On a new episode of VICELAND's show JUNGLETOWN, one intern worries the sustainable village he's helping to build in Panama might threaten the plants and animals that thrive there. After surveying the surrounding ecosystem, he sits down with Jimmy Stice—the village's founder—to ask some tough questions.
On an all-new episode of VICELAND's JUNGLETOWN, the staff charged with feeding Kalu Yala's residents decide it's time they learned exactly how a meal makes it from farm to table. If you can't stomach what goes into your food, the thinking goes, then you shouldn't put it in your stomach—and by that logic, the interns are forced to choose between watching a goat get slaughtered or missing out on a meal.
This week's episode of Jungletown highlights that, while everyone at Kalu Yala is fighting for the same thing, the constant flux of staff members—as well as an ever-rotating cast of fresh-faced interns—isn't easy. Not to mention, well, everything else that comes with building a town in the middle of the jungle. During the show's second episode, "Pied Piper of Panama," the staff questions founder Jimmy Stice, and he questions the staff as Panama native Anna Bonadies is brought front and center.
With a strong background in and a passion for sustainability, Bonadies seemed like the perfect fit for Kalu Yala. But as soon as we heard her say, "I've been having kind of a hard time," we knew that something was wrong. "They told me that either I changed my attitude, or there was no other position here for me," she said. Despite her untimely departure from Kalu Yala, when we caught up with Bonadies, she was upbeat and positive as we talked about her time there—from the importance of diversity to growing a sustainable future. "I was excited, I wasn't prepared for what was coming, but I was definitely excited." she told VICE. We hear that.
VICE: You were on staff working on design thinking at Kalu Yala. What was your experience like? Anna Bonadies: It was hectic [ Laughs]. I was only there for a short period—ten or 12 days—during staff orientation week. The whole time, I was getting to know how everything worked there, as well as the people. Basically, I was absorbing everything and trying to deliver [my objectives] as fast as possible. I went during Panama's rainy season, too, and it's like the sky is going to fall down on you. Being in the valley took it to the next level—it gets even worse there because you're in the middle of the jungle. It was a lot of fun, but it wasn't easy.
What inspired you to go to Kalu Yala? Ever since college, I was interested in sustainability and the Earth. I did my community service in college with Friends of Nature, and then I went to work for a sustainability company. I got to learn so much about sustainability, how we're damaging the environment, and how the model that we're living as a society is not sustainable. If we keep consuming like we are consuming, we'd need two planet Earths by 2030, so it's very in our faces and sometimes we don't see that clearly. I got very excited about sustainability, and I came back to Panama [from studying and working in Mexico] and continued my work here. I was on LinkedIn when I saw the "Kalu Yala Design Thinking Instructor" listing, and I was like, "Oh my God, these people are fully sustainable and in Panama. They're doing something completely different than what I've seen. I want to be a part of that." I applied, I got a phone interview with Jimmy, and I passed it. I wasn't prepared for what was coming, but I was definitely excited to be a part of something like that. Sometimes, in your day to day life, you don't get to.
How did you feel when you were leaving? I was torn down, and I didn't want to leave—I wanted to stay and give it another try. I can understand the harshness or practicality of the position that they took, but I still would've liked to give it a try.
How did you feel about the staff at Kalu Yala? One of the most beautiful things Kalu Yala has is its people. It doesn't have a well-built infrastructure or backend water, but it has people—really passionate, well-intended, good-hearted people. They're also very professional, young, and fun. They're very cool.
Do you think the staff is diverse enough? I do think that there's a lot of people from the States, but I think that's fine for now. I have this personal opinion that if you're going to have this sustainable town in 2017, it has to be diverse. You should have an international group of people because it would be so much richer. You could have perspectives of people from different continents saying, "This is how we do this here, or this is how we do this here, and let's find the best practice for this or that." I think cultural exchange is always positive.
