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233. Agrihoods | Michigan Urban Farming Initiative | Tyson Gersh | Detroit, MI
16th July 2018 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 01:21:14

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The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that seeks to engage members of the Michigan community in sustainable agriculture. Using a agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability, and community, while simultaneously building reducing socioeconomic disparity

We’re a non-profit in the Detroit’s north end neighborhood. We’ve got a 3 acre campus

The work that we do falls into 1 of 3 categories

  • 1st structural quality in the food system by increased act of  locally sourced produce
  • driving innovation through blooming green infrastructure
  • Challenging  the urban development paradigm through piloting this America’s first sustainable Agrihood model.

100% volunteer run

That was a lot of descriptive words in a very short amount of time. What is an agrihood? I did also talk to 3 other amazing rockstar millennials from that area:Tess Burzynski  , Adam Pruett andJamie Todek.

What ‘s an Agrihood?

Agrihood is an emerging residential development strategy that basically is taking a working urban farm and is centering it as the main part of a residential development

There are about 200 of them across the country

  • located in rural or suburban areas
  • likend to the modern golf course
  • often a really beautiful green space

that is often leveraged as an amenity to increase the attractiveness or walkability or property values interesting-ness of a neighborhood. Probably the most famous example is Serenbe in GA if you look across the different Agrihood models fairly high income. So it’s sort of you talk to a lot of urban planners and developers. 

bring up urban agriculture

academics super interested who don’t really understand the industry, in theory it makes a lot of sense but if you look at numbers, it’s not the highest and best use

urban ag isn’t performing really well as far as the performance on the land itself but the impact that it has demonstrated to have on adjacent property values.

It may be an opportunity what  sustainable land use in urban.

So I am going to back up, incase you haven’t understood or missed it, so it’s basically like a mini central park except a farm in the middle of a community. Is it the size of a football field or a track? How big is it visual?

The campus itself is 3 acres

The production farm is one acre

So a typical lot is what a 1/3 of an acre? It seems like there are a lot of houses of it. 

so the campus is not where the housing

a typical lot is 30 feet by 100 feet

We are located on 3 acres, it’s 19 parcels total. Of that 1 acre is production farm and the other 2 acres are our:

  • community center
  • intern house
  • children’s garden

The housing around is part of that Agrihood model but not within the campus itself.

The food that’s grown there do the people come grow the food or who eats it? Do they buy it?

All the food is free for anybody that wants it!

And who grows it? The people who live near there?

its mostly volunteers of the non-profit

people who live near by that are involved.

We have a ton of volunteers

It’s not like a community garden where people come in manage their own plot. The non-profit basically through it’s own resources manages the farm. We harvest everything, basically if you are somebody who wants produce you can come to the farm whenever you want and we’ll do the harvesting for you. You can have as much as you want as we physically have. We do the harvesting and weigh it out. 

Priority is sort of given to area residents but we don’t turn anyone away.

How long has it been there?

6 1/2 years.

Are you the founder? How did you come up with this idea? What’s your story?

Yes, it started very different then it is today.

I was in college, I am now sort of a college drop out and I work 80 hours a week 

When I go through changes like that I say, like when I bought my first real estate investment my realtors license expired so I said I graduated to real estate investor so you could just say you are graduating to an entrepreneur.

Sometimes that works and others I say what am I doing with my life? 

very small scale vision to build a community garden

developed incrementally over time

The housing angle

Is a conflict that we’ve been having with the city here

the Government in Detroit doesn’t like us

It’s such a rabbit hole if I go into the details so I will spare everyone

The city wants to put apartment complexes everywhere, and they don’t really like it when commmuniy groups have control over their neighborhoods

top down culture

we are sort of

our existence

living testament to an alternative route for development

it’s been test

basically we realized our farm and campus was driving a substantial degree of residential development on it’s own. The city is 

actually do you realize has driven 2 million dollars worth of investment

100+ houseing stock that takes a fortune to

You take a typical home that costs $2-400k to rehab it’s value the most you’d get is less then $200k it’s really hard to find a way to get these homes rehabbed because it isn’t incentivized so you have to create these 

novelty markets

We have managed to orchestrate this market that isn’t supported by the market on it’s own.

People are effectively willing to lose money on their homes value because the value of living near something like living near the farm is worth it to them. That’s a really powerful thing. Especially at a time where the role of urban ag is land use and urban framework is 


View urban ag as transitional land use

well do this until there is sufficient development pressure to engage in more traditional development. 

existing urban ag

we might not exist in the future and the powers taht be are banking on that but if we can show that this farm is capable of driving the investment and the land use the city claims it wants can also be used as non-going assets that maintains property values that is a really profound thing!

