Talking with community members and learning what produce they use is one key to success.
Photo courtesy of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm

by Katie Navarra

A little more than a decade ago, northern Detroit’s commercial district was a food desert. Jerry Ann Hebron kept hearing the same issues emerge in community conversations. Food, housing and jobs always topped the list. There was a lot of vacant land, but no grocery stores. A food pantry distributed processed foods, but people didn’t have access to healthy, nutritious meals.

In 2009, Hebron left a career in real estate to bring her community fresh, local and accessible food through the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. She remembers people thinking the idea was crazy. A decade later, in the midst of a pandemic, the farm and market are still running.

“People can walk to us, they can ride their bike. Some of them get off the bus. It’s very convenient to connect an urban farm to a farmers market inside of a community where people live,” she said. “We use farming as a tool for community development.”

Today, the farm has three and a half acres under production and recently became a community land trust. By dedicating the land to a trust it guarantees the space will remain available for farming in perpetuity to address the needs of the surrounding community.

“We wanted to be a land trust to make sure that the properties that we own remain a part of this community and are influenced by what the community needs are,” she said.

In the final virtual farm tour hosted by the Michigan Farmers Market Association, a statewide member-based nonprofit, Hebron shared insight into the tools and investments that have been made to Oakland Avenue Urban Farm to create a sustainable enterprise while reducing labor inputs.

Increasing efficiencies

By consolidating the majority of the growing to the east side of the street, Hebron was able to create a more contiguous space for production. That made it easier to direct water to the crops that needed it. However, the water supply was from a house and a church, requiring 200 feet of hose.

“Getting the hoses to each area was primarily most of the workday,” she said. “The big thing was how do we get water from this side of the street to that side of the street so that we can water everything.”

That kicked off a two-year development process that started with cutting into the street and running a two-inch pipe. City officials didn’t learn of the project until after it was complete, which didn’t go over well at first. The farm collects data and provides it to the city of Detroit to demonstrate to them that we don’t have a runoff problem.

“We’re actually soaking the ground and it is draining down into the earth so it’s part of the solution,” she said. “The main thing we want to demonstrate to the city folks that urban agriculture is good.”

In 2020, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm unveiled their new irrigation system that will continue their efforts to support production in a limited space while also reducing labor time and creating a more efficient farming system. Another challenge is proving to the city that the farm should receive urban agriculture rates for water, a reduction compared to other businesses. While capturing rainwater is a start, it’s not enough to sustain the farm.

“We’re also looking at our structures and how can we utilize our structures for green roofs,” she said.

Community engagement

Everything is driven by the local culture. Knowing what products your community wants or is interested in is the first step in planning what to produce for the season. Hebron brings together neighbors, customers and members of the community to communicate with each other. It’s a great way to know that you’re producing what they need and that they’ll be back to purchase from you in the future.

Collard greens, turnips, tomatoes, squash, green beans and peas are frequently requested items in the community. What Hebron needed to figure out was providing adequate amounts of water to sustain those plants.

“One of the students from the University of Michigan was able to tell us which plants require a little bit more water than others,” she said. “Having that knowledge kind of helps us in terms of how we manage our crop.”

Consider an alternative workforce

Labor is one of the biggest challenges facing farmers. Without help, it’s impossible to cultivate productive crops. Hebron turned to creative solutions for developing a steady workforce that supports the farm and gives community members a leg-up.

A number of workers live in the neighborhood and gaps of unemployment have made it difficult to find jobs. The farm gives them a chance to get back to work and start rebuilding their resume. The farm also partners with local agricultural schools to provide internships. Hebron has also partnered with the Michigan Department of Corrections to coordinate community service hours.

“You’ve got to think of different ways to get people, to get your labor force and keep your costs down,” Hebron said. “A lot of what we do is hands on, but even with that, we have to work smarter. And that’s what we try and do.”