Setting out this morning on my way to the Flint River Farm with my eight year old daughter Maria I wasn’t worried about finding it. I figured this small urban farm would stick out in the city like well, a small urban farm in the city. The farm website said it was near the intersection of Ann Arbor and Court streets, but driving around the neighborhood, past boarded up buildings and a few enduring businesses we saw nothing. We stopped at the White Horse Tavern, a downtown institution, and the barmaid said she had heard of the farm, but did not know where it was. We asked another neighbor, but nada. She had not even heard of it.
We returned to my mom’s and looked again at the website; it said that the farm was located under and just south of the Court Street bridge. So we set out again, this time with six year old Michael joining us. We drove downtown, parked in the parking lot of the White Horse, and walked on Court Street, over the bridge. South of it was a large field of what looked like bottomed-out bottom land. Mullein and thistle and other plants that like barren land thrived, but nothing was tilled or planted.
I remembered that the site also mentioned a beehive on Beach Street, so we drove south from where Beach begins, looking for a beehive or other sign of farm life. I was about to give up when we rounded a curve and saw a greenhouse and a garden.
We had found it.
Joanna, one of the young farmers, waved when we pulled up and laid down her hoe and came over when we got out of the car.
I introduced myself and we talked a bit. She explained that the plans for the land under the bridge had fallen through and the website had not been updated.
I told her I had read that she was not from Flint and asked her about how she had ended up here. She said she had come from Manhattan to attend Michigan State University for a program in organic agriculture, had gotten interested in urban farming and decided to give it a try in Flint. This plot of land had been leased from the Flint Land Bank for a pittance, and while the city had in many ways helped her, she was hindered by anachronistic zoning laws. She could not, for example, sell produce at her gardens but had to take it to the Farmer’s Market. And she could not keep chickens because of the law. And while what neighbors remained were supportive she recently has had trouble with thieves stealing her produce, which can be devastating to a small operation like hers.
As we were talking a vibrant 50ish black woman with a couple of young girls in the back of her car pulled up. She had grown up in the neighborhood when Flint was thriving and prosperous. She reminisced about her family’s gardens and cherry trees, of how good life had been in those days.
I liked her immediately.
And she began questioning Joanna: How did she get this place? Who did she know? She sounded a little suspicious, as she herself had been trying to lease land for gardens with no luck: “I got thirty chillen who need to work”.
Joanna explained the process, and gave her a contact name at the Land Bank. The woman had another question: “Are you Indian? What is you?” Joanna, who is light brown and lovely, said “I am mixed”, which seemed to satisfy the woman. She said she would pray for the Farm and waved as she drove away.
Joanna and her brother, who was visiting from New York, were hungry and took their leave. My children wanted to look at the bee hive on the northeast corner of the property, and then we walked back to the car and drove home, under a blue sky with white clouds, with a new small hope for Flint and for the world. Just meeting energetic Joanna would have been enough, but the black lady from the old neighborhood, intent on starting her own urban farm?
That was a gift from God.