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Saginaw and Flint: Shrinking Cities, Expanding Communities

Urban gardeners, nearby farmers grow new, local food economy

November 14, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Bakari McClendon leads a neighborhood group in Saginaw that uses urban gardening to improve the area—and local folks’ diets.

SAGINAW—It was the sound of demolition: boards cracking, glass crashing, heavy-duty engines rumbling.

It was constantly in the background this summer, says Bakari McClendon, president of the Houghton Jones Neighborhood Association, a community group from downtown Saginaw's east side. With $17.4 million in federal stimulus money, Saginaw is working to clear blighted properties that are dangerous and troublesome for people still living in once-busy neighborhoods like Houghton Jones.

"It's a blessing because a lot of properties have been vacant, a lot are blighted, and they have been for years," he said.

But with it comes another challenge for cash-strapped cities like Saginaw: Maintaining those vacant lots so that tall grass and weeds don't cause more hazards, such as snake dens or drug hideouts. Mr. McClendon says the city is doing its best, but it simply doesn't have the resources to manage great expanses of vacant land.

Saginaw and neighboring Flint, like Detroit, are among the nation's "shrinking cities." These once-thriving urban areas lost as much as half of their residents and businesses, and corresponding tax receipts, since the 1960s. The first big drain was suburban sprawl. The final pull of the plug came from the economic devastation of losing large manufacturing employers, like General Motors.

A powerful solution is growing, however, amidst these 20th century urban ruins. That solution is in 21st-century food and farming, in how city and county residents are picking up the pieces and re-making Saginaw and Flint's fortunes on the eternally reliable basis of good soil and the many fruits of tending it.

Urban gardening, and the capacity it builds among neighbors as they work and celebrate together, has emerged as a particularly valuable asset and a new consideration for shrinking cities. Home and neighborhood food producers are taking care of vacant lots while also building self-reliance and entrepreneurship through gardening projects that connect neighbors, empower youth, and build job and business opportunities.

"One solution is community gardening," Mr. McClendon said. "We would like to continue the dialog about the real possibilities of public funding to create jobs and give young people meaningful work producing healthy food for their communities and their families."

In both cities that dialog and support has begun, primarily through county "land bank" authorities that gain clear title to abandoned properties and make them available to people in neighborhoods for community gardening. The Genesee County Land Bank, in particular, has a proactive approach that includes support to community gardeners in the form of tools, training, and other outreach.

The movement in Genesee County has spurred the development of a collaborative group, called Edible Flint, that is basically a roundtable of people and organizations, like the Land Bank, working together to build neighborhood capacity for food production and land maintenance.

Good Food’s Frontlines
Urban gardening is also the leading edge of a new regional food market that's beginning to show itself in greater Saginaw, Flint, Detroit and other areas of Michigan and the country.

It's the leading edge because urban gardeners in poor, abandoned neighborhoods are literally stepping into territory where many local farms, despite the sales potential, fear to tread.

Local agriculture around Flint and Saginaw is heavily weighted toward commodities like corn and soybeans that mostly become industrial and food processing ingredients, like high fructose corn syrup. Even with federal subsidy, which 31 percent of the county's farmers receive, nearly two-thirds lost money in 2007, according to researcher Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center in Minnesota.

Yet if the county's farms focused instead on selling produce in the region, they could make $2,800 more per acre raising fruit and $4,700 more per acre raising vegetables, according to a Michigan State University assessment of Flint and Genesee County's food production and consumption. 

The problem is, producing and marketing fruits and vegetables is much different than raising row crops. Shifting local production, as well as local consumption will be a long-term process. Area residents need to eat twice as much produce, for example, to reach recommended amounts.

But it's starting now in the Houghton Jones Neighborhood Association and dozens more organized efforts in Flint and Saginaw to clean up lots and build personal, community, and economic health and welfare through gardening and local food marketing. At the same time, some of the region's innovative farms are getting involved, too, both as teachers and as suppliers. Sales at area farmer's market sales are growing, and schools are beginning to buy from local farms, as well.

Less Field Corn, More Okra?
The biggest challenge is fields full of feed corn not sweet corn or other table crops, like tomatoes and cucumbers.

"The issue with the Flint-area food system is production; we just don't have the right mix of products (e.g. fruit and vegetables) coming out of the ground," said Stephen Arellano, program officer with the Ruth Mott Foundation, which supports many food and farm initiatives in the area. "Therefore, we are training urban homesteaders to do this and we need to incentivize farmers to get into it."

The sales opportunity is there. The MSU assessment found that, just serving Flint's Genesee County, local food producers could sell $21 million in fruits and vegetables annually if local residents ate recommended amounts, or about twice what they do now. Currently Genesee County's farms market less than half that much produce. And most, if not all of that produce moves to outside markets, to makers of juices, pies, and soup mixes, etc., not to local produce buyers.

Another study on Midwest metropolitan markets by Iowa State University posits that just selling local fresh produce to nearby cities during the growing season, even at current consumption rates, could add up to significant dollars. The study found that farms in the three counties around Flint and Saginaw—Genesee, Saginaw, and Shiawassee—could gain a $20 million share of the region's large metropolitan market for fresh seasonal produce.

A big part of seizing this opportunity is growing things people want to buy. Okra is an item that no one's growing, even at the farmers market, said Houghton Jones' McClendon. That's another place where urban gardeners, on the front line of regional food-system building, are showing the way.

Rural and Urban Farmers Connect
Westwind Milling, in Linden, about 20 miles south of Flint, is one local farm-based business that is succeeding by responding to new market demand.

Owners Linda and Lee Purdy make specialty stone-milled flour products from organic wheat they raise on their own farm and buy from about 15 other innovative grain producers in Michigan. That business direction grew out of challenges that the Purdys, like other commodity crop growers in the region, face in large and low-paying global markets.

Going organic and adding value to their grains by milling it proved to be two big steps toward personal and financial health for the family. They bought an historic mill, now 175 years old, for their milling business "out of a certain amount of desperation," Lee Purdy said. "We were determined to keep our family land in farming; a small farmer just can't do that on corn and soybeans alone."

The Purdy's see urban youth as the leading edge of the new agriculture, which requires a break from old established ways and a focus on healthy, local, meaningful food. They have set up test plots of wheat with Flint's urban farmers so they can get to know the organic grains business, too.

"We do it so the kids can take part and see the end product," Lee Purdy said. "We will grind their wheat and send the flour back to them so they can take it and sell it."

Jake Kohn also sees nearby cities like Flint and Saginaw as the source of new customers and new business colleagues for his family's Almar Orchards organic apple business. West of Flint about 13 miles, Almar Orchards is busy with retail customers, shipping organic apples far and wide, and making apple cider, including its J.K. Scrumpy's Farmhouse Organic hard cider sold throughout the country.

Soon to graduate from college, Jake Kohn is the third generation involved. He believes sales to nearby cities will become a big factor for Almar Orchards in the future because of the increasing interest in local tastes and the decreasing reliability of so many modern agricultural inputs, such as low-priced oil.

To build the farm's bottom line in such times, the family has reintroduced pigs to its orchards, for example, for the many cost savings that older farms always knew about, from fertilizer to pest fighting and more. The pigs also make for another side business: Selling pork.

"The city and the country are coming together," Jake Kohn said of the products and people that are starting to make the region's economy hum again. Food and farming are the connectors, he said.

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute's Food and Farming program in 1998. She now operates her own local food and economics consulting company. RegionalFoodSolutions.com, where this article was first published. Reach her at patty@regionalfoodsolutions.com.

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