November 29, 2009
By Dave Alexander
A hoop house is being assembled at the McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm which will help extend the growing season. The half-acre farm is located behind the Goodwill Industries of West Michigan’s corporate headquarters. The hoop house will extend the growing season at McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm.Community enCompass is taking the concept of the urban garden to the next level. Officials call it urban farming.
Playing off the successful half-acre garden plot that grew last summer on a vacant lot owned by Goodwill Industries, the Christian community development organization in Muskegon’s McLaughlin Neighborhood has created the McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm at Iona and Sophia streets.
With the help of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and its Richard and Marilyn Witham Fund, the urban farm is adding “hoop houses” to extend the growing season year-round. The idea is to create business opportunities during economonically tough times.
McLaughlin Grows is a for-profit, micro-enterprise venture designed to produce locally grown, healthy food; energize the neighborhood; and provide potential employment opportunities. The foundation funding — more than $50,000 — has given McLaughlin Grows coordianator Teri VanHall three years to make the urban farm a viable, self-sustaining operation.
“Urban agriculture initiatives are springing up across the United States,” Community enCompass Director Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga said. “It is exciting to see Muskegon on the cutting edge of this trend.”
Teri VanHall, program coordinator for McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm, left, Tom Pastoor, president of McLaughlin Neighborhood Association and board member of Community enCompass, center, along with help from a You Turn student, work on affixing the metal supports for a hoop house that is being assembled behind the Goodwill Industries of West Michigan’s corporate headquarters. The hoop house will extend the growing season at McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm. (You Turn students cannot be identified by name nor can you show faces.) Date shot: 11/18/09Community enCompass and Goodwill have an agreement for the use of the vacant lot. The McLaughlin Grows initial farm garden began in May with plantings of greens, tomatoes, peppers, okra, cabbage, squash and other crops.
The business used neighborhood youth workers through the Muskegon County Department of Employment and Training to keep the garden going throughout the summer along with providing volunteer opportunities for local residents.
The vegetable harvest off an initial 2,400-square-foot plot was sold on site, through a stand at the Muskegon Farmer’s Market and to the nearby Mia & Grace restaurant, which practices “farm-to-table” food sourcing.
The estimated future revenues for the urban farm are annually about $12,500 per hoophouse and another $12,500 from the outdoor garden, VanHall said.
McLaughlin Grows is practicing organic farming, said VanHall, who was trained in the agriculture processes through Michigan State University. The urban lot was a good producer, she said.
“I was amazed at the amount of glass we were picking out of the soil all summer,” VanHall said. “But even with the sandy soil, we had a real good harvest.”
With the garden done for the year, the “hoop house” project is under way. Plans are for two 96- by 30-foot passive solar growing shelters. The first $16,000 unit from a manufacturer in New Hampshire already is in place. It will have electric fans for an efficient growing operation.
The hoop house is made of a metal frame covered with clear plastic sheeting. VanHall said that greens and root crops will be able to grow throughout the winter and seedlings for the next growing season can get an early start in shelter.
Dick Witham has a passion for helping create economic opportunities in Muskegon’s urban neighborhoods. He is a retired industrialist who is the former owner and president of the Michigan Spring Co.
“I’m 71 years old and I want to use my skills to create an environment where people grow and prosper,” Witham said about his community foundation fund’s support of McLaughlin Grows.
“I was encouraged to leave Muskegon when I sold my company, but I was born and raised here and I care about seeing this county thrive and prosper,” he said. “This is better than any business that I’ve every been involved in — it’s exciting.”
Turning the McLaughlin Grows into a sustainable business will be a challenge, VanHall said. The micro-business will need a successful marketing plan and might need subsidized labor to make it profitable, she said.
Outside of the employment and profits that could be generated off the urban farm, Tom Pastoor said the initial Community enCompass already is transforming the neighborhood. Pastoor is president of the McLaughlin Neighborhood Association and a Community enCompass board member.
“The neighborhood is abuzz with the fact that something is happening,” Pastoor said of an urban area in Muskegon that has been hit hard by the economic downturn. “People are engaging. Maybe it’s not cool any longer to sit back and watch.
“Even in these dire economic times, this absolutely brings a sense of hope,” he said of a neighborhood in which he has lived for 30 years.
VanHall hopes to spread the farm activities of McLaughlin Grows to other urban areas of Muskegon where vacant land awaits. Urban argiculture is taking hold in cities such as Flint and Detroit as well as Muskegon, she said.
“It’s about people reclaiming their neighborhoods and producing fresh, healthy food,” VanHall said. “Hopefully, this will be a model for other lots.”
©2009 Muskegon Chronicle