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MSU launches partnership for urban agriculture in Detroit

Russ White
Richard Wooten, Naim Edwards, Jeff Dwyer

If you've lived in the Great Lakes state for more than a minute, you've likely heard the saying, as Detroit goes, so goes Michigan. With a population base of more than 700,000, Detroit is also home to nearly 560,000 high-tech jobs, 70,000 of which are in the auto industry.

Over the last decade, investors and businesses have put a lot of money into Detroit to help with the city's resurgence. While these investments have made a big difference downtown, few have focused on the neighborhoods where people live and work. 

Jeff Dwyer:If you've lived in the Great Lakes state for more than a minute, you've likely heard the saying, as Detroit goes, so goes Michigan. With a population base of more than 700,000, Detroit is also home to nearly 560,000 high-tech jobs, 70,000 of which are in the auto industry.

Over the last decade, investors and businesses have put a lot of money into Detroit to help with the city's resurgence. While these investments have made a big difference downtown, few have focused on the neighborhoods where people live and work.

I'm Jeff Dwyer, Director of Michigan State University Extension. Today on Partnerships and Peninsulas, we're going to talk about the MSU Detroit Partnership for Food, Learning and Innovation. It's our attempt to help build up neighborhoods by giving Detroiters the tools they need to help them better their lives through a transformational education process.

My guests today are Richard Wooten, MSU Extension District Coordinator, with responsibilities for Detroit and Wayne County, and Naim Edwards, the MSU Extension educator who manages the partnership facility and programming. Thanks for joining me today gentlemen.

Richard, we want to talk about the Detroit Partnership site today, but tell us a little bit about the work that MSU Extension has done in Detroit for a very long time.

Richard Wooten:As you've indicated, we have been there since 1970. People think we showed up yesterday sometimes, but we've been there a very long time providing a solid program to the city and to all of Wayne County. And actually, we provide a variety of programs across the lifespan. We do everything from youth development, to natural resources, to gardening, to community development.

When we talk about neighborhoods and being engaged in the city, we have really been in those neighborhoods for a long time. We ran a community center for more than 30 years on the east side of Detroit, and we're actually working with the owners of that facility to reopen that facility so that we can continue that legacy and continue to provide programming on the east side of Detroit. And that facility was critical to young people. The individuals who own that facility actually were 4-H kids, and their goal was to continue that legacy. So, they've acquired the facility. They're in the process of doing fundraising. And what we have committed to that group is that if they can get it reopened, we will continue to put programming at that site.

We've been in the city doing a lot of work in terms of urban gardening and urban agriculture. We have supported a lot of those groups like Greening of Detroit. We helped them to develop curriculum that primarily targeted urban populations. We taught some of those classes with our educators. We helped them develop materials and one-time classes.

When we think about the city and we think about some of the challenges the city has seen over those years, Extension has been there providing programs to young people, to adults, and to seniors. We do nutrition education all over the city. We reach more than 25,000 people a year with our nutrition programming. We reach more than 22,000 kids on an annual basis with our youth development programs. And our total impact averages more than 50,000 a year in the county as a whole. We've been there for a long time doing our thing and hopefully making a difference for those people in the city and the county.

Dwyer:Well, I agree, we have a number of really talented, experienced experts in Wayne County and the city of Detroit, and we certainly appreciate your leadership, Richard, in guiding our activities there. Tell me a little bit about the MSU Detroit Partnership site and why we think this is such an exciting next step in our activities in Detroit.

Wooten:This step is approximately a little less than four acres. It's located on the west side of Detroit. And we're really excited about it because we've had individuals who have been talking about this type of facility for a very, very long time. And now kind of the stars aligned, and we've got that opportunity now to create an amazing facility.

We've got research facilities all over the state that focus on different issues. And what's exciting about this facility is that it's going to be an urban facility. It's going to focus on urban agriculture and urban forestry. And to compliment the research that we're hoping would occur on this site, we're also excited that we're going to be providing Extension programming to that community. We've already engaged that community in doing programming. We're already working with some of the community groups, and we're going to continue that effort once the facility's up and operating. And we've made a commitment to that community that we will provide ongoing Extension programming every month.

We have a 20-year agreement with the city. We're excited about that. That shows the commitment of the university and our organization to that community. The community group's excited that we're there, and they're really hoping that this facility turns into a catalyst to kind of stabilize that neighborhood and create an opportunity for additional development. That's what we're really excited about.

