Blog: Kari M. Smith

Kari Smith is the owner of Green Diva Farms, a no-spray operation, and also works for the Detroit Planning and Development Department as a historic review technician, preserving Detroit buildings and helping with urban agriculture in the city.

Kari graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, evacuating the day before the storm. After six months in Savannah, Georgia, she returned home to Michigan and started graduate school at Eastern Michigan University. She bought Green Diva Farms at the beginning of her graduate program, which she completed in December 2011 with a masters of science in historic preservation.

Initially Kari had envisioned running the farm until her schooling was over, but due to popular response to her flowers and produce she decided to keep it going. Green Diva Farms is now in the process of moving a secondary market farm and hoop house into the city of Detroit. Currently Green Diva is located in Belleville, Michigan and serves the Ypsilanti Farmers Markets, the People's Food Co-op, and has full- and half-share CSA options available. Contact Kari at kmsmith2@loyno.edu or smithk@detroitmi.gov.
Kari M. Smith - Most Recent Posts:

Why Be a Small Farmer in Southeast Michigan?

So what is it like to be a small farmer in Southeast Michigan?? It is tough and rewarding. It is more common for people to choose organically grown foods now than ever before, but the percentage is still low. Many people are on a budget and buying the least expensive food possible. This puts small farmers using organic growing practices at a loss. It costs more to produce organic foods, therefore they have to sell for a higher price, but if no one buys them the farmer is at a total loss. Understanding the importance of organic foods and the effect they have on health is often one way to express the importance of high quality produce.

Organic gardening has always been part of my life. From a young child I would help my mother in the garden, where she would teach me about the plants, and vegetables and the health benefits associated with them. My parents were late-blooming hippies, or hippies of the late 70s and early 80s. We were the first family I knew that were vegetarians, and were constantly made fun of in school for our avocado on rice cake sandwiches and hand grown peppers with tahini dip.

Growing up with this background gave me a feeling of devotion to the earth, which I acted on by growing healthy foods, plants and flowers. I never went to school for farming, but rather learned from the professionals, older farmers with the know how to be successful. Green Diva Farms grew out of a desire to provide healthy, no-spray, organically grown foods to communities that have limited access to them. The main target for the farm is Ypsilanti and Detroit. The farm was originally intended to be temporary, (through graduate school) but has proved successful and continues to thrive. It has to compete for my time though, as I have another life as a historic preservationist in Detroit.

Many people understand the value of organic produce but only want the cheapest option. So how to bridge the gap? This has been the tough part. I find that providing educational tools, photos of the farm, and allowing taste testing to happen have all helped. "Try this cherry tomato; it is called a sunburst because it tastes like summer sunshine." Yes, I have had to become a salesman of sorts, but I believe in the quality of Green Diva's organically grown produce so I feel good about connecting with my internal salesman.

Another positive way to bridge the gap is through providing a variety of products. Adding variety, color and lively display to the market table is also effective.  I grow flowers, make organic treats, sell handmade crafts, create bouquets, and sell them along with my produce. The outlets for our products include the Ypsilanti Downtown and Depot Town markets, CSA, and the People's Food Co-op. Green Diva is currently in the midst of finding a good spot to start a secondary location in Detroit. Our CSA is open to Detroiters in the meantime.  

Everyone who is involved in the current state of the economy of Michigan can attest to the fact that times are tough. This includes small farmers, who have a crucial role in building community, as well as a constant fight to sustain themselves and their farms while providing local, healthy foods. Green Diva Farms knows that many people are interested in where their food comes from and the health benefits involved. Educational tools can be used to help guide people to food sources that can benefit the community, and their own personal health. Growing Hope has held many classes introducing foods and the health benefits of certain foods. These types of classes and the double-up food buck program for food assistance recipients encourage healthy lifestyles and provide knowledge.

The rewarding aspects of being a small farmer may be individual. For me, they involve being part of an important movement and helping people find healthier produce. Picking and growing flowers creates beauty, which I feel is very important. I always try to have fresh flowers in my house, and want others to enjoy them as well. I put endless time and energy into flower bouquets. When people are suffering, as many in southeast Michigan are, bringing beauty into their lives can be very impactful.


The Struggles of a Michigan Small Farmer

Although having a small farm does have appeal and many positive attributes, I have to be honest, being a small farmer in America is filled with trials. Since beginning Green Diva Farms, many obstacles have threatened the profitability and survival of the farm. Before diving into a business of this type, everyone should know both sides of the story.

The beginning of the farm was interesting. It began as a small extra income development to help pay for graduate school, or at least to help my son and me to survive until graduate school was completed. The first year, we were just learning. I never took out any small business loans or had financial backing for the farm. All money was paid out of my pocket and on good faith. I bought seeds, starts, compost, and hay and went to work. I had help, various friends and urban youth looking for work. I paid mostly in veggies, except the teenagers, who are less impressed in payment via organic vegetables.

