Urban farming fuss: Dearborn project exposes challenges of growing local
Detroit Free Press (MI), 2014-09-01
Sept. 01 --What had been open, grassy area in a Dearborn neighborhood park is now marked with hurricane fencing, a locked gate and heaps of rock matter.
On a fraction of the 2.5 acres on the city's west side, one can see some peppers, green vegetables and herbs growing, along with numerous weeds. There are stacks of bricks and wooden pallets. A greenhouse is pocked with holes from rocks people have thrown over the fence.
Started more than four years ago through a lease with the city, this is the Crowley Park Sustainable Organic Farm .
Located in a neighborhood southwest of Michigan Avenue and Telegraph Road , the farm was envisioned as a sustainable source of healthy, eco-friendly food for neighbors and people in need. But lately, it illustrates the challenges of urban agriculture that aren't always obvious from the start.
"They're not really growing much," said Andrew Gertz , 38, a Dearborn resident of 20 years who lives in the neighborhood with his wife and three kids and has been a leading voice on social media calling for change at the site. "It doesn't look like they're doing anything."
To Maureen McIlrath , 48, the garden's coordinator, the dream of a sustainable farm -- complete with apple and peach orchards, grazing goats and domesticated ducks -- remains a lofty ambition.
"I think I was a bit naive as to the amount of labor that goes into farming," she said. "I now have a greater appreciation for where my food comes from and what farmers do."
McIlrath has endured problems with water source, poison ivy, weeds, and, especially, funding and volunteers.
Because of problems setting up a reliable water source this season, she wasn't able to rent out plots behind the fencing as she had previously. In late July, she met with City Council members who told her that marked improvements are needed, or she could lose the site.
The five-year lease with the city, through McIlrath's nonprofit the Going Green Foundation , is up for renewal in April. McIlrath said that in 2010, it was easier to find support for the project aimed at drawing people together, providing education and supporting healthy eating. Five raised plant beds were built.
But now, two large slag heaps at the site have been unmoved for three years. Eventually, they're intended to be part of a paving project. Between two of the plant beds, there's a brick path. Another path has been started, and two other areas remain grass.
Councilman Dave Bazzy said at a discussion with McIlrath this summer that it has been a "very unkempt" area, looking more like a "storage area" than a farm, at times. He's been out to the site regularly, and city staff make daily visits.
Gertz has provided some of the more constructive criticism among the hundreds of Facebook comments neighbors have left on the "Dearborn Residents for Accountability" group, a place people go to voice concerns about the community. A variety of commenters, frequently critical and sarcastic, through most of the summer have attacked McIlrath's credibility and poked fun at the farm's apparent disarray.
McIlrath, who hasn't responded to a number of these posts, has supporters who sometimes speak up for her. She said she's not ready to give up what she says is more than $40,000 of her personal finances and $551,000 in labor contributed by herself and Norman Kaleto , the volunteer farm manager. The latter number, she said, includes the daily work on the farm through the growing season.
McIlrath said she's found time to work on the farm despite the commitments of being a single mother raising two kids, 9 and 21, as well as work as a stand-up comedian and state-registered insurance agent.
Support is key
Experts say community garden and farming projects require substantial planning and support.
Ashley Atkinson is co-director at Keep Growing Detroit, which operates a garden resource network connecting 1,400 gardens and farms in Detroit , Highland Park and Hamtramck . She wasn't familiar with the Dearborn farm, but the challenges she described for urban farming are clearly in play at Crowley Park.
"You really have to know what you're doing or have a support network in order to be successful," she said, adding that "you really have to have the support of the people around you, most importantly the neighbors."
McIlrath said people have thrown dog feces over the fence. Some have cut the fence and sneaked in. She works as an insurance agent and said that the attacks have even stretched to e-mails deriding her to professional contacts -- and she's about to take legal action against a few of them.
Some of the people on Facebook say they love the idea of a local garden, just not what they've seen the past several years at their local park.
Becki Kain , who has lived in the neighborhood more than 10 years, said in an e-mail that she previously offered to donate worms and rain barrels to the project. But she no longer believes it will be viable.
"I was trying to help, but they are not really running a community garden," she said.
At this point, she said she'd like to see the area put to another use. "I'd like to see a dog park where the garden was."
Gertz said neighbors are worried that the sight of the farm at their local park will affect their property values, "and probably for good reason," he said.
"What I read on their website sounds fantastic," Gertz said of McIlrath's organization, the Going Green Foundation . "It's something I would've voted for ... I'm advocating for them to do what they said they were going to do."
He took a tour with McIlrath of the farm in July. McIlrath said she'd expected grants to be more attainable. She continues to apply, is working with a grant-writer and is hoping for at least $140,000 the next three years, she said.
Bazzy, who told McIlrath at the July meeting that the garden became "a problem child" in need of improvements, told the Free Press a month later: "We have seen slight improvements in some areas of housekeeping, as in grass cutting. However, overall, I have not seen the type of progress that I would have expected, after our meeting."
City spokeswoman Mary Laundroche said in an e-mail that the city continues to support the concept of community gardens, as at least two are being operated in the city by neighborhood associations and groups.
"The city continues to actively seek a resolution to the property maintenance concerns that have been raised regarding the Crowley Park garden, as well as to look at all opportunities to make it a successful endeavor," she said. "It is hoped that a decision on the future of Crowley Park will be made by the end of September."
Refusing to renew the lease next spring, or terminating it sooner, are both options city officials are considering to resolve the problems at the site, Laundroche said.
Norman Kaleto , the volunteer farm manager for three years who said he is on disability because of knee problems, said he works there about six hours per day, six days per week. He said a lack of good farming equipment is among the challenges. He also said that in the outdoor plant beds, there are more herbs than weeds.
McIlrath said she believes she's doing a good thing for the city.
"It's just so disappointing that I've got five years of my life tied into something that I think could be a really great project," she said. "I just need more support."
Contact Robert Allen : firstname.lastname@example.org
(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services