DETROIT, Mich. — The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative’s (MUFI) property is something of a bright spot in a neighborhood that looks sparse and even abandoned, in a part of Detroit that’s sometimes called Midtown.
From a purely economic standpoint, the best thing Midtown had going for it was the General Motors headquarters, located in a stately building across the street from the Fisher Building on W. Grand Blvd., but the company moved its headquarters to the downtown Renaissance Center building years ago.
MUFI is located not far from there. The main properties it owns are about a mile northeast of W. Grand Boulevard and Woodward Ave., around the corner of Custer and Brush streets. The most developed and picturesque MUFI garden space, about an acre in size, is right across the street from a building that’s been gutted and painted over with colorful murals.
MUFI bought the building at 7432 Brush St. in October of 2011 and is planning to completely renovate this building on the inside. It’s using a house nearby, also, as an office space and is in the process of renovating that as well. Last week Nick Jones was working in the garden tending plants and waiting for any customers who might show up.
Jones, an unpaid intern who’s from Colorado and living recently in California, said he wanted to come to Michigan to be a part of the MUFI enterprise. "I just had an interest in Detroit and in urban agriculture," he said. "A lot of people are doing projects similar to this one."
The president of MUFI is Tyson Gersh, a 25-year-old student at the University of Michigan at Dearborn. Gersh became interested in the concept of MUFI after having spent a number of years in the landscaping business.
He said the organization used 3,500 volunteers last year. "We have a nice batch of volunteers who pretty much take care of the day-to-day stuff," Gersh said. "About 90 percent of our revenues come from winning Facebook contests."
He explained companies put on contests in order to fulfill their social responsibility obligations. The contests are a new way for companies to do this, rather than having applicants fill out lengthy applications; besides, Gersh said, companies get more "bang for their buck" as far as publicity.
Among its other projects, Gersh noted, is a planned aquaculture pond to be located in what used to be the basement of a derelict home in Detroit. He said it can be done for less than what it costs to tear down a home and clean up the debris.
Many different kinds of plants are growing in MUFI’s gardens. A lot of them are Brassica, such as cabbage and broccoli. Some are unusual, such as the Asian noodle bean. "These have done very well," Jones said.
Asian noodle bean, also known as Yard Long Beans, grow up to 18 inches in length but taste much the same as ordinary green beans. Jones said they’ve done well even though they’re not usually grown in temperate climates.
Another vegetable grown there this year is kohlrabi, a cruciferous vegetable similar to broccoli but cooked like a potato. Jones described it as a starchy vegetable. He is hoping as these products become better known, people will "take to them more widely;" however, they have already been popular with customers so far.
MUFI has different practices regarding how it sells and otherwise distributes produce it grows. It sells to farmers’ markets in the area at a fixed price. Some produce is sold to individual customers, but the organization also gives some produce away to shelters and soup kitchens.
"Quite often we give produce away on-site to people who are unable to pay for it," Jones said.
To learn more about the organization, visit its new website at www.miufi.org