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From Strip Mall to Urban Farm: New Directions for Holland, Michigan

What an innovation! Eighth Day Farm in Holland, Michigan is undertaking an unusual urban farming technique: growing crops in a used strip mall.  They plan to replace more than an acre of old, unused blacktop replace fertile soil, and grow a new business on the site.  The hope is that, as the farm continues to develop, the increased traffic flow and activity will give the strip mall new life, perhaps encouraging businesses to return to the area.

Photo courtesy of Gary Benson at Eighth Day Farm

Eighth Day Farm’s mission is to help reconnect people to each other and to the earth.  They do not use pesticides, and see the farm as part of a delicate ecosystem and try to encourage the biodiversity of the system.  They also believe that their produce should be fresh, healthy, and available to all people.

Eighth Day Farm plans to have a market stand open two days a week during the afternoon rush hour.  Customers will also have the option of buying a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share for the season, in which they would pay a lump sum at the beginning of the season and then receive part of the harvest each week.

Gary Benson, a friend and Eighth Day Farm intern, told me that the farm was founded just two years ago by Jeff Roessing.  It started as a for-profit farm in the country, but last summer Josh Hauch, another member of Eighth Day Farm, had the idea of turning it into a non-profit and moving it into the city.  After doing some research into his plan–and with the help of 3sixty (a local neighborhood non-profit)–the two were given land in the city of Holland by Zion Lutheran Church.  The church, which believes in Eighth Day Farm’s goals of helping to take care of the Earth, helped pay for costs and donated to the farm directly.  Gary mentioned that the farm has a spiritual mission as well, which is to create a picture of God’s redemptive vision for the world, and to promote environmental, spiritual, societal, and economic health.  The use of the strip mall for farming was the idea of the strip mall’s owner, who hoped to draw people to the mall and turn it into something of a “green” showcase.  Highlighting urban organic farming on the property was to be the first step in revitalizing the mall.

Gary said that Eighth Day Farm uses crop rotation and tries to diversify the produce they grow in order to promote greater biological diversity on the farm.  They also raise honeybees to encourage a more robust ecosystem.  They do lots of composting, with different biodegradable wastes (spent grains, coffee grinds, and more) collected from businesses in Holland.

Having farmed in both types of places, Gary sees city farming as quite different from farming in the country.  He said that the way the property is organized is different: For example, at Eighth Day Farm they need to keep the compost covered.  They also do a lot more weeding at Eighth Day than they would at a country farm.  And the pace is different, since people are always stopping by to check out the crops or to buy some produce at urban farms like Eighth Day Farm.  Eighth Day Farm has multiple properties in Holland, so the workers and interns are always going back and forth.  No livestock are allowed in the city, so Eighth Day Farm is unfortunately prevented from raising animals like chickens and cattle.

Vegetables in bloom at Eighth Day Farm (photo courtesy of Gary Benson at Eighth Day Farm)

Gary said that some of the challenges of marketing the produce at Eighth Day Farm include the 10-year waiting list to become a vendor at the farmers’ market in town, andgetting people to come to where they are in town.  But, at their farm,  “customers have the advantage of actually seeing where their food comes from,”  Gary said.  He also said that there haven’t been any problems finding enough people to be a part of their CSA.  His previous experience had been that farms in the country need to advertise their CSAs actively, but at Eighth Day Farm people are always stopping by and asking questions, so they have the chance to learn about the CSA that way.

This is an interesting and creative use of land to revitalize abandoned city spaces.  If more urban farms follow the lead of Eighth Day Farm, it would give cities the chance not just to put unused land back to use, but also to give people in the city residents greater access to fresh produce and a chance to see where their food comes from.
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