We picked flowers, grew small crops and went to market every Tuesday. The benefit of market vending is the people and connections you make with other farmers and crafters. Bartering is commonplace and the archaic system of trading is still very much alive in this setting. I bartered for bread, cheese, jam, pasta and soap. This helped my son and I survive in a harsh economy. We eat mostly what we grew and what we bartered for. This sounds really attractive to some people but it was a period of stress. We soon grew tired of the various preparations of kale and rice. Still we survived and it built in both of us character and strength. We were farming for survival.

The second year we were offered a chance to apply for a hoop house loan and jumped on the opportunity to finance a season extender and move forward in growth. Initially this seemed like a good way to create more revenue and be able to sustain our own need for sustenance. We set up in the fall, too late to grow but looking forward to the spring plantings. As all farmers know, last year we sustained the largest amount of rain in 100 years. We planted 500 snap peas and other seeds which were completely flooded out. Our hoop flooded as did half of our workable field space. We thought seriously about growing rice, and were unable to plant. I had hired a full-time farmhand and his wife. They were live-in workers with nothing to do and no income coming in. This hit our household hard. The flowers still bloomed and we sold to People's Food Co-op and to the market. I could see many farmers suffering, with dark circles under their eyes and looks of desperation when we talked about our flooded acres.

We had also begun a CSA that year and we had 20 members to serve. Luckily I had teamed with other farmers and we were able to fill the boxes with the little we had. This left a small amount to sell and barter at market. I was in the midst of a difficult semester of graduate school and found myself often tense and over burdened with stress.

The rains eventually stopped and we were able to pull off some field crops and continue with the market and the CSA, although the hoop house remained unused. The payments were delayed due to the lack of use we were able to get from the hoop house. We were farming more of the acres, but the full-time farmhands had by this time left, searching for a more sustainable wage, understandably.
 
Through all of this we still remained true to our growing practices. Using heirloom crops and seed savers organic seeds, we never faltered. Luckily for us we have a devoted following who bought exclusively from us. Our incredible mixed greens and arugula were successful sellers and our flowers, always a hit. As the season continued, things got better. Our tomatoes were beautiful and plentiful. We sold to a local restaurant and our CSA grew with a discounted mid-season option. Our customers were always happy, which is the most important element to us but the season on a whole was very difficult and limited in economic revenue. We were able to sell vegetables to the People's Food Coop, which was very helpful and sold well.

The third year is also tough; our hoop house was vandalized by some local destructive types who decided to slash it with knife blades, with their initials and various words. As this happened recently we are still wondering what the best move is for recovery. Do we continue? Do we hang it up? Is this really worth it? The issue is that we believe in providing healthy food to our community, but small farmers will never survive without support. It is difficult moving forward not to be disheartened.

We thought about closing shop, but the only way I feel comfortable is to give it one more shot. I do not give up easily and have faith in hard work and dedication. I have the help and support of other small farmers, especially Mike Smith and SolaRefuge Farm. Community is the only way to lift small farmers up. They are fighting the elements, the economy and forces out of their control. I have a great respect and admiration for all the small farmers fighting this fight.
 

Using Dollars to Support Community Instead of Corporation

The smallest purchase makes a difference. When shopping, it can be easy to forget this aspect, but literally every dollar can be used in support of community instead of corporation. This country was built on small business and opportunity. Trading products and services was part of what made this country a hub for independent business and individuality. Shopping at one store can be very tempting; not thinking about where food is coming from can also be the easy way out. While the working class poor are struggling working for limited means, the price can also be an issue.  

I understand these issues very well. There are ways of saving money, eating healthy and saving time while supporting local economy. Farmers markets, especially those in a smaller community, tend to have easy parking, lower prices and support small local farmers/craftspeople. Why though? Why buy from local growers and what difference does it make? They are your neighbors, children of your neighbors, part of your community. They are struggling and care about the product they are growing. Their life and soul are put into the products they are growing. If you are looking for organically grown or no-spray crops, the local farmers will be honest about the food production. The price of organic produce is lower than at large specialty retail stores and you can be assured that they are not just "deemed" organic but are required by law to be honestly grown. Everyone who is struggling in this economy knows that every dollar counts, every hour worked, every product sold. This is true with small farmers as well, except they are not paid by the hour, they are paid when they sell.

Personally I would rather put my money in the pocket of local producers than corporate or out-of-state/nation entities. This is because I love my community, and I support it. I buy products that are grown in Michigan, beans, soap, bread, dairy, cleaning supplies, because I realize that by doing this I am supporting those in my community and not those across the world. The locavore movement is central to the revitalization of Michigan. If we come together in this economy there are many who will stay in Michigan and local healthy products will continue to be available. If not, there is no telling if we can depend on having that option.

So support local, no matter what business it may be. Some ideas are McClure's Pickles, Brinery Fermented Foods, Eden Foods, Avalon Bread and many local farms like SolaRefuge, Bridgewater Barns, and Green Diva. Thank you for taking the time to create change.

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