Dwyer:Well, and for you and I, that's been our hope too, as we've spent the last couple of years working toward this with our partners at the city of Detroit and many others in the surrounding community. 
Part of that process of being a catalyst, Naim, we're thrilled that not too long ago you joined us at MSU Extension. But you're familiar with this area, and you've certainly done a great deal of work in the Detroit area. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and about the Riverdale, Brightmoor area, the old Holton School site that this sits on, and what you think is so exciting about this opportunity, enough so that you chose to help provide leadership?

Naim Edwards:I was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One thing about life in Detroit is they seem to be very intentional about distinguishing between who's native and born there and who is a transplant or recently moved. It's always important to designate and indicate that I'm not originally from the city, but this is my fourth year in July.

My most recent background, which is often controversial for some MSU folks, is I have a graduate degree from the University of Michigan. And my thesis work focused on how to manage urban gardens to support biodiversity. And upon completing my degree, I moved to Detroit to take the more theoretical approach and have an applied experience and actually take what I learned and make it useful and relevant for the vibrant urban agriculture scene that was already present in the city.

My first three years there, I worked for a non-profit called Voices for Earth Justiceand worked in garden design, environmental education, and interfaith experiences and opportunities to connect not only with people and one another, but to reconnect people to the environment and to nature. I was approaching agriculture and gardening as kind of a silver bullet to addressing economic disparity, creating opportunities for human beings to interact with one another and collaborate, and then also connect to the ground and get their hands dirty and use their bodies, get acquainted with healthier ways to access food.

Gardening was really this mechanism and platform for a ton of different styles of developing the city. And most of my work was done in northwest Detroit less than a mile from where the MSU DP fly, as we call it, will be located. So, I have a good bit of experience just working in that neighborhood with people in Brightmoor, Brightmoor Alliance, Neighbors Building Brightmoor, Residents Restoring Riverdale, and Wellspring to some degree as well. We had been in communication, so I'm pretty familiar with that area.

Dwyer:Well, that's fantastic, and we're certainly thrilled that you've joined us in this effort. Given your extensive background and your knowledge of the area, how does your now being a part of MSU Extension help bring new resources and new opportunity and programming across multiple domains, to that region of Detroit?

Edwards:Yes. Well, MSU is definitely recognized as a powerhouse both in agriculture through the Extension as a land grant university and just as a well-respected school and university throughout Michigan and throughout the country. Any time you have a university with the renowned reputation that MSU has, you're creating a lot of opportunity for funding, for skills, for resources that the school has, and then you want to connect that with what is recognized as some level of disparity and a lack of resources and scarcity in that area.

One of the hopes of the site is to help leverage these resources that MSU has to offer and then connect them with entities and aspects of that community and Detroit at large that really have need. You want to match your greatest gift with your greatest needs, and hopefully we can find that happy balance.

Dwyer:Fantastic. One of the things that's been impressive to me, in fact, Richard, I think one of the first jaunts off campus that I made when I became director of MSU Extension two and a half years ago was to this area, and looking at different sites in the Riverdale, Brightmoor area. But one of the things that really impressed me from that first visit, to the many that I have made since then, is the vibrant community that's there around urban agriculture, but also around the arts and many other things.

Could you talk, Naim, a little bit about how we look to integrate with those partners and really work together to provide resources and opportunity?

Edwards:Yes. It's really important, as you mentioned, to recognize that there are already a lot of assets and people doing great work in the area. A huge part of our collaboration will be taking that time to develop those deep, intimate relationships and really forming trust first and foremost. And then, as we develop the site, I think we've already spent a pretty significant amount of time, some would say, in conversation and communication with the local community. We've been listening to their concerns, their preferences, their demands, and then also recognizing what we already have to offer, as well as potential avenues for funding or programs that we could explore to compliment what the community's preferences are.

There are a ton of non-profit as well as informally recognized entities, religious organizations, mosques, churches, and then non-profits that focus on urban agriculture, food, housing stability, community development. And northwest Detroit is slated to have a lot of development and investment in the coming years as well. We're just helping to connect the dots in a way that's relevant and useful.

Dwyer:That's terrific. Richard, as you said a moment ago, we expect this to be a catalyst for many, many, many things. But let's talk for a minute about the actual site. As you said, it's a four acre site. It's the site of the former Holton Elementary School. And we actually expect to be putting a modest structure there. Let's talk about that a little bit.

