A few years ago, famous street artist Banksy painted at the Packard Plant on the east side of Detroit a piece that said, “I Remember When All This Was Trees.”
Banksy was right. At one point, that’s what this area was before industrial production filled Detroit’s landscape, for a time, with factories and smokestacks. The area also had fertile soil that the French farmers in the early 1800s said was so good they didn’t even have to work to raise crops.
Well, the trees may well be here again. Detroit is on the way to getting what could be Detroit’s first apple orchard since French settlers had ribbon farms in the area, Core Orchards.
Nonprofit Wolverine Human Services (WHS) is in the process of purchasing 11 acres of land at Charlevoix and Lenox streets on Detroit’s east side, a neighborhood they have called home for more than 25 years. Currently they have a group home on Lenox, and run youth programs and a soup kitchen out of the John S. Vitale Center, on adjacent Dickerson street.
The project is more than just a vision for an orchard. It is a vision for a thriving future for what’s otherwise a desolate neighborhood. A vision filled with access to fresh produce, education directed towards nutrition and gardening, and the hope for a more vibrant and thriving neighborhood.
The land would be used for a community garden, educational training classroom, and a farm stand that will provide free and reduced price fresh produce for the surrounding neighbors.
I talked with Matthew Wollack, the WHS director of development and marketing, about Core Orchards, what the plan is, food deserts, and the responsibility to the surrounding community.
Daily Detroit: The east Detroit neighborhood where WHS community center is currently located is considered a food desert. In your experience what do you think a lack of fresh fruit, vegetables, and quality food in general does to a community?
Wollack: It is an extreme drain on the community. As we all know, because there is a food desert within the neighborhood that we are in, our neighbors have to pay an extremely higher rate for food than anyone else would in Metro Detroit. They’re having to go to places that aren’t there to support a grocery like market, they’re there to support ancillary products onto a gas station or liquor store. So, it becomes not only an unfair financial burden on our community, it also creates a lack of opportunity to get the appropriate nutritional vegetables, fruits, and proteins that the rest of Metro Detroit has access to.
I know Detroit is doing a better job about bringing these types of opportunities into the city, but we all know that the neighborhoods are one step behind downtown. Our goal is to continue to support where the community is at and with what the community needs.
Daily Detroit: According to another report, Wolverine Human Services is currently waiting for approval to purchase land and break ground for Core Orchards. When do you expect to know a result?
Wollack: We were misquoted. We have not yet submitted to city council. What we have being doing right now is working with the Detroit Land Bank Authority and city council members to get ready to submit in September when they come back from break. In order for us to submit to city council we have to do it through the Detroit Land Bank Authority as a community partner. Actually one of the only reasons we’re able to request this amount of land is because we are a neighborhood community partner with the Detroit Land Bank Authority. On September 12 we have our meeting with planning and development. They are very aware of the project and have been working with the Detroit Land Bank to ensure that we continue to push the project along and that when council votes we are going to be ready to break ground.
Daily Detroit: Why apples?
Wollack: I thought about what brings people from across the world to different areas to celebrate nature. One of the things that popped in my mind was cherry blossom festivals. However, after speaking with Isaiah Wunsch […] a consultant in his family’s sixth-generation apple and cherry farms [Wunsch Farms], we decided against it. Isaiah quickly said, ‘you don’t want to do that; it’s too much work, too much effort, and too much risk. Cherries are really a volatile plant and tree. Instead if you want to do it you want to go for apples’. And we said great, what does that look like? So he invited us up to their farm and orchard. They [Wunsch Farms] are the largest cherry producers in the state of Michigan. They produce 85% of all cherries produced in Michigan.
Me and my team went up there for a weekend and we learned all about what Isaiah’s life is like, what the orchard process was going to be like, and got some basic understanding of how we could start to implement and work towards this model within the city of Detroit.
Daily Detroit: What is Core Orchards projected cost? Will the project be completed in stages, or will be going full steam ahead?
