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Grand Rapids Urban Growers and urban farming take root in Grand Rapids

From left, Ron Wheaton, Jenny Bongiorno, Levi Gardner and Wendal Kane, urban farmers.

As urban farming takes root in Grand Rapids, a new cooperative is forming to advance the agriculture and food justice issues that farmers face in the city. Marla R. Miller reports on how Grand Rapids Urban Growers seeks to transform the local food economy.
Many people think of urban growing simply as a backyard garden or community plot, but urban agriculture is gaining momentum as a way to create jobs, transform vacant land, build community and provide access to fresh food in city environments.
 
As urban farming continues to take root in Grand Rapids, a new urban growers group sprouted over the winter to connect commercial and nonprofit growers.
 
Volunteers work on an urban farm on the North East side.Grand Rapids Urban Growers is still evolving and attendees come with various perspectives, backgrounds and agendas – some grow as a business, others are fighting for food justice – but the overall goal is to facilitate communication, collaboration and accountability so the city can have a thriving local food economy that is accessible to all, says a founding member, Lance Kraai of New City Urban Farm.
 
Kraai works as farm director of New City Urban Farm, one of the city’s larger community supported agriculture (CSA) farms started in 2012 to employ teens during the summer in the Creston neighborhood. He and Levi Gardner, of the for-profit Urban Roots Farm, helped organize the group to provide a forum for growers to share ideas, problems and tips.
 
“There’s a few urban growers in the area trying to do really cool things and because we’re all working in a slightly different context, but our goal is the same, it’s a way to exchange best practices,” Gardner says. “We’re trying to create a new system and a new way of thinking about ourselves and the earth and community.”
 
Beyond increasing access to nutritious food, another outcome is to foster greater community among the growers themselves. Urban growing presents its own set of challenges, ranging from space constraints and zoning issues to soil contamination and erosion.
 
Okra from an urban farm on the South East side.Topics can range from marketing to tillage to weather woes to pest problems, not to mention the pressure to produce enough food to meet shareholder or customer demand. Gardner grows on three different city lots and sells produce at the Fulton Street Farmers Market.
 
“I have a very inexpensive cost of living, which is why and how I do this,” he says. “Economics frames the way we see the world. What if we could see the world as something different?”
 
Garrett Ziegler works as a community food systems educator with MSU Extension and served on the initial steering committee. The Grand Rapids Growers Group is a spinoff from the West Michigan Growers Group made up of more rural farmers.
 
“It’s a really good opportunity to get everyone in the same room,” says Ziegler, who has an office at the Downtown Market. “There’s a lot of different people growing food in Grand Rapids and coming from it at different angles.” Due to the various business models, there is a need to educate the public about the difference between community gardens and CSA farms, nonprofit operations and for-profit ventures and simply getting the word out that food is being grown in the city.
 
 “Having a support structure will be a good way to get more people involved,” Ziegler says. “The goal is to try and create more resources for people who want to grow food in the city, whether it is to donate to needy populations or they want to grow it to make a living.”
 
Representatives from the YMCA, Baxter Community Center, Well House, Urban Roots, City Farmers, New City Urban Farm, Treehouse Garden, Reformation Growers, Blandford Nature Center, the Downtown Market Greenhouse, Our Fresh Local, MSU extension, Uptown Farm and others have been invited to attend meetings.
 
Molly Vance volunteers at an urban farm.The group is open to anyone trying to grow in the city, whether they are selling at market, to shareholders or restaurants, or more focused on bringing healthy, locally sourced food to underserved neighborhoods.
 
“That’s the interesting thing about this group, you have a lot of people with different agendas, but they are talking to each other,” says Jayson Otto, an adjunct anthropology instructor at Aquinas College with a master’s degree in community food and agriculture from Michigan State University. “Now at least the voice isn’t just one farmer. It will be a really good thing.”
Otto met Kraai while working for MSU Center for Regional Food Systems and helped bring the group together.
 
“We’ve always had a strong gardening contingency in the city,” says Otto, who formerly managed the Fulton Street Farmers Market and has researched the history of the city’s farmers markets. “To now see all these young people doing it is pretty awesome. People like Lance (Kraai), he’s really interested in serving the people around him and being part of the neighborhood and feeding the neighborhood and educating the neighborhood.”
 
As farmers, the summer months are busy so they don’t meet much during the growing season, but they will meet monthly November through March. The group’s next meeting will be in August at Blandford Nature Center.
 
Jenny Bongiorno of Our Fresh Local.Jenny Bongiorno of Our Fresh Local oversees the Green Grocer Garden on Henry Avenue SE. A lot of soil in the city is contaminated with lead and arsenic, so Bongiorno has another business designing and building self-irrigating, raised bed systems for urban lots. She sees the group as a good way to network with other farmers to avoid duplicating services and join forces when necessary.
 
“Right now, we’re getting together to become aware of what everyone’s trying to do and keep this movement strong in Grand Rapids,” she says. “A lot of times there are opportunities for collaboration. Those synergies can’t happen if people are not in contact.”
 
One project the group has discussed is creating a map of all the local food resources in Grand Rapids, she says. The growers also foresee zoning and other city ordinances being issues where they could come together to work with the city. Right now, residential zoning requirements apply to urban growers, restricting the size of hoop houses, greenhouses and other structures.
 
“If we can present a unified front, the better off we’re going to be,” Bongiorno says. “We can sit down and identify all the issues and come to them in a professional way. It’s so more effective than fighting those battles one at a time.”
 
The CSA farm at Blandford Nature Center is technically in the City of Walker and zoned agriculture, so zoning is not an issue for Farm Manager Aaron Snippe. Still, he understands the challenges for fellow urban farmers.
 
“We just want to grow food,” he says. “We’re not going to build a structure that’s going to be a harm to the community.”
 
Liz Dunnuck farms on the North East side.Blandford’s farm serves as a living example of how many small farms work and offers programs to show how food is grown and taken from the field to your plate. Members of the nature center buy shares to support the farm and produce also is sold at the Fulton market.
 
Whether it’s to share tools or growing tips, Snippe sees the group as a positive to create camaraderie and an awareness for urban farms in the area. Snippe says there are grants available that the group could apply for as a larger entity to help do coordinated marketing.
 
“I was excited about it just to get more support for urban growing,” he says. “It’s nice to see everyone who is doing the same thing and complain about the weather or whatever.”
 
Gardner agrees. Farming involves a lot of variables and takes a lot of work, so it’s nice to commiserate with others.
 
“Mother Nature is my boss, she tells me what to do on any given day,” he says. “With farming, not only is it misunderstood, but you need a group of people to discuss things almost no one else can relate to.”
 
Camilla Voelker, urban gardener at Well House, attended a couple of meetings in the winter and would like to see the group tackle issues of food justice and open up a discussion with people within the communities who are most marginalized by the current food system. Well House sells some produce to help support its garden project, but the primary focus is to offer healthy food options for tenants who have recently experienced homelessness.
 
“We try to practice food justice,” she says. “Food justice would demand that people who are marginalized within the current food system have a say in what kind of system they want, but that land use be more egalitarian and serve the needs of people who are most marginalized.”
 
For more information, email Kraai at lancek@newcityneighbors.org or Gardner at urbanrootsfarmgr@gmail.com.

Marla R. Miller is a freelance writer who enjoys meeting cool people and telling their stories. Her interests include arts, entertainment, entrepreneurs, food and travel, innovating organizations and the inspiring work of nonprofits. An award-winning features writer and former newspaper reporter, she is not putting her master's degree to use, but finally feels happy. Check out her website: marlarmiller.com

Photography by Adam Bird
 
 
 
 
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