What did you take away from your overall experience? I think it's important for me to know that this group of people exists [ Laughs]. They're not quitting, and that excites me a lot. As a Panamanian, having this kind of innovation an hour from your house is very cool. It makes me think of a future in which Kalu Yala and these kind of groups can eventually bring [these ideas] back to the city. Panama City can be a more sustainable city, eventually—that's how I see it. You can have all this research and development, share it with the world, and really make a big, positive impact. I think that's amazing.
On tonight's episode of JUNGLETOWN on VICELAND, the young people trying to construct a sustainable village in the depths of the Panamanian jungle wonder if they can pull it off—and some worry the community of Kalu Yala is doing more harm than good. Plus, the students putting up cash to spend weeks at the site question the leadership of its founder and CEO, Jimmy Stice. While Stice spends a few days in the States, the students at Kalu Yala stage a revolt.
In VICELAND's new series JUNGLETOWN, we document one American entrepreneur's dream to construct a sustainable community from scratch in the heart of the Panamanian jungle. With help from a handful of staff members, Jimmy Stice recruits dozens of "interns" to follow him into the jungle and help bring his vision to life.
In "Welcome to the Jungle," the show's first episode, we meet the young people dropping everything for a fresh start at Stice's Kalu Yala and learn about what's pulling them toward the jungle. Once they arrive, the hard work of fixing leaky roofs, finding clean water, and building outhouses begins—and some start to wonder if they've made a mistake.
Watch the full first episode of JUNGLETOWNbelow and stay tuned for new episodes Tuesdays at 10 PM on VICELAND.
Want to know if you get VICELAND? Head here to find out how to tune in.
Tonight on VICELAND, we're debuting JUNGLETOWN, our new series that follows an American entrepreneur determined to build a sustainable village in the heart of Panama's jungle. Dozens of young people flock to the remote spot to help bring his vision to life—but when things begin to go south in Kalu Yala, the "interns" worry if they've made a dizzying mistake.
The autumn of 2008 may have been the worst time in history to find a job in Michigan. In mid September, Lehman Brothers failed, triggering a global recession. The Big Three carpooled to Washington begging for loans, then laid off more than 10,000 workers. Detroit's mayor pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, resigned, and was sent to jail.
In a decade, the city had shed 240,000 people, leaving its population at just more than 700,000, roughly a third of its 1950 peak. Residential property values had declined by 97 percent. It had the nation's highest poverty rate (34 percent) and highest unemployment rate (23 percent). The only businesses that seemed to be thriving were party stores, a Detroit institution in which cash is passed under bulletproof panes from a black to an Arab in exchange for liquor, cigarettes, and potato chips.
Olivia Hubert had just returned home from a post-graduate internship at the Royal Horticultural Society in London. Home was a former nut-processing plant close to downtown where she and her mother and stepfather had moved to have room for her mother's resale shop. But now the shop was shuttered, and many of the abandoned homes and businesses in the neighborhood had burned down. As balloon payments on mortgages came due, hundreds of still-occupied houses went into foreclosure. Owners were evicted, windows and doors boarded up. Broken water mains bubbled up for months, flooding entire streets. And then, inevitably, the houses caught fire. Sometimes the fire trucks arrived, sometimes not. Some of the charred hulks were razed, while others just collected snow in the winter and sprouted weeds in the summer. Homes that had sold for $40,000 a few years earlier were now listed at less than $10,000. And still nobody bought.
Gazing out at the ruins of Mack Avenue from her family's home, Olivia saw that the marketability of her proudly acquired skills was dubious. She had borrowed $10,000 from the government to complete her degree and was paying it back at $150 per month. Her student health plan had expired, and her mother was hounding her to get coverage. She searched all winter for conservatory jobs across the nation, but she wasn't landing so much as an interview.
Meanwhile, the jobs advertised in Detroit were the same minimum-wage grinds she remembered from high school: Long John Silver's, security guard, Family Dollar. Her former classmates were still working them, or having babies and collecting food stamps. Or going to prison. One girl from school had been choked to death by her boyfriend. The other available jobs were dealing blackjack and making beds and cleaning floors at one of the three gigantic Vegas-style casinos that now shimmered in neon above the freeways, yet another of the city fathers' plots to save Detroit.
