Lance Kraai, Shanna Greer, New City Neighbors sow community seeds for year-round harvest
Standing in a narrow trench with scuffle hoes, Lance Kraai and Shanna Greer work to cut baby weeds around new seedlings on a sunny, muggy day in a two-acre farm behind Fourth Reformed Church
New City Urban Farm
is one of Grand Rapids’ largest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms off Leonard Street and Union Avenue. It continues to expand in its third season as a social enterprise focused on providing job training for youth and bringing fresh, organically grown food to people in the Creston neighborhood.
Whether planting crops, watering or weeding, Kraai, farm director, and Greer, field manager, maintain New City Urban Farm prior to the arrival of student workers in early June. Kraai manages the operation year-round, spending long days in the trenches spring through fall making sure the farm produces bountiful, flavorful crops.
The farm, located on the eastern border of a two square mile food desert, is a program of New City Neighbors
and a spinoff of the community garden on the same property. It operates to build and improve community on several fronts.
Besides employing teens who live nearby, Kraai recognizes that access to fresh, nutritious and affordable food is essential to health and human flourishing.
“It should be an option for everyone,” he said. “Our big thing is we want to see food grown in the city. We want people to see the process, the hard work, see where food comes from. You can walk out your door and see what we’re doing. Anyone can come. We’re not exclusive.”
Growing good food, good will
As a community outreach and ministry, the farm makes locally grown produce accessible to low-income residents and offers payment plans for the CSA shares.
Shareholders pay an up-front free in exchange for a share in the farm’s produce. New City shareholders receive fresh vegetables, with some choices between crops each week, from early June to the end of October.
Divided over 22 weeks, a full share ($450) averages about $20 for enough produce to feed four. Half shares feed two ($275); and 12-week quarter shares ($175) are popular with community gardeners who want to supplement what they grow, Kraai says.
The farm sold 12 1/2 shares its first year, growing to 37 shares in 2013 and 55 shares for 2014. Kraai’s goal is to reach 80 CSA shares.
“At this point, 30 or 40 percent are from the neighborhood and can walk here,” he said. “The other 20 percent are from the churches. The others were just looking for a CSA. Most of them are more rural; you never actually get to see the farm.”
The weekly farm stand is another way to teach job skills, reach the community and sell surplus food. It is open to the public 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday and accepts Bridge Cards, Senior Fresh, and Double-up-Food Bucks. These also can be used for CSA share purchases.
“We’re trying to sell food directly to the community through our farm stand,” said Eric Schalk, executive director of New City Neighbors. “We’re really trying to get fresh produce into a community that doesn’t have access.”
The farm grows a full assortment of vegetables using the best biological farming practices available. Kraai uses compost enriched soil with natural no-spray techniques, avoiding synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO seeds. They strive to work in harmony with the land, not against it, and honor the harvest it produces.
Kraai, a self-taught farmer for the most part, read a lot about European farming practices where land is limited. He makes the most of the available land by planting crops close together, inter-cropping and succession planting.
“We grow in an intensive manner. It’s very precise,” he said. “We have a walk-behind tractor, so we can plant beds closer together.”
He developed a business plan and came to New City Neighbors with a proposal for the farm a few years ago. The farm covers its costs, including seed, soil and supplies, equipment, and Kraai’s salary, through CSA shares, grants, and donations.
He also has added a well, a hoop house, the farm stand, and a walk-in cooler this year to keep picked produce fresh. His goal is for the farm to become self-supporting by year five.
“It’s a business that’s trying to achieve a social aim,” he said. “It’s a hybrid of a nonprofit and a for-profit. We think about money and social things at the same time.”
A native of New Jersey, Kraai, 33, and his wife became active in Creston Christian Reformed Church
and the neighborhood after buying and renovating an abandoned home a few blocks away.
Kraai studied religion and philosophy at Calvin College
and lived with several other students off campus in intentional community. Through that experience, Kraai met his wife and many friends in Grand Rapids.
The couple moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Kraai completed his Master of Divinity from Regent College
in 2009. While at Regent, Kraai interned at Jacob’s Well
, a ministry that seeks to live in relationship with people on the margins of society, he says. He helped at the urban farm, which was comprised of two city lots. Food grown on the farm went to a large weekly communal meal.
The Kraais, now with an 8-month-old daughter, felt called to return to Grand Rapids and live near a neighborhood church, he said.
“Our passion was Grand Rapids, so we moved back,” he said.
Sprouting seeds of hope, self-confidence
A faith-based organization, New City Neighbors works to restore the Creston neighborhood in the areas of social justice, education, and family, and offers programming to promote spiritual, emotional, economic, and physical health.
New City Neighbors has its office at Fourth Reformed Church and was already running a successful community garden and middle school job skills program, Breaktime Bakery
. The organization wanted to expand job training to high school students, and employing students on the farm was integral to Kraai’s pitch, Schalk said.
“We’re committed to holistically ministering to kids in the Creston area,” Schalk said. “It was an opportunity to expand our ministry and deepen our connections, to really follow kids through, to see them grow and succeed.”
This summer, the bread from the bakery will be sold at the farm stand, while the YMCA’s Veggie Van
will visit during farm stand hours to provide additional fruit and veggie options, Kraai said.
Thanks to a grant through Grand Rapids Community Foundation
, the farm employs eight high school students in the summer and offers two unpaid internships for college students each season.
They work 15 hours a week, split between farm tasks and other curriculum designed to develop work ethic and discover their God-given talents, Kraai said. The teens research, write, and design a weekly newsletter explaining new vegetables and creative recipes that utilize the week’s harvest, which is distributed to shareholders.
They acquire valuable job skills, from showing up at 7 a.m. and working in the elements to learning to get along with others. They greet and serve customers at the farm stand and during weekly share pickups where they practice being friendly, professional, and courteous. They meet to discuss conflict resolution, having respectful conversations and other workplace issues.
“For us, it’s definitely part of our faith perspective,” Kraai said. “We’re trying to show they have a lot of talents and gifts and they should be using them. A lot of values are learned in the workplace. They also get a sense of what kind of work they want to do.”
Last year, the students developed a marketing plan for the farm, helped build the farm stand and fence, and led a cooking class for underserved neighbors. They also took field trips to colleges, other farms – even the beach – and visited Farmers Insurance to experience a job shadow tour and learn how to interview.
They receive a $750 stipend at the end of the 12-week program, but Kraai sees a change in their self-confidence, attitude and view of work. Many come from families who are struggling or have parents who don’t work.
“They have no idea work can be a gift and something that’s fun,” he says. “You can definitely tell as the summer progresses they are proud of what they’ve done or when someone says ‘this is really good food.’ They can smile and say ‘I worked all summer to make that happen.’”
They also have a celebration dinner at Graydon’s Crossing
, a local restaurant a few blocks from the farm. The restaurant’s owners are shareholders and featured the farm’s produce in two, five-course farm-to-table dinners in 2013, as well as use it in their meatless Monday special, Kraai said.
Greer, 19, is a good example of how the student employment program is making a difference for the lives of young people in the neighborhood. Greer met Kraai through church and walks to the farm.
When Greer started three years ago, it was her first job after dropping out of high school. She later decided to go back and graduated in 2013. Having her diploma and work experience helped her get a job at the Meijer deli.
She now works part time at both the farm and Meijer and is considering going to college or becoming a certified nursing assistant.
“I like it. I like weeding,” Greer said. “It’s a neighborhood thing. It’s a community thing.”
You can stay connected with New City Urban Farm through their Facebook
Marla R. Miller is a social activist, entrepreneur and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids. Learn more about her background and work at marlarmiller.com