When I visited Detroit last month with a group of bloggers and the Franklin Center, we went about visiting various places – businesses and community organizations part of the overall effort to rebuild the city of Detroit.
Urban farming (or urban agriculture) has become big as of late. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
Urban agriculture can reflect varying levels of economic and social development. In the global north it often takes the form of a social movement for sustainable communities, where organic growers, ‘foodies,’ and ‘locavores’ form social networks founded on a shared ethos of nature and community holism.
That’s one way of putting it. Being from New York City myself, I would simply say it’s about people growing their own food. Simple.
We visited the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative which claims to be:
“Using agriculture as a platform to promote education, community, and sustainability.”
We were introduced to Alix Boulard, an intern there from France who proceeded to show us around the farm, what they were growing and more importantly, what they hoped to do or accomplish long term.
Oddly enough it was on this last point, where there didn’t seem to be much clarity.
Alix was very gracious and answered all of the questions given to her as well as she could (I’m not even sure she was told we were going to be there). While many of the questions had to do with the neighborhood and how they acquired the land (the city leases empty lots where houses once stood), when asked about practical application of what they were doing, Alix wasn’t sure how to answer or seemed surprised at the questions.
Somebody asked if they held any workshops to teach people in the community how to grown their own food. The answer was, “No.” Seems kind of strange considering they said part of what they promote is education. Their website says they have workshops, but Alix said, “Everybody is so busy, there’s no time.”
Do they advertise or take their goods to farmers markets to sell. The answer was “No.” Again, it seemed rather strange. They’re growing fruits and vegetables which the last time I checked, are perishable items. Alix said there were times when they had to use the very things they were growing as compost to grow other things.
Alix was finally asked about what was in store for the future? Were there any plans to spin off something that could operate as a for profit business. She said she was not aware of any plans to do that.
As I was being shown around and listening to what people were asking, I kept thinking to myself, “What is the point of this?” It didn’t seem like there was any clear mission, just a hodgepodge of different projects they were engaging in, including the renovation of a house next door to their property that they did not own.
As we were finishing up, we had a few minutes to meet the head of MUFI, Tyson Gersh. He was only asked couple of questions but the answers were rather head-scratching. When asked about the purpose of the organization and why it existed he seemed proud to tell us there really was no purpose. “We don’t even have a mission statement.”
The question about creating a spin off that could be a for profit venture was asked again and he said flat out, “No.” Without even pausing to think about it, he shot down the idea which again, doesn’t make sense in light of what it says on their website about unemployment:
With the current state of Michigan’s economy, a large community of unemployed people exists. These people are not bound by the constraints of 9-to-5 employment and may have more time available to participate in community service projects. Community farming can support a healthy lifestyle, especially in times of limited income.
In fairness, MUFI does donate a lot of the food they grow to the local community, local markets and shelters. So I have to give credit where credit is due.
However, with that being said, I still have to wonder what the overall purpose is.
People don’t (or shouldn’t) start projects just for the sake of starting them.
There should be some end goal in mind. As I was walking away from MUFI, I thought to myself, “I couldn’t support this organization financially, because they don’t seem to know what it is they want to do.”
Many people in Detroit are struggling. While it is great that MUFI gives away a lot of what they grow, that kind of charity can be handled by a bunch of different organizations and businesses. MUFI should do more to bring about change to the city.
One thing that impresses me about Mr. Gersh is his marketing ability. MUFI’s Facebook page has nearly 17,000 likes. He’s been able to recruit an all volunteer workforce and he even made into Business Insider’s list of the 14 people who are changing the face of Detroit.
He should use that influence to make some real change. Continue the non-profit work, but take part of that energy and turn it into a business. Make money (there is nothing wrong with that!), hire people (people want to work not just participate in community service projects) and truly help rebuild the city.