Greg and Olivia Willerer hold their two-year-old daughter, Wren, at their urban farm in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. All photos by Brittany Greeson
I first encountered Olivia bent over a tray of basil starts. In a white cotton dress, floppy straw hat, and sandals, she looked vintage cool, as if she'd been outfitted for a production of Porgy and Bess. I was researching contemporary homesteaders—as part of a book on folks who've rejected the global economy and modern technology—and I'd heard about Brother Nature Produce at an anarchist collective elsewhere in Detroit, when someone cited it as a good place to exchange labor for vegetables. The farm, run by Olivia and her husband, Greg Willerer, spread over a block of vacant lots in North Corktown, adjacent to downtown. The farm is part of a growing movement of what I call "unsettlers"—a radical resistance to the fossil-fuel economy and its tentacles of technology, which in postindustrial cities like Detroit looks a lot like going back to the land. At 28, Olivia spoke with a lilt that was more Mississippi than Michigan, and presented as more blunt than sweet. As we spoke, our conversation turned to preppers getting ready for the collapse of civilization by filling their basement with packaged foods and generators.
"Their preparing for the collapse is what's leading to the collapse," Olivia said, "because they're not doing anything to stop it." She spoke with an authority unique among the homesteaders I had met, because the world in which she'd been raised was one that had already collapsed. Paradoxically, Olivia had grown up sheltered in Detroit. When she reached school age, her mother, Vicky Powe Ransom, enrolled her in a Catholic school just a few blocks from their house, on the far east side of Detroit, a relatively safe neighborhood shoehorned between the stately homes of Grosse Pointe and the bleak party stores along Warren Avenue. She forbade Olivia to walk or bicycle to school, and instead drove her each morning. She allowed Olivia to venture three houses to the north and three houses to the south.
What good was upward mobility if you were afraid to walk out the door of your house?
Olivia did well in the classroom but showed little interest in other activities. She was encouraged to try out for the track team. "They always think black people have potential to be athletes," she told me. "I didn't give a damn about no damn track." At recess and lunch, she wandered to the front of the campus, where unsightly weeds sprouted from flowerbeds. She kneeled to pull them. A teacher asked Olivia if she would like to meet someone who could teach her about plants. Catherine Mack had retired after a career teaching biology at Wayne State University. She taught Olivia not only about plants and insects but about other things too: knitting, weaving, cooking, and canning. How to spin wool with just a hook fashioned from a hanger, and how to dye it.
One day, at 13, Olivia came home from Miss Mack's and said, "Ma, I know what I want to do."
"What?" her mother asked.
Vicky had little idea how to prepare her daughter for such a career. Her own mother had been raised on a farm near De Kalb, Mississippi, but country life had never suited her, and in 1967, after her marriage had ended in divorce, she headed north with her five children, catching the tail of the Great Migration. Maybe this passion of Olivia's was just a phase.
One day, as the two of them worked in the garden of their new home on Mack Avenue, a neighbor stopped by to compliment them on how they'd transformed the place. Vicky thanked him and bragged about her daughter's green thumb.
The man's face lit up. He worked for the Detroit public schools, at the vo-tech center. Did they know, he asked, that there was an ag-science program with a specialty in horticulture, right here in Detroit? To qualify for the program, Olivia transferred to the local public high school. She awoke well before dawn to take first one bus and then another, which ferried her across the Detroit River and deposited her at the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle.
Belle Isle appeared to Olivia as another world. It was considered Detroit's jewel, a relic from a gilded era long past. The old gray globe of the arboretum and its resplendent fountains were vaguely European. Chiming bells filled the air. Couples said their vows on infinite green lawns spread between towering elms. Women in swimsuits lay on sandy beaches along the banks of the river. The unfamiliar skyline on the far side was an actual foreign country, Canada.
Inside, in the great glass atrium, blossomed flora from the world over: Manila palm and cabbage palm and majesty palm and slender-lady palm. Byzantine tangles of water pipes and gas lines and electrical cords that would have mystified a contractor somehow managed to pump the atrium with warm air and fresh water, insulating it from the Detroit winter. The great dome opened onto the hot, dry Cactus House, with its South African ox tongue and Kenyan cow's horn and Mexican jelly beans. The old-man cactus peered down on the silver-dollar cactus, while the queen of the night floated overhead as if riding a thermal along the steel ribs of the sky.
