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Detroit’s Earthworks Urban Farm
By Colleen Crane
Amidst a rundown neighborhood, Capuchin Franciscans are helping their neighbors sow seeds for food and the future.

Q U I C K S C A N

Reconnecting With the Earth
Lending a Hand
More Than Just Gardening
Reaching Future Generations
Reaping the Benefits
Feeding Bodies and Souls

Kayla Evans, a young volunteer with the Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit, harvests vegetables while learning important life lessons in the process.
PHOTO BY JIM WEST

A visitor to Detroit may be discouraged at first glance. There are burned-out buildings and houses that are in such disrepair that they are barely standing. But perhaps the most notable visual are those areas which once held entire neighborhoods and are now vacant. The buildings are gone. The lots now resemble empty fields surrounded by sidewalks and gutters.

In 1997, Capuchin Friar Rick Samyn saw these empty lots and envisioned an urban farm, whose produce would help feed the nearby soup kitchen’s guests nutritious meals. Twelve years later, Earthworks Urban Farm was named one of the top 10 urban farms in the U.S. by Natural Home, a national environmental magazine.

Reconnecting With the Earth

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect example of Franciscan philosophy at work. The Capuchin Soup Kitchen’s Earthworks Urban Farm is a living outreach of the soup kitchen’s philosophy: Rooted in the Franciscan tradition of feeding and nourishing not only the body, but the soul and spirit as well.

A primary goal of Earthworks is to restore the connection to the environment and community in keeping with the tradition of St. Francis. It can be summarized as a working study in social justice, building community beyond race and class lines. The staff of Earthworks believes that all people deserve healthy food. Volunteers work side by side with the Earthworks staff.

The growing season begins in spring at the two urban farms’ greenhouses. In early March, there are over 800 flats of various plants seeded: broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards, lettuce and hot peppers. All go into the germination chamber and get baked at 75 degrees for five days. And like farmers who farm hundreds of acres, the Earthworks staff and volunteers wait for Michigan’s spring temperatures to arrive.

It’s the job of Earthworks’ manager, Patrick Crouch, to keep the countless details moving forward that will eventually grow into three tons of produce. It’s also his job to be patient.

“I tend to schedule things early with the hopes that we will have some really warm days,” he says. “But I almost always have to wait another week or two to plant.”

Crouch wrote in his March 30, 2009, weekly update: “We got the winter mulch cleared off some beds in an attempt to warm them up and dry them out. If the soil warms up enough, we go forth with planting some radishes late next week. I’m thinking of constructing some simple little low tunnels out of scrap plastic to keep them nice and warm. I don’t know if it’s worth it or not, but I’m pretty impatient to plant out in the field. Peas are supposed to go in next week, but again I’m not sure it will be warm enough.”

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When Crouch isn’t watching the weather, he is coordinating the volunteers. Over 250 volunteers serve as the lifeblood of Earthworks, donating more than 2,000 hours of service a year. Neighbors and friends of all ages, incomes and faiths join in the work.

Recently retired Jim Turnbull says his volunteering experience with the Capuchin organization keeps him busy, involved and outside where everyone is happy.

“I was in advertising all my life. I retired prior to the electronic/technical explosion which changed the landscape of advertising. I love to garden and work side by side with these really interesting volunteers.

“The Capuchin monastery is a fixture in Detroit,” Turnbull explains. “It’s a part of the past and very much a part of the present of this challenged city. The Earthworks program is run by urban pioneers—smart, young people who have several degrees and boundless enthusiasm and energy. They run a well-organized ship, and their joint efforts with local citizens are making a difference in Detroit.”

Jim helps primarily in the spring and fall, but volunteers serve in all aspects of the urban farm. From harvesting the apiary’s honey, which produced over 900 pounds of honey in 2008, to saving and breeding seeds that allow open pollination, to picking berries for jam making, to the endless weeding of the three gardens, the volunteers keep the urban farm rolling.

“The volunteers are essential to the Earthworks Urban Farm,” Earthworks staffer Lisa Richter explains. “The staff members work side by side with the volunteers, but it’s our volunteers who make it possible to grow thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the meals at the soup kitchen. They are also working toward a more just food system for everyone. We’re all devoted to making sure all people have access to good, safe food.”

Crouch explains that the Franciscan value of simplicity is core to Earthworks.

“We use everything and we try to be as smart as possible with our farming techniques. We’re lucky. We have quality partners to help us including Michigan State University, Gleaners Food Bank, The Greening of Detroit and The Detroit Agriculture Network. Together we created a collaborative that distributed over 100,000 transplants, 12,000 packets of seeds and over 100 pounds of seed garlic to the community’s families and school gardens in Detroit and the surrounding area.”

Another collaborative effort with the same group taught beekeeping skills to 30 new beekeepers, as well as the development of advanced apiary skills. Crouch explains the importance of the 40-hive apiary.

