Flint River Farm brings farming into the city

Flint River Farm is 17 city lots long with greenhouses, orchards and crops standing and thriving where vacant, burned homes and trashy lots ruled the neighborhood just a few years ago.

It's in the heart of Flint, a street over from Saginaw Street, with strip clubs, a liquor store and a closed Bible shop and about midway between Court Street and I-69. While urban gardens like it aren't necessarily new anymore, it is another example of a seed of an idea that can grow into a greater good--and become a thriving business to boot.

Roxanne Adair is one of the founders and the lead farmer at Flint River Farm, which started in 2010 and raises and sells dozens of varieties of heirloom and organic veggies, fruit, herbs and maple syrup. It's farming mixed with outreach and education about fresh, local foods and the benefit of taking a back-to-basics approach to food that can be as easily grown in an urban neighborhood as a rural one.

That Adair, 29, is the farmer in the first place has amazed school kids who learn about what she and organizations such as Edible Flint and FoodCorps do to support, educate and grow urban farms that turn out healthy, fresh foods and naturally rebrand lots, plots and neighborhoods that have seen better days.

"With FoodCorps we work some classroom stuff in the farm-to-school program. We go into elementary schools and middle schools and talk to the kids about vegetables and farming. We'll ask, 'When you hear the word 'farmer', what do you think of?' They'll say, 'old man in overalls.' I'll walk in, they'll say, 'What? You're a young lady, you don't have overalls on.' "Adair says, laughing.  She's ornery, passionate, informed and determined to succeed after surviving battles aplenty with the city.

She spends most of her time keeping up with the demands of a year-round farm that covers two acres and supplies dozens of member families with in-season produce, sells to hundreds of consumers at farmers markets and supplies local restaurants. Other time is spent educating kids and adults, including taking them on urban foraging excursions like one coming up in July. Mulberries, maple syrup, wild black raspberries and more are plentiful citywide.

Like the expectation-defying Adair, the farm itself isn't a storybook picture--though it no doubt has beautified the neighborhood.  Flint River Farm commands Beach Street.  As is the case with so many inner city Flint neighborhoods, this one hasn't conveyed the beauty portrayed in its street name in a long time.

"There's one house on the block and then a couple of side streets with houses," Adair says of the neighborhood surrounding the farm. "Directly across from the farm is a burned-out convenience store that has yet to be demolished. There are a couple of vacant houses on the back of farm. And on the main drag, Saginaw Street, there's a Chinese restaurant, a liquor store, three strip clubs and an abandoned building that used to be the Sunshine Bible Shop that's now vacant."

Her dream is to get some of her fruits and veggies--and recipes--into the liquor store where junk food is a top seller and the only option for empty stomachs. The closest grocery store, she says, is about five miles away and either a long walk or three bus connections for residents of the area, many of them neighbors and friends who have a relationship with Adair and the farm.

"It all depends on who you talk to," Adair says of locals' reactions to a farm in the city.  "Everyone has something different to say. There's, 'What are you thinking?' And there's, 'Oh my gosh, this is awesome!'"

Some neighbors aren't necessarily interested in the larger purpose of the local foods movement or the business side of the farm, but are definitely happy to have the eyesores gone. Even though the farm has improved the neighborhood, getting the farm going was a struggle, mainly due to roadblocks from the city. Still, city ordinance won't let the farm have a store or stand to sell its goods. See this documentary about the beginnings of Flint River Farm and the struggles to adapt modern municipal thinking that excludes food production from economic strategy for more on the political challenges urban farms face.

"The neighbors are like, 'Thank god someone mows the grass,' " says Adair. "They are awesome. We all take care of each other.  I give them food and they watch the farm."

Soon she and the neighbors will start a composting program, where she teaches them how to return old food back to the earth, and in exchange they get a $50 discount for nearly a half-year of fresh foods.

As Adair talks about how she got into urban farming--partly her upbringing just outside Flint's city limits and by "hippie parents who were urban farming before urban farming was cool"--she is having a sandwich during a lunch on the fly and letting her dogs out for a break. There's little time to spare on a hot May day with rain on the way and farm chores of tilling and seeding (using only heirloom, nothing hybrid or modified, with many seed varieties going back to the 1800s) to do.

Adair, a fisheries and wildlife major and eventual biology graduate, got more deeply interested in urban farming after working at a cucumber greenhouse, where hybridization was studied for pickle maker Vlasic.

"It got me thinking about urban and open land differently," she says.

A job as an urban agriculture coordinator for the Genesee County Land Bank hooked her on the potential to combine a new approach to community revitalization with old-fashioned farming. And when the grant for that job ran out about the time she met the farm co-founder Joanna Lehrman, Flint River Farm began to form. Lehrman, who moved here from New York to explore the urban farm frontier of Flint, left in November to work with Edible Flint and other organizations promoting organic farming.

When she left, Adair hired two part-time employees. They and Adair count on an "amazing group of kids, geniuses" from Mott Middle College, an alternative high school, to farm their long, deep plots of land. The students work the farm once a week, every other week.

What comes out of the gardens, orchards and greenhouses are too numerous to mention here. A sampling: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, apples, peaches, cherries, pears, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, four varieties of carrot, three varieties of green beans and beets, four dried beans, four kinds of summer squash, six kinds of winter squash and eight varieties of tomatoes--all heirloom varieties so as to protect the genetic pool of veggies.

The goods are sold to Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA subscribers, who pay $450 to receive in-season produce from June to October. Flint River Farm's bounty is also sold at a farmers market in downtown Flint on Saturdays and at a satellite farm on Mondays.

Because its produce is so fresh and changing seasonally and can be counted on for taste like nothing bought at a grocer, Flint restaurants also serve Flint Rivers Farm's produce.

It sells spinach, cilantro, garlic and maple syrup to the Flint Crepe Co., which purchased almost all the maple syrup tapped this year for its French toast crepe. Hint--maple trees are plentiful in Flint, and tappable.

Table & Tap Urban Barbecue and Tap House has Flint River Farm growing the salad mix and different varieties of green beans on the restaurant's menu.

"You can grow pretty much everything you can possibly imagine," she says.

What's just as amazing, she says, is the array of edible fruits and plants throughout the city, in backyards and driveways, on busy thoroughfares and parks.

In July, Adair will lead an urban foraging tour, showing how the weed in the driveway is a tasty veggie or that the mulberries from much-hated mulberry trees are delicious and high in vitamin C.

"Probably the most common fruit I find in the cities are mulberries. They are everywhere. They are fantastic, just awesome and people are cutting them down. It's a tremendous waste."

Wild black raspberries are another.

"I haven't seen a park in the city of Flint that doesn't have them. They're pokey and thorny and people see them as a nuisance, I get better crops off the wild ones than the ones. I intentionally planted," Adair says.

Lambs quarters, the second most common weed in any agriculture field, is pulled out of flower beds and thrown out, she says, but it tastes just like baby spinach and is higher in nutrition.

"I'm sitting in my driveway and I'm looking at six edible plants," she says.

"We're in a position in our country where people have become so distant as to where our food is from," she says. "A little girl cried when we pulled a carrot from the ground when she was visiting the farm."

But the interest in farming seems to be catching on, she says.

"The one house on the block, Curt the mailman, he grows a garden in his backyard," she says. "I've seen a lot more people planting a lot more flowers and people taking really good care of their yards. It's kind of spawned that healthy neighborhood competition to take care of their houses. I can't take credit, but it's a beautiful thing to see."

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and the Development News Editor for Metromode.
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