Best of all was the Tropical House. Olivia ducked under the oldest canary palm in America, danced past calamondin orange and blood-leaf banana, Surinam cherry and fiddle-leaf fig. She sampled the sweetest grapefruit she had ever tasted. Wet leaves drew her deeper into the jungle of hibiscus spider plant and white bird‑of‑paradise. There was peace lily and rainbow tree, heavenly bamboo and angel-wing begonia. In the deepest recess of the Tropical House hid the orchids. Their perfume made Olivia dizzy. Supple pink petals peeled open to the sunlight to expose magenta capillaries. Climbing vines exploded gold and crimson like strings of firecrackers.
Olivia threw herself into the place and quickly distinguished herself from the parade of listless fellow students who didn't want mud on their Reeboks. The staff of seven taught her how to propagate plants and told her about the conservatory's glory days, when it had been kept immaculate by a staff of 20.
At the end of two years, Olivia took a practicum exam and scored the first-ever A in the program's history. She didn't want to return to her school for her senior year, and the staff didn't want to lose her, so they created a position for her: student greenhouse manager.
Olivia won a scholarship to Michigan State, in East Lansing, to study horticulture. She marveled at the joggers on the trails snaking through the wooded campus. "They were just running for fun! And nobody got jumped. And there wasn't glass broken everywhere. And you could walk places by yourself. And your bike wasn't automatically going to disappear. I was like, Wow!" She loved the safety of her dormitory, the locked bedroom, the cafeteria that prepared three meals a day, and the janitors who scrubbed the toilets and showers. Students of agriculture, science, and engineering were housed together, and Olivia was the only black woman in the dorm. She got a work-study job cleaning the dorms, to supplement her scholarship and her loans. White people she took as one more exotic, if preponderant species, with the habit of leaving their expensive laptops on sofas and dining-hall tables.
Greg pulls a protective layer of cloth over his crops to stand the harsh winter temperatures.
Olivia spent the summer after her freshman year studying horticulture in England through a program at Michigan State. She learned to harvest hay by hand. She visited Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society in Surrey. With its majestic glasshouse and vast rose collections and stone terraces, it was grander even than Belle Isle.
The society offered a paid internship, and after graduation, Olivia returned to London. She discovered the joys of living in a safe and thriving city with functional public transportation. With an income of about $15 per hour, she had plenty of cash to make the payments on her student loans and still eat out and buy new clothes. Nonetheless, after a year in London, she felt homesick. That's when she'd decided to return to Detroit, still believing she could make a career there. But now, stuck at home, Olivia wondered if going to college had been worth the trouble and money. What good was upward mobility if you were afraid to walk out the door of your house? She considered going back to her Paw-Paw's place in Mississippi and trying to make it as a farmer. It was as if she had never left Detroit—and might never escape.
In 2010, Olivia's dream job finally appeared: She was hired to work at the conservatory again. Her mentors apologized for the piddling $8 per hour the position paid, half of what conservatory workers had made a decade earlier, but emphasized the health insurance and pension. Many of her colleagues were approaching their fourth decade on the job. With the city's finances failing, their workloads had increased, and raises had halted.
On her first day on the job, Olivia realized that Belle Isle was in bad decline. Four of the old-timers—the experts who knew every leaf and branch and leaky pipe on the premises—had been nudged into retirement. Fallen leaves went unswept. Spiderwebs clung to overgrown shrubs. The palms had outgrown the atrium, and now and then, their fronds, pressed against the glass ceiling, busted a pane trying to escape. In the Cactus House, in the soft flank of the silver-dollar cactus, someone had carved "i love mimi." The queen of the night clung to the overhead bars, gasping for air.
In an effort to reduce the work hours required to grow saplings from seed, mature trees had been transplanted, bringing with them an epidemic of cockroaches and mealy bugs.
