Blog: Kari M. Smith

The return to local farming in urbanized areas is a page back in the history books, but lessons can't all be taught in the classroom. Green Diva Farms owner Kari Smith, who daylights as a historic review technician for the city of Detroit, talks about the barter system and how her farm stands up against flooding and hoop house vandalism.

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.