ground as well as trade offs.
Nicole Hagen, a special education freshman, shares a similar viewpoint. “It gives people something to do, since growing anything takes lots of time and energy,” said Hagen. She believes that the hard work could instill positive values to inner city children, which she believes could eventually decrease the drop out rate. She has some experience with growing her own food, but only on a small, self-providing scale. Regardless, she views her experience as a positive one and would like to see others take part.
Hagen also believes that urban farming could contribute to the Green movement, which she hopes will make a lasting impact on the country. In addition to farming, she would like to see a popularity increase in alternative fuels, public transportation and recycling.
“I think that urban farming can help in fixing the economy but I do not believe it will be the savior of the economy,” said Hagen. Hamm shares a similar belief.
“It should be important when considering economic development,” Hamm said of urban farming. It would appear that people are starting to get the idea. Urbandale Farm, the first initiative in the Lansing Urban Farm Project, was started in 2010 by MSU professor Laura DeLind. There is also the Garden Project, run by Anne Rauscher, which oversees several community gardens and training programs in the area.
“The Kings of Flint” will also hopefully play a part in people making urban farming a priority. The eight minute version of the documentary was screened at the Flint Film Festival, and the 30 minute version has already aired on WKAR-TV. It has been offered to several programs across the country, and Zeldes plans on it having 100 airings this year. She and Troy Hale are also working on an hour long version of the film, which will feature other farmers.
Jacky and Dora King may view urban farming as something that is aiming to benefit their local community, but the mentality behind it is something everyone needs to hear when it comes to fixing things in the state. As said by Jacky King in the documentary, “You just have to work. You have to believe in yourself. You have to feel you’re worthy. You have to feel there is hope, and there is hope for this community.”
Learn more about the Greening of Flint.