Urban agriculture in Detroit is a hot topic in the media and on social networks. Less talked about, however, are the projects that have quietly grown up in the city's backyard. That's right, a "suburban" farming movement is alive and kicking in southeast Michigan.
Nightshade Army Industries
is one such example of not-quite-urban, not-quite-rural farming in the region. It's a diversified vegetable-growing enterprise located in the Ypsilanti area and run by partners Stefanie Stauffer and Jason Voss. The operation is both a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm -- meaning customers pay an upfront fee and receive food throughout the season -- and a value-added "farm-to-jar" outfit.
"We grow over 60 heirloom varieties each of tomatoes and hot peppers, including many in the Slow Food Ark of Taste
[catalog], and we use our farm products to make fully licensed salsas and hot sauces as well as Cottage Food products that include dried chipotle and smoked paprika, chile powders, infused vinegars, and even ghost chili candy," Stauffer says. "Alongside our value-added products, we have sold our heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, greens, herbs, peppers, and other produce at the Ypsilanti Farmers Markets since the fall of 2010."
Stauffer and Voss grow their crops using a "no-spray, low-till" approach. About a quarter acre in size, the Nightshade Army farm is located in the backyard of their home, which straddles the border of Ypsilanti and Pittsfield townships. In addition to the CSA, the business makes money from markets and bulk orders from friends and family.
Stauffer got her start with a plot at Ypsilanti Frog Island Community Garden and volunteering with farmer Dan Bair at Growing Hope, a nonprofit empowering Ypsi-area communities to grow and eat healthy food. Her expertise later got her a seat on the advisory group for the 2013 Ypsilanti Food Ordinance, which legalized edible landscaping and vacant lot and frontyard gardens.
Besides running Nightshade Army, she's also the program manager for the Tillian Farm Development Center
, a 44-acre incubator farm in Ann Arbor Township run by Michigan Food and Farming Systems. Launched in 2011, it hosts 11 different beginning farmer operations.
"Each of our incubator farmers has a different focus, business plan, and scale," she says.
"This season we will have an apiary and pollinator sanctuary, chickens for eggs and meat, a salad club, 2 vegetable CSAs, and cabbages and hot peppers being grown wholesale for The Brinery, located just 2 miles away at the Washtenaw Food Hub."
In neighboring Oakland County, Trevor Johnson, a graduate of Michigan State University's horticulture department, is hard at work too. He works as the resident farmer at Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield and runs his own microgreens growing operation on the side.
Before this, he established the Good Neighbors community garden in Oak Park and ran several small farms. His current CSA, New Dawn Gardenscapes, runs on a modest table in his Ferndale home's basement. Johnson's plants, a mix of arugula, radish, mustard, basil and other microgreens, are grown in trays with a soilless media and lights. His weekly labor is about two hours, and he grows about 1.5 pounds of microgreens a week, which are delivered to local shops.
All this, of course, is supplemental to his main work at West Bloomfield's Henry Ford Hospital greenhouse
"I run a part of the chef-for-a-day/farmer-for-a-day program, where I engage with kids out in the greenhouse releasing ladybugs and doing seed planting activities, doing tours," he says. "I also do a farmers market."
The hospital's 1,500-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse facility cultivates greens in the winter and basil in the summer using a nutrient film technique process. Tomatoes, beans, herbs are also grown on site, along with a few potted plants.
The hydroponic greenhouse at Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield
Although Johnson does farm there, his main focus is actually education on nutrition and preventative care, including advocating a "5-2-1-0" program: five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, two hours or less of screen time, one hour of exercise, and zero sugar sweetened beverages.
Johnson is active with the Michigan Young Farmers Coalition
and connects with other local farmers via an online listserv that informs subscribers about news and opportunities.
"We are a very open and welcoming community," he says of the regional scene. "Sometimes for the things that make a difference, [farmers] hold their cards close to their chest, but overall people are very open and sharing."
Oakland University is also playing a role in the metro farming movement. For the last five growing seasons, the school has operated a student organic farm
. From its humble beginnings as a student club project, it's grown into a 0.6-acre undertaking with a hoop house and a paid coordinator, an OU alumnus named Jared Hanna.
Inside Oakland University's hoop house
Volunteers grow 68 types of vegetables on site, including 10 tomato varieties.
"We're really right up there in the 'practically miracle' category," says Dr. Fay Hansen, a biology professor who serves as the farm's director.
Dr. Fay Hansen
In 2013, the farm harvested over 9,000 pounds of produce. Seventy percent ended up in the hands of students via a campus farm stand and other distribution methods. The rest was donated to area nonprofits.
The university offers organic farming and permaculture classes linked to the farm, and various departments use it for class projects. The farm facilitates service learning too. In past years, classes and volunteers have offered horticultural training and gardening assistance in Pontiac to the nonprofit Baldwin Center and a Kennedy School program for developmentally disabled adults.
Hansen says the ultimate goal of the farm is to "train the trainers" so that students can find farming jobs or start their own projects and pass their productivity know-how to others.
As for the future of area farming, she thinks the prospects are fertile.
"Oakland County and around us is prime farmland," she says. "The tides are rapidly shifting on our food system. Climate, water, all those things, are coming to bear on the food system and Michigan in general is in a great location to be the beneficiary of these changes."
David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.