"They wanted instant stuff," said Olivia, "and the instant stuff comes with instant problems."
One advantage of the staff reductions was that the new supervisor had been transferred from city hall and knew nothing about horticulture, leaving Olivia relatively free to pursue her own projects. Some days, she was the only worker on duty, color-coding orchids in some drafty greenhouse with a broken boiler. Occasionally her superiors shuttled her to the mayor's mansion to give landscaping advice.
Her wage was raised to $10 an hour. But, at the same time, the city furloughed its workers, forcing them to take an unpaid day off every other week. Then everyone took a 10 percent pay cut. Now Olivia was barely earning minimum wage. And she was still paying off student loans.
"If you get an education and still can't get a job with a living wage," Olivia said, "then the education is not worth the cost." After work, she parked her car on the far side of Belle Isle and sat there for hours, watching an old man fish in the Detroit River. "The age of the aesthetic was over, and people didn't care about me being able to make topiaries or any of these things that I had bothered to learn," she told me. "Now people show their wealth by gadgets instead of having a really nice garden, so they're unwilling to pay a highly skilled person to make a topiary garden or maintain a kitchen garden. I was about 50 years too late."
Greg uses a tractor to create a mountain of compost.
"I knew the suburbs were a lie," Greg Willerer told me, shoving a pile of greens into his mouth. "La la land."
We were sitting at a picnic table nestled between his house and farm. Greg was in his early 40s, compact and wiry, with flecks of gray in his close-cropped black hair, his arms and face leathery from the sun. As he spoke, his leg jittered like a sewing-machine needle, and I got the impression that sitting still was torture for him. Most of our conversations occurred in moving vehicles, at his booth in the farmers' market, or as we hacked at weeds or laid irrigation hose through fields.
Suburbia, Greg told me, was the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world: big, thin-walled houses that take loads of gas and electricity to heat and cool, acres of farmland and animal habitat bulldozed for useless lawns that guzzle water and gobble poisons, barrels of food scraps hauled across the county and buried in a landfill, sprawling subdivisions requiring cars and gasoline for the simplest of errands—mailing a package or buying a gallon of milk. What's more, he said, suburbs encouraged isolation, cultivated a fear of strangers, and created enclaves that segregated the white middle class from poor people and brown people.
Like Olivia, he spoke from experience. His parents had grown up in Detroit proper, in solid-brick bungalows a few blocks from one another in the northwestern part of the city. But like most white Detroiters, they'd fled to the suburbs in the 1960s, settling just north of Eight Mile Road, the city limit. Then, as the city's decay crept closer, they'd relocated farther north, in the rolling hills of West Bloomfield.
Yet Greg had been hell-bent on escaping the privilege in which he'd been raised. He discovered punk rock, and as soon as he and his friends got their licenses, they made their way to the gritty clubs of the city that had spawned not only Motown but Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5. Through the music scene, he became involved with the "movement," the anarchists and radicals who populated the Cass Corridor, Detroit's skid row. He and his friends formed a collective on Willis Street, just off Cass Avenue, that booked bands, hosted readings, and distributed radical literature and ideas to a mixed crowd: black and white, young and old, college kids and homeless men. He took a room in the Trumbull Theatre, a dilapidated complex of houses converted into flats and a brick factory converted into a community stage. He had enrolled at Wayne State, and he reverse-commuted to "some stupid deli in the suburbs" to earn tuition. When he graduated, with a history degree, he convinced three friends to pool funds to buy the Trumbull, with a down payment of a couple thousand dollars. They moved the music venue there, but Greg became disillusioned with the growing rift between the neighborhood's mostly black, working-class old-timers and the incursion of punks, who were mostly white. He launched a career as an elementary school teacher and spent the next 15 years devoted to it. But when a new superintendent prioritized standardized testing and began to push out teachers who resisted, he grew as disillusioned with public school reform as he had become with the activists and anarchists.