“As pollinators, bees are responsible for the majority of the food crops we eat and are, therefore, an integral part of the Earthworks community,” he says. “Our apiary promotes biodiversity in our gardens, increases pollination rates, attracts beneficial insects and also provides an important venue for educating our volunteers and friends about the importance of honeybees in our society.”

Education is a core value of Earthworks. Earthworks stresses the need to be more connected with the food we eat. Various methods are used to educate the community in regard to the sustainable relationships between human beings and the earth.

Last year, a blackboard was posted in the kitchen’s dining area which listed the produce being served that day and why it was nutritionally important. Some of the guests got interested in the garden, so garden plots were made available to them.

Greg, a soup kitchen guest, explains, “Gardening is an experience, and I love doing it. I love working in God’s earth; something about me and dirt.”

But it is the children of the area who drive the educational programs. The Earthworks staff is committed to the neighborhood’s children so they are able to obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a food system that maximizes community self-reliance.

Earthworks has two youth programs, starting five-year-olds on an active educational journey that culminates at age 16. The groups meet weekly from February through November, capturing the entire plant-growing cycle.

The Earthworks Urban Farm is a ministry of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Founded in 1929 by Capuchin Fathers Solanus Casey and Herman Buss and the Secular Franciscans, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen is rooted in the Franciscan tradition of feeding and nourishing not only the body, but the soul and spirit as well.

Capuchin Brother Jerry Smith is the director of the kitchen and describes it this way: “The Capuchin Soup Kitchen has been in existence since 1929 and during all these years, we have been trying to meet the needs of the times. Eighty years later, we are continuing to feed those who are hungry.

“We expect to serve half a million meals this year. We also tutor children, counsel the addicted, train the unemployed. We assist men, women, children, the elderly, the mentally ill, the homeless and the newly unemployed. All who come are welcome, and we try to assist with the need, whatever it might be. The demand for our services continues unabated, and there appears little relief in sight.”

In order to continue to meet the ongoing needs of the community, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen is dependent on donors and volunteers. Every year, individuals and groups log over 40,000 volunteer hours.

The Capuchin Soup Kitchen recently launched a new program, “On the Rise Bakery,” which provides training in baking techniques and life skills for men seeking to re-enter society after bouts of incarceration or homelessness. During the one-year residential program, participants solidify their sobriety, further their education and sharpen their abilities to cope with the stresses of daily living.

Growing Healthy Kids is a weekly program for five- to 10-year-olds to help them learn the basics of gardening, nutrition, cultural awareness, environmental stewardship and healthy living.

Held at one of the two soup kitchen greenhouse sites, main activities include planning a flower and vegetable garden, painting garden signs, cooking pancakes, extracting honey and starting seed transplants in the greenhouse.

The Youth Farm Stand is a weekly program for 11- to 16-year-olds who are engaged in farming, marketing, personal development and learning about the community food system. Participants help in the greenhouse, learn about plant life cycles, help with the value-added products such as hand balm derived from the hives, help harvest and prepare vegetables from the field for market and attend market days with the staff. This year’s group is starting their own garden from scratch, beginning with selecting their garden’s site. The goal is to sell the produce and secure a profit.

“It’s a life lesson,” explains Molly McCullagh, Youth Farm Stand coordinator and Earthworks staffer. “They are going to work as a team and make decisions that will affect their bottom line, selling the produce. For a lot of these kids, responsibility is new. For this to work, they need to respect the land and one another.”

Debbie Bleger, whose 11-year-old daughter is in the program, agrees. “Augusta has a greater appreciation of what it takes to feed others. We garden at home so she already understood how to feed a family. But this has shown her how to feed a community,” says Bleger.

The Youth Farm Stand program has served as a model for other local community groups. “It’s all about introducing a different model of food and how it fits into our lives. These kids are going to think differently about their food choices. And that’s what it’s all about,” McCullagh explains.

The urban farm works closely with the chefs of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Last year, Earthworks hosted two large dinners to celebrate the benefits of eating locally while building community. Both were catered by the soup kitchen’s chef, Alison Costello.

“In rural America, a time is set aside to enjoy the fruits of the farmers’ labor,” Costello explains. “That’s the purpose of our Earthworks dinners: to celebrate everyone’s hard work and to learn more about community food systems in the Detroit metro area. We are hoping to give everyone a chance to meet one another and to network.”

Manager Patrick Crouch explains that the founder chose the name Earthworks because it has two meanings. From a military perspective, earthworks are an earthen barricade to protect from an advancing attack. The concept of Detroit’s Earthworks is that the urban farm protects the environment and it protects people by showing them how to live in harmony with nature. Second, Earthworks reflects the work that the Earth does.

“This connection to the land is what daily nourishes our minds, our bodies and our spirits. It’s not just a Franciscan ideal. Our connection to the earth is important on many levels,” Crouch concludes.


Colleen Crane is the director of public relations for the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph. Headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, the province serves in a variety of ministries including social service, schools, chaplaincy, retreat houses and parish work. The locations served include Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nicaragua and Panama.


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