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Fields of Opportunity: Urban farm takes root in forgotten Lansing neighborhood


By Mark Bashore, WKAR



Health experts have alleged for years that so-called "food deserts"---areas with too few stores that stock fresh fruits and vegetables---compromise the health of many American city-dwellers. On Lansing's east side, the city's first urban farm in decades hopes to improve that situation and simultaneously address the area's growing number of vacant properties. As part of our on-going "Reworking Michigan/Fields of Opportunity" series, WKAR's Mark Bashore takes a closer look at "Urbandale" farm.

Largely forgotten, "Urbandale" is a neighborhood of old and increasingly vacant single family houses built nearly a century ago by Lansing's first auto lineworkers. Today---paradoxically---it's also where you'll find Lansing's first urban farm in many years. As Thanksgiving approaches, Urbandale Farm co-founder Linda Anderson is looking back on a productive and adventurous first season:

"We had a few more woodchuck attacks than we would have liked, but for the most part things grew, things sold, neighbors came out, other community volunteers came out and the weather was even pretty good most of the Summer," she says.

Launched last Spring in the middle of a large flood plain, Urbandale's mission is to revitalize the area in two ways: by improving the health of residents by making more fresh fruits and vegetables available and by making use of a growing number of vacant properties. Its first season on a half-acre plot it grew over 25-hundred pounds of produce ranging from string beans and peppers to cilantro and cut flowers. For farm administrators, some with connections to Michigan State University, that's progress in a neighborhood they label a 'food desert.'

It's too early to predict the long-term impact of Urbandale, but most are encouraged after season one. Joan Nelson is the director of the nearby Allen Neighborhood Center, which sells Urbandale produce at its weekly farmers markets. She says the farm is helping move what she calls a "forgotten" neighborhood in the right direction.

"All of a sudden, the existence of this farm---the first farm in Lansing in many, many, many years---has given people some hope and some pride," she says. "I mean, they're the site of a really interesting experiment, in urban agriculture."

Grant money will cover Urbandale's operation for several more years. By then, administrators hope to generate enough business and community support to make it self-sustaining. Meanwhile, Urbandale will be expanding in patchwork fashion as it absorbs other vacant lots. For 90.5/WKAR, I'm Mark Bashore.

Scott Pohl: And Mark joins me now for a little more on Urbandale farm. Hi, Mark.

Mark Bashore: Good morning, Scott.

SP: You say Urbandale's half-acre will be expanding. How will that happen?

MB: One parcel of land at a time. Since the larger Urbandale neighborhood is in a big flood plain, there's a pattern over time of people moving out. For this very reason, the city got FEMA money to buy some of these properties, and I'll let co-founder Linda Anderson take it from here:

"So we entered into Urbandale farm planning, knowing that the city with the FEMA money and with the agreements already in hand from several homeowners who live in that area who say "Yes, I'd like sell my property and move out of the flood zone. We knew there would more land available in the next five years."

MB: All together, they're planning for about a five acre patchwork.

SP: What kind of impact could urban farms have?

MB: It's too early to say, but just last week, Michigan State University unveiled a study that found that in Detroit--another alleged food desert--70% of the city's demand for vegetables and 40% of its demand for fruits could be met by urban farms there. This assumes almost 5,000 acres of currently vacant land be repurposed to agriculture. But those are compelling numbers and if you consider the current fixation on economic development in this state, it could provide momentum for the urban farming movement. I'll also add that one entrepreneur, John Hantz, actually wants to create the world's largest urban farm in Detroit---up to 30-thousand acres. Unfortunately city government there is taking a lot of time sorting out zoning and other issues. Backers are getting frustrated.

MI: Thanks, Mark.

MB: Thank you, Scott.

reWorking Michigan
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan

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