Then he met Paul Weertz, a craggy, sandy-haired high school science teacher who had created a remarkable settlement on Farnsworth Avenue, amid the blight of a once mostly Polish neighborhood that had been decimated by a doomed incinerator project Greg had protested back in high school. Weertz and his wife, a retired Wayne State professor, had started by buying a rambling two-story fixer-upper with high ceilings and wood floors for just $8,000 back in 1985. As their neighbors fled, they understood that vacant houses would attract drug addicts and scrappers and arson, so they bought them up; even on their modest salaries, they could afford the four-figure price tags. Before long, they owned ten houses on the block. They rented out those they could, and when each of their sons turned 18, they gave him his own house. They pulled down the fences between backyards to create a huge commons. A corner lot was transformed into a garden.
It resembled the Detroit in which Greg's parents had grown up, but for the sight of a tractor dragging a baler across a field of alfalfa on the adjacent block, where not a single house still stood. Weertz kept goats and horses, and as Poletown returned to prairie grass, he'd bought a tractor and begun mowing the hay, baling it, and feeding it to the livestock. He did not apply for permits at city hall, or anywhere else.
It was a world Greg had long envisioned: a mixed-race, working-class village built out of reach of the tentacles of banks or government, enacting the sort of decentralized change that he had heard activists and educators theorize about for decades. He rented a house from the Weertzes and started a garden, then expanded the garden. He began to sell his vegetables at Eastern Market, a Detroit institution since 1891. Greg remembered getting hauled around it in a wagon by his mother, but now he saw the place with new eyes. Even as the city tanked, Eastern Market was bustling, one of the few places where suburban whites and urban blacks mingled. Between 30,000 and 40,000 shoppers came each Saturday morning.
Suburbia, Greg Willerer believed, encouraged isolation, cultivated a fear of strangers, and created enclaves that segregated the white middle class from poor people and brown people.
He began to look to Corktown, west of downtown, one of Detroit's oldest neighborhoods and one of its earliest wastelands, a landscape of toppled roofs and weedy rubble since the 1960s. Greg saw beauty and potential: a neighborhood that's sharpest decline was far behind it. There were even signs of renewal: On Michigan Avenue were an upscale barbecue joint and an espresso house. In 2005, Greg borrowed money from friends to put down $11,000 for a two-story wooden cottage on Rosa Parks Boulevard, formerly 12th Street, the street where his grandfather used to cut hair. The block had just six other remaining houses. The fenced yard was small, so Greg claimed the vacant lot next door, and then expanded into additional lots. Soon he was spending as much time in the garden as in the classroom.
By the end of 2008, Greg owned the house free and clear, and had paid off his car and his credit card. His expenses were just $500 a month. That summer, he had sold $10,000 worth of produce. He wondered how much more he could make if he quit teaching and invested all his time in raising food. "I used to think education was the way to change the society," Greg told me. "Now I think it's the local food movement." That winter, he walked away from his teaching job, its health insurance and salary. Three principles guided Greg's venture. The first was to bring a new product to market. In 2008, it was impossible to find gourmet organic greens in Detroit except in fancy restaurants, and they were sourcing from out of state. So the second principle was import replacement: Selling a local product to those restaurants would keep the money in Detroit and eliminate the carbon costs of trucking produce in from the West Coast. Third was profitability: Unlike most row crops, salad greens could be harvested every week between March and November and sold for thousands of dollars per month. He christened his new venture Brother Nature Produce.
There were plenty of challenges. Much of the soil in Detroit's vacant lots was devoid of nutrients, riddled with rubble, polluted with industrial chemicals and heavy metals. Greg planted sunflowers to draw lead from the soil. Breweries and coffee shops gave him their spent grains and grounds, which made excellent compost. He offered landscapers a place to drop off their leaves: more free compost and mulch. To irrigate his growing acreage, he ran a hose from a fire hydrant, watering at dawn and dusk when he was less likely to be discovered by a meter reader. Eventually he began collecting rainwater. He opted not to have his farm certified as organic by the USDA, a process that could cost $6,000. Instead he marketed his produce as "chemical-free."