Wooten:Yes, the first phase of the project will be approximately a 1,500 square foot facility. And it will be a facility that will have office space for Naim, and there will be a primary classroom, where we can actually start community activities for the community. But we can also deliver the programming that we promised to that community as part of this development.

We said we would start with gardening. We said we would start with youth development. We can do social and emotional health. These are the types of things that we said that we would introduce to that community as soon as that facility was up and operating. And again, as I've indicated, we've actually started some of those programs. We just completed LEGO Robotics with Wellspring. We just completed an organic gardening class in collaboration with some of the groups in that area.

And what I like about the process is if we had conversations with the community, we engaged them. They expected to be a part of the facility, be connected to the facility, have that relationship where the facility is really integrated into the site.

Our overall master plan for that property will include about three to four different buildings, greenhouses, and substantial development. Ideally, we'd have maybe places for people to sit and exercise based on our ability to secure additional funding for that facility.

But we'll start with that initial building, which will primarily be a classroom and some limited office space, which will allow us to start to fulfill our obligation to the city and to the residents in that community.

Dwyer:In addition to that, as we talk about often, one of our jobs as MSU Extension, and certainly as part of a fantastic land grant university, is to take the science and the experience and the expertise of the university out to communities everywhere. This site is also going to include some small research plots and other activities of that sort.

In fact, I remember, Richard, one of our very first meetings we had sent out some of our experts to do some soil testing and they did a number of soil bores. And I remember they got the results and we were sitting in the conference room, you and I and a few others, and Doug Buhler from AgBioResearch and the soil experts just looked at us and said, "You don't want any part of this site. These soils are terrible." Some fill had been used after the school was raised, and it wasn't the best. And it had just been a site that hadn't been attended to from a soil health point of view for a long period of time.

I still remember, this is two years ago now, I still remember that one of the things that made me feel so good about this project, even way back then in the opportunities, was that immediately Doug Buhler, you, and others spoke up and said, "We get that. But that's exactly why we need to do this. Because these are soils that are typical not just in Detroit, but in any urban environment. And if we can help people to say look, there are four different ways that you could choose to deal with soil quality and improving the quality and do the research to find out which one or two of those are best. Just think about the time, the energy, the expense that we can save people." And that's just one example. Learning what are the best things to grow.

I think this is going to be a really exciting opportunity to not just grow vegetables and other sorts of things, but really think about and work with neighbors and community groups who want to develop gardens and even commercial production agriculture in the city to know what the best practices are.

Wooten:Right, and we will have that opportunity to look at things like green infrastructure. How do we address issues of storm water runoff? That's a major issue for the city. Can we create natural environments along the edges of this property that will help address some of those issues that we can use as models for other parts of the city? 

We are really excited about all of the different research opportunities that this facility can create, not just for residents, but for urban issues across the country. We don't really see this as just a city facility. We see this as a national facility focusing on critical research issues that are relevant to communities. And again, that's part of the excitement putting this facility in place.

Dwyer:You know, Richard, that's an excellent point. As you and I have discussed, to our knowledge, this will be the first truly urban agriculture, in part focused facility, run by an organization like MSU Extension attached to a major university. And so I completely agree. I think this is an opportunity for us to be a model for others around the country.

Naim, what are some of your goals for the project, and for your engagement helping us lead this effort?

Edwards:Yeah, and you guys can help me out maybe. When you were speaking about the opinions and insights from the soil borings, I was thinking MSU's mission statement is something like, challenging common problems with uncommon will. And I was thinking that that site in and of itself, as the footprint of a school that was demolished in a neighborhood that has undergone tremendous decline and disinvestment, it's a real opportunity and something to get excited about, and it's a very similar story.

It's kind of like a microcosm of the macrocosm of Detroit. It was like, oh, we took a snapshot of this site, and based on our understanding, we don't think it's worth the challenge, the investment, the undertaking. And a lot of people said the same thing about the city of Detroit. And now, anyone who looks at the city post bankruptcy can tell that it's worth the challenge and it's worth the undertaking. And you know, in your darkest hours you can see the stars.

