The Urban Farmer

The Urban Farmer

Families find satisfaction farming in the city

By Samantha Tengelitsch-Graves

TRAVERSE CITY – Jill Kiteley lives with her family in downtown Traverse City on a corner lot she calls Dream Acres Urban Farm. The farm, about a third of an acre on the corner of Avenue E and Parsons Road, is set to produce organic, heirloom-variety tomatoes off more than 100 "starts" set earlier this spring. Kiteley, who has long dreamed of becoming a farmer, said she was inspired by stories of urban farms in Detroit and other large cities.

"Some people don't know where food comes from," said Kiteley, while pinching sucker growth from a few tomato plants already flowering. "We want our children to grow up with the experience of knowing how to grow their own food and provide for themselves."

Kiteley started her endeavor earlier this spring after working with SCORE, an area non-profit that mentors entrepreneurs, to develop a business plan for the farm.

Though the family already owns a 10-acre parcel of uncultivated land in Benzie County, Jill said her husband's ties to work in Traverse City meant putting plans for farming the Benzie acreage on hold. Instead, the in-town home they intended on converting to a rental became the new farmstead.

"We're building a life here and love living in Traverse City," she said, "so we've kind of modified our farming dream to be able to be in town and be part of the local community."

The Kiteleys got started in tomatoes after meeting fellow farmer Craig Schaaf of Golden Rule Farm in Kaleva. Schaaf is known for his organic growing methods and heirloom varieties.

"We're trying to replicate Schaaf's farming techniques here in town," Kiteley said, adding the lot is large enough to support her family and others within the community.

Already, they've opened their land for community plots.

"A woman was looking for a little spot of land to put in a garden," said Kiteley. "She comes over about every other day."

What do they hope to accomplish with Dream Acres?

"This farm endeavor can benefit the community by providing quality local food," said Kiteley. "People in the neighborhood, or people driving by can stop and buy local produce, and hopefully learn that they can do it in their own yard, as well."

Though Kiteley hopes to earn a living farming her land, her real motivation comes from helping others achieve a similar goal.

"Anyone is welcome to come here," she said. "We want to create a place where people want to stop and inquire and learn. Part of my idea here is to be able to share this wealth of knowledge."

Salvaging the Land

Sixteen of the most populated cities in the United States are in the process of, or have already implemented, new zoning to accommodate farmers who want to convert their lawns into productive gardens or make room for chickens and other livestock, according to a 2011 urban farming study conducted by the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at the Emory University School of Law.

Larger cities, such as Detroit, have embraced urban agriculture as a way to convert abandoned or foreclosed properties to farmland. It's a model that has quickly spread to other troubled cities, like Baltimore, Md. and Cleveland, Ohio, as a model for greening and reclaiming the landscape.

Prior to the 1980s, when Michigan's Right to Farm law was passed, the city of Detroit prohibited urban farm projects. Today, Detroit relies on farming as a way to feed and employ those in need of food and work. In fact, nearly half of Detroit's 139 square miles is available for farming.

At a recent Food Security Coalition Press Conference, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing promised to break down any remaining barriers standing in the way of connecting people with farmable land.

Planting foodscapes in

place of grass

The city of Traverse City is also breaking down barriers to urban agriculture. In 2009, the city passed an ordinance allowing chickens within the city limits (see sidebar). Since then, small urban gardens have sprouted up all over TC.

Penny Krebiehl with Little Artshram is an avid urban gardener and farms urban plots throughout Traverse City.

"I've leased land and water in exchange for a CSA share and other things, like soil amending and designing of the garden space," said Krebiehl.

She leases plots at 510 Second St., the northwest corner of Seventh and Oak, another at Madison and Front and operates a teaching garden at the Barns property.

Meanwhile, at Dream Acres, the Kiteleys are focusing on what they can do to expand their business locally. "We're open to changing or expanding our niche and we hope to incorporate other produce," Kiteley said.

Visitors are welcome to visit the Kiteley's farm; please call ahead at 231.641.0340