Growing Pains

Within months of moving from Santa Fe to Grand Rapids, Sally Triant started a community garden at the Waters House Apartments.

“One of my requirements to survive is I've got to have the opportunity to dig in the soil,” says Triant, a master gardener who has participated in several community gardens. "I love picking my own food to put on my plate. You know where your food comes from, and obviously there are no fossil fuels involved when it travels from your back door to your kitchen."

Gardens meet a real need for beauty, hobby, fresh food in cities. But growing food in the city takes more than soil, water and sunlight. Urban growers need the backing of their cities and communities to make agriculture flourish.

"The first and most important thing is really to have people realize you can have food production take place at a reasonable scale in an urban environment," says Tom Cary, formerly the sustainable agriculture and local food systems coordinator for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

“You’re not going to be able to grow acres of wheat in Grand Rapids, but you can produce high value, high quality crops in an urban environment and be profitable. You can grow a reasonable quantity of food in a 20' by 40' or 50' by 50' area that’s more than enough to feed yourself and perhaps sell to some local restaurants or to neighbors.”

Why Gardens Matter
Sometimes that means changing minds, sometimes it means changing policy. The City of Grand Rapids’ newest zoning ordinance recognizes the potential for urban agriculture. It opens opportunities for community gardens in parks, formalizes the $1 lease for gardens on unused city property, establishes a parking minimum for those sites, and identifies a go-to person at each community garden. It also allows for greenhouses on residential property. Perhaps more importantly, it puts community gardens more formally on the city's radar,

“The hurdle at this point is giving the city officials time to understand this issue because I think right now some people are not sure," says Andy Bowman, planning director for the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council. "Some don’t necessarily see why this is an important issue that matters to residents."

The benefits of gardens of well documented. First and foremost, vegetable gardens produce fresh and organic food. Gardens also provide peple like Sally Triant with recreation and, when her neighbors are digging too, social interaction. And gardens also can help turn underused and unsightly urban properties into more attractive and productive land, accelerating the city's revitalization.

Bowman and representatives from the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council worked with the city's planning and parks and recreation departments on the new zoning law. That process was, he says, a great opportunity to make a place for urban agriculture.

The next step for the city is a community dialogue about green space and sustainability, says planning director Suzanne Schulz. The Green Grand Rapids process, in part, will take a look at the role gardens and farmers markets play in providing fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables for urban residents.

One outcome also could more extensive composting and greenhouses at Butterworth Landfill, an option several city leaders see as an attractive alternative to paying approximately $12 a ton to haul away biodegradable waste, as the city does now.

Getting Down to Business, and Pleasure
Tom Cary, meanwhile, envisions an agriculture renaissance zone – a policy that promotes rooftop greenhouses, old warehouses converted to indoor hydroponic farms, and other operations – all located near food processing facilities and, eventually, the people who will eat it.

“We’re not there yet,” Cary says. “I think one of the things that the state of Michigan and probably many others are looking at is what kinds of businesses are consistent and ongoing in our state that contribute to a modern and more sustainable economic development strategy. If agriculture is critical to our state economy, then what role do cities play in supporting, integrating and fostering those kinds of activities?”

Within a 50-mile radius of Grand Rapids, Cary says, people spend $3-$4 billion a year on food.

“Why don’t we keep that local?” he say. “Why don’t we establish systems that encourage those dollars to stay in our own regional economy? The way we do that is to create more business opportunities around food production and distribution.”

Greenhouses and hoophouses can triple the growing season for some crops and make it possible to grow cold-weather crops year- round. Fresh spinach in January, anyone? And if you like those fresh vegetables, how about fresh eggs? Detroit, Kalamazoo and Chicago all allow residents to keep a limited number of chickens for egg production.

Grand Rapids does not, and even the city’s most hopeful urban farming pioneers aren't talking chickens right now. But it could happen.

"It’s a perception thing," Cary says. "There are some real zoning and planning things that need to happen, but people in general just need to realize that it’s a viable way of life."

Sally Triant kept chickens in New Mexico and says she'd love to have fresh eggs again, though chickens might be a tougher sell for her landlords, even if they are her in-laws.

Still, the garden at Waters House has turned out to be a worthwhile investment for what used to be unused space. The 10 plots are available only to people who live in the apartments, and when Triant’s mother-in-law shows an apartment, she regularly points out the garden as an amenity.

“We have some first-time gardeners, which is fun,” Triant says. “When you rent you rarely have a chance to dig up the earth."

Amy Whitesall is a freelancer who writes regular for Rapid Growth's sister publications Metromode and Concentrate. Her work also appears in Crain's Detroit Business and Michigan Today.


Michael and Sally Triant in front of the community garden they founded at Waters House Apartments (photo courtesy Sally Triant)

The Waters House garden in full bloom in 2006 (photo courtesy Sally Triant)

Tom Cary raises chickens in hoophouses (2)

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
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