Thriving on the edge: Agricultural innovation in Ypsilanti

In the school of agricultural thought known as permaculture, a design principle called "edge effect" states that there's a greater diversity of life in the area where two ecosystems overlap than in either region alone.

Perhaps no city in southeast Michigan offers a better example of this principle than Ypsilanti, a city where the rural has begun to overlap with the urban to yield an exciting new spectrum of innovative agricultural initiatives.

Ypsi may have no overarching history of farming or land stewardship, but history is what you make it. As creative, compassionate, and health-conscious agricultural innovators have taken root, the city traditionally associated with cars, bombers, and sturdy underwear has forged a new path.

Ypsi mayor Amanda Edmonds has been at the cutting edge of that movement since she founded an educational garden at Ypsi's Perry Child Development Center in 1999. That project evolved into the nonprofit Growing Hope, whose initiatives today include maintaining a 1.4-acre urban farm, offering educational gardening workshops, and managing Ypsi's farmers' markets. Edmonds, the executive director of Growing Hope, sees Ypsi as the perfect place to foster economic development through local food systems.

Edmonds cites the optimal balance of population mass and agricultural activity as key factors in creating an environment that more closely resembles the model of the nineteenth century than the twentieth. She notes that Ypsi is in the process of "trying to connect the dots" between local food producers and local distributors. There are some established models for that already, like the Ypsilanti Food Co-Op and Ypsi's farmers' markets, as well as newer experiments like the Hope Clinic's free produce store for the underprivileged.

"If we’re trying to re-localize, we have to figure out how to do things when you have an urban or rural grower or product producer who has only a certain quantity," Edmonds says. "When we have a system that has evolved into something where only large producers can only sell to very large distributors, we’ve got to figure out new systems."

And from an environmental standpoint, Ypsi is the perfect place to do so. Jesse Tack is the founder of Abundant Michigan, Permaculture Ypsilanti (AMPY), which offers educational workshops and other resources related to the sustainability-focused practice of permaculture. Though personal developments have compelled Tack to temporarily shift his focus away from AMPY, he remains steadfast in his dedication to promoting the practice of permaculture, and sees our region of the country as an especially fertile landscape for doing so.

Tack says a diverse bounty of crops can be grown in our area thanks to both the fact that Michigan is surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, and that our relatively temperate climate protects us from destructive natural events like hurricanes and typhoons.

In short, Ypsi (and southeast Michigan in general) offers an especially attractive proving ground for agricultural experimentation.

"If climate change continues to make things chaotic we can even potentially grow sub-tropical plants as well as much hardier ones," Tack says. "A lot of permaculture people are really advocating growing plants that may be a sector or two out of their natural growing zones. They may die, but if you keep going you may find a species that can tolerate a bit more of a cold snap. Who knows? We may be growing avocados in Michigan at some point."

Connected to community
Beyond mere food production, Ypsi's agricultural scene is defined by many citizens' growing efforts to invest in their own communities. From large-scale efforts like Growing Hope to smaller ones like AMPY, Ypsilanti-based agriculturalists are thinking differently both about farming concepts and the relationships between farmers and their communities.

For another example, see Ypsilanti Township's Dawn Farm, a 64-acre addiction treatment center and working farm. Last year Dawn Farm garden master Grace Yoder and Dawn Farm volunteer C. Milton Dixon established a new nonprofit called the Cooperative at Dawn Farm, which aims to maximize community use of the farm.

As for any new initiative, the cooperative's journey so far has been rife with challenges. But in its first year alone the cooperative has built four hoop houses on Dawn Farm's property for community use, thanks to a $10,000 grant from Lucky's Market. Along the way the cooperative has attracted numerous Ypsi agricultural innovators who have used the farm's property for a variety of projects – like sheep farmer Yuko Frazier, who contracts her sheep out as natural "landscapers" through her business, Project Mow.

"Her first job was on Forest and Hemphill right downtown. People were just walking their dogs and there is this flock of sheep in the neighborhood," Yoder chuckles.

Yoder started at Dawn Farm six years ago, after she began an urban farming endeavor in downtown Ypsilanti. She says the sight of household gardens cropping up around her neighborhood gives her hope that Ypsilanti residents have begun to take their health into their own hands.

That community will be key to the future too, according to Dixon. Unlike Yoder, who tends toward the positive when predicting the future of Ypsi agriculture, Dixon has a somewhat darker take.

"I have concerns about energy," he says. "Peak oil and all that mess. At some point you’re going to have to eat what you can walk to, or what someone can bring to you. I think that creates a lot of opportunity for farmers, even in the darkness or scariness of it. I think it’s a way to really reconnect to where we are."

Dixon suggests that more and more Ypsi residents may be getting involved in agriculture out of a desire to make that connection. He raises the question of whether one can really claim to be a part of one's community without a personal investment in the land.

"You have to be in the space, or else you’re not really investing in the space," he says. "You’re not really connected to it, and that connection is important. I think that’s what it means to be human."

Jason Buchanan is a writer, father, and film fanatic living and working in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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