Phoenix Community Farm rises to combat food insecurity in Midland County

Phoenix Community Farm very literally grew from the ashes.

Founder Beth De Vries chose to leave her career as a nurse practitioner to return to her roots. Growing up, she learned gardening from her family and neighbors, and she wanted to pass that knowledge on to her four children. 

De Vries started a garden at her children’s school and soon became involved in Midland Fresh—that’s when she learned about food insecurity in Midland. About three in five ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families face food insecurity. 

Beth DeVries is the founder of Phoenix Community Farm.
“When I think about hunger, I think about distant places,” says De Vries. “Then I learned it was a problem right here.”

And then, her friend’s house burned down.

“It was really tragic,” says De Vries. “They didn’t want to move back in or rebuild on that property, but they also didn’t want to get rid of it. That’s when the opportunity came for us to start Phoenix Community Farm.”

De Vries rented the space to garden recreationally until an acre of land opened up beside Windover High School at 919 Smith Rd. That’s when she got the idea to grow something bigger. 

Trang Betts is neighbors with Beth De Vries, founder of Phoenix Community Farm. Betts and her son regularly volunteer at the farm.
Phoenix Community Farm was founded in 2018 with a mission to feed the community. “I could not imagine my neighbors being without access to healthy food, and I wanted to be part of the solution,” says De Vries. The following year, it was established as a nonprofit.

Since its founding, the farm has donated 21,054 pounds of produce to those in need in the community. 
Phoenix Community Farm has two “Pay what you can” produce stands: One at 919 Smith Rd. and one at 6220 Jefferson Ave.
Patrons can select fresh produce from their “Pay what you can” produce stand at Windover High School, stocked weekly on Tuesdays at 6:00 p.m. Just this year, Phoenix Community Farm has teamed up with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland to offer another produce stand at 6220 Jefferson Ave. They also donate to Midland Fresh Mobile Farmstand and Hidden Harvest. 

The produce stands are stocked with a variety of crops. This year, the farm is growing lettuce, radishes, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, squashes, melons, asparagus, rhubarb, herbs, and more. A farmer in Freeland who shares De Vries’s mission donates his corn crop. They also grow flowers to sell as bouquets at the Midland Area Farmers Market to help support the cost of food donations. 

More than strictly providing food, De Vries strives to nurture a sense of community. 

In collaboration with Creative 360, Phoenix Community Farm led free gardening education classes. The farm also occasionally hosts a story hour, coming up on July 13 and Aug. 10 at 10:00 a.m. They even host teen nights at the farm, coming up on July 13 and Aug. 9 from 6:30-8 p.m.   

Feeding Midland takes a community

Taking care of plants is a lot of work. Predominantly volunteer-run, Phoenix Community Farm is true to its name. Volunteer shifts are posted, but De Vries takes a more relaxed approach to managing volunteers. She allows them to come and go as they please during the allotted time and only offers as much supervision as a volunteer desires. 
Volunteers help to manage the produce stands.
“Allowing the volunteers to chit-chat and not feel pressured, I think that is really helpful [in maintaining volunteers],” says De Vries. “It’s just supposed to be fun, and if they get something done, that’s great.”

This summer, volunteer hours are Mondays and Thursdays from 9-11:00 a.m. and Tuesdays from 6-8:00 p.m. No gardening experience is necessary–just show up at the farm’s location at 919 Smith Rd. in Midland next to Windover High School. 

While volunteers appreciate the flexibility, De Vries does rely on three staff to make sure vital tasks are completed.  She’s one of two part-time staff members plus Phoenix employs one full-timer.
Anna Swartz works part-time at Phoenix.
Anna Swartz started with Phoenix Community Farm as a volunteer. Now, she has her master gardener certification and works as a part-time staffer.

“It’s like a community here,” says Swartz. “It’s also very laid back. There can be a lot of stress with farming and gardening, but it’s a real joy to come and not feel like there are all these things I have to get done each night. I’m supposed to have a good time, and that was very eye-opening.”

Culinary students at the high school pitch in, too. They did a “seed to stomach” experience where they planted their seeds in March and cared for them until they were ready for harvest in May. The students were then given the opportunity to prepare the food they grew.  

“That was really beneficial for the students who have never done anything like that before,” says De Vries. One of her most rewarding experiences was seeing the culinary students excited about brussels sprouts. “They were so excited. Teenage boys, at least in my experience, never get excited or show much emotion. But they were like, ‘Chef, chef, chef! Can we change the vegetable for today? We want brussels sprouts in our lunch.’”

This summer, volunteer hours are Mondays and Thursdays from 9-11:00 a.m. and Tuesdays from 6-8:00 p.m.
Even though De Vries grew up with gardening and now teaches others, she admits she has a lot to learn. 

“I think I’ve read every gardening book at the library,” De Vries says, laughing. “I talk to a lot of other people who grow, like my great uncle. He does a market farm out in Grant, Michigan.” This year, De Vries was able to hire a farm consultant with nine years of organic market farm experience and upgraded to an online growing management system, Tend

Numerous community organizations and foundations have also donated to Phoenix Community Farm to support its mission. For the business side of things, De Vries relied on community foundations and board members for their expertise.
“I really thought I was going to do the stay-at-home mom thing, but I’m not very good at that.”
“I had zero nonprofit experience,” says De Vries. “Alysia Christy at the Midland Area Community Foundation has been really great at answering my questions. She also got me hooked up with Catchafire.” De Vries was able to recruit talented volunteers via Catchafire to write a fund development plan and a strategic plan. 

Since founding Phoenix Community Farm, De Vries has noticed a shift in her life. “I’ve connected more with the community. I really thought I was going to do the stay-at-home mom thing, but I’m not very good at that,” she says, laughing. “It’s changed my family too because they see a whole new way to be involved.”

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Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.