That is how we ended up where we are today in this existential crisis and lengthy battle that’s still ongoing, the future is uncertain. 

Why are you a non-profit then?

Oh, no. We can pay for the land. We are not being given the opportunity to purchase it. 

Who owns it?

the land that we are on we own just under 1/2 of it

it was a number

we could demonstrate good stewardship, then the administration changed and said 

“oh no we want this land”

There have been a lot of things that have happened, it is basically owned by the Detroit land bank. We have basically been like name your price we will buy it, not because we have the money, but we have built such a support network and we have enough emphasizers who say if you can get the deed we’ll pay for it

but we’re not given the opportunity to do so

1/3 of the land is owned by this quasi governmental isn’t beholden to this democracy city government is. 

Let’s talk about something else because I can talk about controversy theories all day.

Tell us a little about yourself. Tell me about your first gardening experience?

I grew up in Ann Arbor mostly did a lot of gardening with my Mom

Growing up I grew a lot of tomatoes and eggplants with my mom and grandpa

I did landscaping for 7-8 years

Kind of grew up doing it. That’s kind of my gardening background experience.

How did you learn how to garden organically?

It was so long ago with my grandpa, I think he did everything organically, but I can’t say for sure

My mom used miracle grow

The farm itself is organic, that’s just sort of the model we have chosen to take. 

I don’t have this philosophical. I think fertilizers play an important role in supporting a global food system. 

Were developed in a systemic place

We are at a point where industry is adapting to our heightened consumer awareness

We not worried about if we are eating  but what we are eating so that produces better products

the farm itself is organic, the way that we learned how to do it

through trial and error

We spent a lot of time on google

The Johnny’s seed website

just follow the instruction

only products we use on the farm

liquified worm poop

We won a contest where we literally won a metric ton of liquid worm poop

Idk how this came to be has sustained us for the last 3-4 years

A lot of people ask us about our soil quality.

that and water

soil quality

big concern

general public

test all of our soil

our soil is well below the points to plant tubers

Our location is on formally residential land

I read a thing from an engineering firm

basically combating

90% of soil in Detroit is totally fine unless you were on a former industrial site you are gonna be ok. That has been our experience not only was the soil contaminate free but it was super nutrient rich

It sat vacant without a structure on it for 15-20 years, so there was over a decade of natural organic buildup that put us in shape for growing.

Where’s Flint in relation to you?

IDK I’m really bad in geography? I’m good at using certain words to make me which is critical in the non-profit world.

Well don’t worry about because you are pretty well versed in Public Land Management and the Urban Real Estate and Sustainable Ag. I talked to this other Rockstar Millennial Danny Swan from the Ohio Valley and he’s a lot like you doing a similar reclamation project. The similarity ends as far as their soil was not good.

They’re the enemy we have no reason to hate our neighbors, it makes no sense but we grow up trained to hate Michigan people to hate people from Ohio!

Are they doing sunflower reclamation?

They are using compost and anything they can get to help the soil.

Tell us about something that grew well this year.

It’s funny this last year was the most removed I have been removed from the farm itself. I work 80 hours a week and it’s hard to make the admin stuff work. 

This year I was like farm interns make it happen, it was chaotic but it was good!

what grew well

We do really well with collards!

We could turn the whole farm into a whole collard production field and we could not make a dent in the demand! People love them.

If we grow any category we do multiple varieties

model we use is really focused on crop diversity

zones and tracks

if we grow any category

type of crop

were growing

  • 22 varieties of tomatoes
  • 11 varieties of eggplant

come in every size shape and color

first hand experience

expose people to how our food system operates

carrot that is purple IDK this was even a possibility

Let’s talk about the force and kind  and what led you to believe carrots were only orange. Turns into a way to talk about market forces shape.

Why do you grow 11 varieties of tomatoes and eggplant?

What type of space and how many tomato plants

21 plants for each variety

Whatever 22 x 21 is.

462 tomato plants

  • 18″ spacing
  • 2 rows per bed
  • rows were a foot apart
  • stagger them
  • everything is on a trellis system

each bed is 10-12 foot post then we run tomato line. IDK if this is the best way, but what we are doing now.

metal wire between the two posts

net of tomato twine running down

single wires

grew and gained weight they would pull everything down.

now we have created like a matrix, it’s like a net or a mesh system

weight  a...