If you take the site and say this is an opportunity for a restoration, for rehabilitation, for revitalization. We recognize that this is not a low-lying fruit, and we could just harvest that wonderful apple and sell it straight at market. That we need to actually put time, and energy, and care, and love into this space, and then create something that is beautiful. Create something that people want to be a part of, and create something that also challenges that paradigm of, we move into new environments that are pristine, and we work with the wonderful things that are already there, versus we actually go into the places that are dark and of greatest need, to bring light, and to bring healing, and joy, and happiness, and substance to places that were written off.

Some of the ideas in the short term that I have with an ecological background, succession comes to mind. And succession is kind of like you have a rocky or sandy landscape and then your earlier plants get in there and then they create space for mammals, and birds, and other things. I would really like to just at face value start creating beauty on the site with native plants, plants that are already resilient and adapted to dry, poor quality soils. And through the life of those plants, nutrients will start to return and be brought up to the surface, and it will create room and space for other plants to be grown there.

Just through the installation of those plants we can create opportunities for teaching people how to do native plant gardening. And take the stress and need of constantly mowing or investing in a weed wacker or a lawn mower away from that, and that's a huge part of the unattractiveness of blighted areas, is you have these overgrown lots. And a huge part of transforming them is just putting in plants that are attractive and getting rid of the grass and the energy and cost associated with maintaining huge open spaces. And that's also an opportunity for education and conservation. Teaching people how to appreciate and create environments for monarch butterflies and hummingbirds, and then that also allows people in this community to see the native life, and what exists there besides human beings.

I just took a group of students from U of D Mercy, which is an all boys private Catholic school there. In Detroit they probably don't like being called boys. But we were on a tour of the Brightmoor Riverdale area, and I was telling them that to some extent you see a lot of blight and a lot of abandoned homes. But that absence of humans has come with coyotes and foxes and deer and groundhogs and possums and raccoons and sparrows and all kinds of different birds. And on one hand you can juxtapose this lack of human and economic thriving with the beauty of nature and nature's abundance. And a huge part of that site is balancing.

We want to benefit humans. We want to create education opportunities and economic opportunities, but we also want people to learn how to reconnect with the planet. Climate change is a huge issue. Richard mentioned water infrastructure and different ways of not channeling huge amounts of water in our sewage system. The site is really a very localized way to say, "Hey, you have flooding on your street. We're going to show you how to do a rain garden. You have a lot of grass and can't afford a lawn mower. We can show you how to do this one time thing of planting perennial plants on your plot and helping bees. And maybe you could get into bee farming or apiary or using honey."

It's really planting the seeds, if you will, of creating a lot of additional vibrance, resilience, and just bringing those skills, the knowledge and all those things to the community so that they can meet their needs.

Dwyer:It's going to be fun to watch the transformation. Richard, one of our colleagues, Diane Wilson, has worked very closely with us and the community in developing this project, and she leads ArtShare for us. We expect that there will also be opportunities for community art. And one small piece of that, tell us about the sign for this facility.

Wooten:We're engaging a group of young people called the Brightmoor Makers, and that's the group that's designing the sign that we're going to put on that site. And we're excited about that, because when we first met with these kids, they were so excited about working with Michigan State University and they showed us some samples of the types of signs they've created.

We moved forward in terms of getting their group approved through the university to be a vendor. They're pretty close to getting that first sign done. We're having conversations about getting a permit through the city so that we can put the sign on the site. We're hoping that once we get those details taken care of that we may be able to get the sign on site about the same time that the building is arriving at that facility.

What I like about that project, it's creating opportunities for young people to be engaged and to be entrepreneurial. Because one of the things this group does, they create these trikes that they make available to the community, and they sell these as an entrepreneurial activity. This is a very entrepreneurial group, and this is an entrepreneurial activity in terms of creating signs for the different groups, and we're excited to be a part of that. They will develop the signs for that site. We're going to work to get those signs up and on that site.

And again, that's just another example of engaging the assets. What we found, when you look at the city regardless of where you go, there are strong community assets that we can build on in spite of the challenges they've had over the years. And what we want to do is we want to look at those assets, we want to look at those community groups. We want to look at those people who have kind of toughed it out and we want to say, "Okay, how can we work with you? How can we collaborate with you? How can we take advantage of what you already bring so that we can create a greater impact?" And we love it when we are able to do it with young people.

Dwyer:I'm Jeff Dwyer, and I have the privilege of being the Director of Michigan State University Extension. Today, on Partnerships and Peninsulas, we've been talking about the MSU Detroit Partnership for Food, Learning and Innovation, with Naim Edwards and Richard Wooten. 

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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