Strip Mall Parking Lot Torn Up to Make Way for Sustainable Urban Farm Oasis in Food Desert
July 18, 2012 | Jessica Morey-Collins
When Holland Town Center in Michigan approached Jeff Roessing about farming a 1.3 acre chunk in the middle of a strip mall parking lot, the director Eighth Day Farm rose to the challenge.
The fledgling project aims to educate the community about agriculture, provide fresh produce, and draw customers to struggling businesses in the strip mall. According to Michele Zeilinger, who manages public relations for the farm, management of the strip mall is working hard to revive commerce and renovate the space for mixed use.
“We’re seeing some tangible differences already,” says Zeilinger. “As the farm develops and flourishes our long-range hope is that the increased traffic flow and exposure will also breathe new life into the strip mall with interest by new stores looking to inhabit their open space.”
Crops from the farm will contribute to Eighth Day Farm’s pre-established CSA program, but Roessing and his team also have plans to open a farm stand to sell fresh produce directly to the public. The planned farm stand will accept EBT cards for low income families, and mitigate a documented lack of access to healthy food in Ottawa County.
To launch the urban farm, Eighth Day Farm has had to overcome a number of challenges. In the early going, Roessing and team had to take on the arduous task of converting the parking lot and preparing the land under the blacktop for agricultural use. Two feet of soil from beneath the blacktop had to be removed and replaced with state tested top-soil.
“Then there was the irrigation,” explains Zeilinger. “All of the irrigation for the drip lines and sprinklers had to be installed because, well, it wasn’t there to begin with. We started with nothing. As for worries about lead or other chemicals, fortunately those are not worries that we have. We sent the soil out to be tested and it came back clean. We also are confident there won’t be any leaking from the parking lot into the farm because of where it is placed. As an extra precaution we have a two foot perimeter of wood chips surrounding the farm as a buffer.”
While many farmers might view the small size of the farm as a limitation, Eighth Day Farm was already accustomed to operating in a small space.
“The physical size of the property is three times that of our other property. At times it’s daunting,” admits Zeilinger. But rather than succumb to intimidation, the people behind Eighth Day Farm view this separate, larger location as an opportunity to expand their offerings into new and receptive markets. “This 1.3 acres will allow us to grow more food to sell to folks that can’t get to it easily otherwise. This farm will help us to reach people that may be stuck in what is described as a food desert.”
A food desert is defined by the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” By bringing a source of fresh, local fruit and vegetables to one such area, Eighth Day Farm and Holland Town Center hope to help a disadvantaged community take steps toward health and supply-chain independence.
“If you have trouble getting downtown, we are right here in the mall parking lot,” Zeilinger offers.
Holland already has an established farmer’s market downtown, so Eighth Day Farm hopes to make education the primary attraction of the parking lot farm. With the expansion of the local food movement and the growing prominence of programs like USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, the parking lot farm will cater to Ottawa County’s more curious locavores. Zeilinger emphasized that including a significant community outreach component is very important to Roessing and the rest of the farm’s staff.
“At Eighth Day Farm you’ll see where the food is grown, learn how it’s grown and even pick and harvest some of the veggies yourself,” says Zeilinger. “The fact that there are vegetables and flowers growing where no one has seen them before in initiating a lot of great conversation between people about what could be and what it means to grow your own food and eat whole foods.”
While the farm is not certified organic, they do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and are committed to using only natural methods of soil enrichment—such as composting. For the staff of Eighth Day Farm, farm visits and real, empirical understanding of where one’s food comes from is the best way to ensure that healthy practices are behind the food on your table.
With Eighth Day Farm being a non-profit endeavor, keeping the farm fiscally independent is an important and constantly evolving component of operations. With the parking lot project just beginning to pick up momentum, there are still many avenues Eighth Day farm has yet to explore.
“One idea on our list is a four season green house that would make it possible for us to have a much longer growing season also enabling us to start the plants earlier,” Zeilinger shares. “Also, we would be able to host classes in the fall and winter when we would normally not be able to.”
The community is already excited and interested in this innovative farm space, says Zeilinger.
“Everyone has been incredibly positive about it. Some people have stood in amazement not knowing what to say at first but no we have received no negativity, which has been really great.”