On a good Saturday, he earned $300 at Eastern Market, selling out by 11 AM. He sourced directly to high-end restaurants. He invited his friends and neighbors to bonfires and held you-pick afternoons. Old-timers on the block called him Garden Greg. By the end of his first year as a full-time farmer, Brother Nature had grossed $30,000.
Olivia Hulbert had been to Eastern Market many times since childhood as well, but visiting now, she was surprised to find a table labeled "GROWN IN DETROIT" and stacked with kale and arugula and carrots. She tried a carrot: robust and bursting with flavor. The people working the table were pretty white for a pretty dark city, but they told her that the produce came from farmers all over town, who were getting 100 percent of each sale. Yeah, right, she thought. She offered to volunteer at the table so that she could see where the money actually went.
She arrived at 7 AM the next Saturday and laid out the produce. A clean-cut guy with flecks of gray at the temples handed her a tray of his nasturtiums. Olivia arranged the tiny plastic pots across the front of the table. "Hold my coffee," he said. He redid all her work, squeezing the nasturtiums close and sliding in a second tray.
"Maybe you need your own table," Olivia said.
"Maybe I do," he said and flashed her a smile.
After a few weekends at the market, Olivia had determined that Grown in Detroit was legitimate. She watched the money go into the till, and she watched the farmers collect their portions at the end of the day. Each onion and carrot was accounted for. Nobody skimmed off the top. Next spring, Olivia determined, she would sell her own produce here. Running the numbers, she decided that the most profitable crop would be garlic. It required little maintenance and resisted insects, and best of all, not many others were selling it. That fall, she planted 300 garlic bulbs in neat rows behind the gate on Mack Avenue. Come harvest time, she might make $500. Not a bad hustle.
A friend invited Olivia to a brunch on a farm colonized from a row of vacant lots. Amid the towering weeds, Olivia could make out tomatoes and lettuce and kale and broccoli. It was a bit sloppy and in need of attention, she judged, but not bad for an amateur. The farmer turned out to be that white guy from Eastern Market, Mr. Hold My Coffee. They ended up seated together, and she told him her dilemma: Her mother and stepmother had sold the place on Mack Avenue, and 300 garlic plants were in need of a new home.
"Transplant them over here," Greg suggested. The next weekend, he arrived with a pickup and shovel, and helped her dig up the shoots, and back at his place, they tilled a fresh row and pushed the shoots into the soil. Afterward, he invited her to join him at a symposium on Detroit farming where he was one of the speakers. Not a black face among them, Olivia noted. The white people talked and talked: local food, food desert, food justice, greening the city. When the farmer's turn arrived, he said, "I'm flattered to be asked to speak here, but we really have to get a more representative group of people to discuss agriculture in Detroit." Olivia wasn't exactly impressed, but at least someone had said it.
For Olivia Hulbert, natural farming and food justice were not political slogans, but values she embodied through her work.
Over dinner, she told Greg how tired she was of living with her mother and stepfather. And yet she wasn't earning enough to get her own place.
"I've got an extra bedroom," he said.
Olivia continued to rise at six each morning for her job at Belle Isle, and then helped on the farm afternoons and weekends.
"She is all about living a certain way," Greg said. "And she worked her ass off." For Olivia, natural farming and food justice were not political slogans, but values she embodied through her work. "People on the left always talk a good game about how they feel politically. She was one to just show it without saying anything. I felt really at ease with her, in a plain way."
A month after Olivia moved in, Greg took Vicky to lunch to formally ask for her daughter's hand. As an engagement gift, the couple bought themselves a 12-gauge shotgun: a symbol, as they saw it, that their farm and their future were worth protecting. They carried it down to the old train station and shot off a box of shells for target practice.
At the end of 2010, Brother Nature had grossed $40,000. That winter, they married in the church at the corner of Martin Luther King and Trumbull, and for the reception a horse pulled the couple on a sleigh to the old ice rink on Belle Isle.
Salad greens brave the cold temperatures during the winter.
