William Gardner has a big decision to make. He just sold his old truck wants to invest the money: Should he buy an Alpine goat to add to his herd, or a brand new tiller to plow his farm on a vacant lot across the street?
Detroiters hustle hard. It’s tough out here. Just ask Gardner; he’ll tell you so. But the East side farmer/factory worker has a vision and it involves growing his own food and living off of the land. But that all takes times, money and the skill to hustle you homegrown wares.
“You can make a decent living off of urban farming,” Gardner says. “Last year I was pulling in two to three hundred a week and that was just from selling at Eastern Market. It was like part-time work. Some days I’d be out here six hours a day working hard other days I wouldn’t do anything.”
But don’t go plowing into you back yard or neighboring vacant lot thinking you’ll hit the big bucks. For small city farmers, money is a necessity but not the motive.
“You have to love it,” Gardner says. “It’s more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. It teaches you discipline and patience,” he said.
Last year Gardner said he woke up before the sun on Saturday mornings and was in his garden with a flashlight harvesting vegetables so he could pitch them as the freshest: “harvested two hours ago.”
Still, farming a city lot with vegetables for sale is illegal in Detroit. So is having any type of livestock.
But a boost to city farmers did come last month when Mayor Dave Bing declared urban agriculture a viable means of revitalizing the economy.
It is unclear whether Bing was referring to the big business type of ventures that have been proposed in the city, or grassroots efforts like Gardner’s plot.
In Detroit urban agriculture circles, there is a dichotomy between the big business venture farming and the backyard growers, as reported in The Huffington Post recently.
But it takes money to make money; any hustler knows that. And Gardner just sold his car to invest the money in his farm. He also works long night shifts at Magna Seating, a world-class seat manufacturing facility for the Big Three. The factory job allows him to save up to hire neighborhood kids to work on his farm.
“I want to teach the kids a different way to hustle,” Gardner says, noting that most kids won’t get involved in his garden unless there’s cash involved.
And he’s willing to pay them, but part of his lesson through the work is that it’s not all about the money; it’s all about food. “I want to teach them how we can grow good food right here in the ‘hood and make money doing it. Without food we’re finished; finito,” Gardner said.
Some people just don’t have a choice but to follow their passion.
“I have to do this. It’s my calling,” Gardner says. “But it takes money. I need kick start money to do the things I want.”
Gardner is committed to his mission and works a hectic schedule to save up. He works his factory night shift at Magna Seating from 4pm to 3am six days a week and spends most of his days in the garden.
What about weekends? “Weekends are pretty much non-existent around here,” says his girlfriend Jennifer as she waters the garden beds. But she’ not complaining. She is a massage therapist and the two plan to merge their two passions into a holistic living business.
Together, they plan to build a living off of the land and their talents.
It’s not just veggies that come from the farm. The two raise goats, chickens and herbs. Gardner says the goat milk can go into making soaps, the herbs they grow can be made into organic massage oils and the chickens will be used as food and educational opportunities for people to learn how to process meat.
“You can make money but you have to be original,” Gardner says.
Gardner said he is thankful to have a supportive partner and rich natural resources close at hand. “I’m fortunate I have land and opportunities to change and do something better for the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s just me out here digging all these rows, luckily I got my girl to water.”
To Gardner it’s more than work. “I look at it like art. It takes time and also inspiration,” he said. “Two weeks ago this was a like jungle. But I felt the urge to garden and said “let me get out here and work my magic.”
Gardner loves what he does outside, but he also loves his PS3 and YouTube. “I’m not out here like the Amish with no shoes and sh*t.” He says. “I might work for a few hours and if I get bored I’ll go inside and watch a video.”
For Gardner, it’s not about the money, even though he knows he has to support his family.
“I know Detroit needs this. I wake up and think, “let me get out here and get in the ground.”
The East-side land Gardner works was an old military compound in the 50s, and since then it has seen nothing but weeds, long-time residents of the area say.
“The soil here is great. All I had to do is give it a little love,” said Gardner.
Until he saves up for a farm tool collection, tools are scarce around the farm. “I use anything I can get my hands on,” Gardner says. “Some days I’m out here with a scythe.”