Olivia set about whipping Brother Nature into shape. For all her husband's enthusiasm and success, his methods were not up to the standards of the Royal Horticultural Society. With Olivia's guidance, crops were planted in straight rows, with neat handmade trellises, and weeds were pulled on schedule. The salad mix was standardized—equal parts arugula, mizuna, pea tips, sorrel, lettuce, bekana, and spinach. Olivia honed old-time skills: canning, pickling, pressing cider, saving seeds, drying herbs, rendering stock from beef bones. She built a coop for chickens and ducks. She killed varmints with bow and arrow. When her grandmother stopped by Brother Nature for the first time, she saw crops in long rows like she hadn't seen since she'd left Mississippi. "That's some hard work," she murmured, and retreated to her truck.
Growing food in marginal soil with limited resources in a city often referred to as "post-apocalyptic" and a "war zone," Olivia took her lessons from an actual war zone: Britain between the world wars. "That was the last time people put modern scientific method into low-tech ways of doing things," she said. "They were on rations for 14 years. They had to make do, and they had to ask Grandpa what he used to do. That was the last time that people really took that stuff seriously. After the wars, it was chemical this, and spray that, and why don't you just monoculture?" She and Greg were figuring out how to farm without reliance on the industrial technology that, in their opinion, had brought about the collapse of their city in the first place.
As far as Greg was concerned, local food needed no more defense, just more defenders. "How many people does it take to make an urban farm?" he asked in a Facebook post. The answer: "25 film makers and journalists to do pieces on urban farming, 63 grad students to study the farm, a few people from the not for profit complex to hold meetings about farming, a few elected officials to have their pictures taken at the farm, and about 5 people to do the actual farming."
When Farmer Jack closed back in 2007, Detroit became America's largest city without a national grocery chain. Now a national grocery chain announced plans to set up shop in the Cass Corridor, rebranded as "Midtown." And it wasn't just any old chain. It was Whole Foods.
Until now, the irresistible narrative of urban farming went like this: Abandoned by the corporate food cabal, Detroit citizens had no choice but to grow their own. The arrival of a gourmet, all-natural grocery store upended this story. Greg's allies at the Detroit Food Justice Task Force welcomed the arrival of the chain and got onboard, consulting with the company on how best to serve Detroiters. The executive, a young, ponytailed, eloquent Native American named Red Elk, son of the founder of the American Indian Movement, told Greg they wanted to stock his lettuce. It was part of the strategy built with the task force. Whole Foods had held meetings with church congregations. They were hiring local people—black people—at a good salary. They weren't merely stocking local vegetables and bread and beauty products on their shelves; they were offering micro-loans to help independents like his operation ramp up production.
Wren washes collard greens during a New Year's Eve party.
Whole Foods could sell more salad in a day than Greg and Olivia could sell in a week. Greg could put the farm on autopilot: Grow the salad, harvest it three times a week, deliver it to Whole Foods, just a mile from home. No more early mornings at Eastern Market. No more CSA members dribbling in after dark to collect bok choy. No more clipping two ounces of chives and parsley to deliver to a chef.
Greg had never totally accepted Detroit's label as a "food desert," although he knew the phrase attracted foundation money. He saw Detroit as more of a "food labyrinth." Good food was there; you just had to know where to find it (and have the means of getting there). Just a mile from his farm, for example, was an excellent independent grocer in Mexicantown with fresh produce and homemade tamales and guacamole. More to the point, the movement was not just about vegetables but about economy and restructuring society. He didn't want to be just the guy who brought arugula to the ghetto. He posted ten reasons why Detroit didn't need Whole Foods. The last two were:
9. Detroit is on the verge of developing a unique local food economy that uses local farms and artisan food businesses. WF will use incentives from Detroit tax payers and that money will go back to Austin TX where WF is based, while our local businesses cycle money throughout our community.
10. WF is part of this propped up image of a new downtown where Detroit is for the hipster, wealthier, and whiter and at the same time diverting resources from neighborhoods where people have lived and struggled to improve their city for decades.
He refused the offer. "Food justice isn't helping a corporation increase its bottom line," he told me, that old anarchist streak rising to the surface. He and Olivia vowed to keep growing on a small scale, selling directly to their neighbors. "Food justice is producing your own food," he said, "getting people to be food-independent."
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