Wollack: We think it’s going to cost $1.5 million. We’re getting our final estimate and budgets in the next few weeks. [As for completion] it’s going to depend on how the meetings with planning and development turn out, as well as [the meetings with] city council. If we get the go ahead to make infrastructure changes to roads and alleys, we may just go for the whole project all at once. If not we may phase it out one block at a time. The first block would include the farmers market, neighborhood gardens, as well as right around 1,500 Honeycrisp [apple] trees.
Daily Detroit: So Core Orchards is planning on offering free or reduced cost produce, how will that work?
Wollack: The way that’s going to work is we’re going to be running a business model similar to the Detroit Zoo or the Henry Ford. We’re going to have a general membership fee that encourages annual donations. […] now that being said, Detroit residents are going to have no entry fee into the orchard and they are going to have an extremely reduced rate to purchase the apples. Usually a pound of Honeycrisp apples according to the US Department of Agriculture sells for about $2.50, for Detroit residents we would sell it for about a dollar.
The farmer’s market and neighborhood garden we plan to have open at least once a week. That [farmers market] will be for SNAP and WIC programs so that we can, within the immediate neighborhood and community, reduced barriers and [offer] reduced cost access to fresh fruit and vegetables. We really want to use this model to support the community on a weekly basis and allow citizens of Detroit access to this type if experience. We also want to use this as a way to bring in new life and attract other Metro Detroiters and Michiganders to a neighborhood that they otherwise wouldn’t visit or participate in its local economy.
Daily Detroit: Will the raised garden beds in the neighborhood garden also be offered to the community at a free or reduced cost?
Wollack: We are still working out that portion of the business model but it’s either going to be [offered for] free or at an extremely reduced rate. If we do charge a price it is going to come with us supplying the water, seeds, workshops, and educational tools around and built into that program. We would also do vocational training on how to sell, and participate in the garden market. […] we will be providing full security access if we go to the membership level. There will be fencing, we will be part of Project Green Light (Ed. Note: That’s a security initiative of the city with cameras connected to a central command center with the Detroit Police that monitors them 24/7), and we will have key cards. So, if neighbors are participating in this program and they want to on their Saturday go and water their crops they will have key card access. My goal is to make it a free opportunity for the neighbors to have educational and vocational opportunities, but [that] depends on the revenue models and what we need to be doing.
Daily Detroit: How will the project sustain in the long term?
Wollack: What we understand is that with the amount of trees that we will be planning we’ll do anywhere from 100,000 pounds to 200,000 pounds of apples [per year]. If we sold the apples at $2.50 a pound we would be bringing in there alone over $200,000. That would support a majority of the basic revenues that we would need to stay in operations.
We aren’t doing this as a nonprofit would. We’re not doing this as a mom and pop, or grassroots [operation]. We are doing this up to the standards that it should be done. It will be state of the art. It will be beautiful. It will meet the needs not only of the community but also of the expectations of anybody coming to see it. We really want to make that clear – this isn’t going to be some orchard that plants and leaves it there to die.
We’re putting in the full trestle system, there’s going to be full irrigation systems, full security systems, and we’re working to become part of Project Green Light Detroit. We’re working to have the Detroit Police Department have an officer stationed within our community center. We are really coming at this with a lot of power, a lot of preparation, and the anticipation of a lot of continuing funding to come in.
Daily Detroit: Wolverine has been a presence on Detroit’s east side for over 25 years. What keeps you there? What keeps you going? What draws you to that particular area?
Wollack: My father founded the agency 29 years ago. He decided he was going to go into the worst zip code and the most needy zip code in Detroit. And that’s where we still are today. The neighborhood has declined in population in such vast numbers over the last five to ten years. We saw a decrease in the amount of placements coming into our residential facility as well as the over all lack of need of our community services. In 2010 there was over 100 kids in our after school and summer programs for the community. We were serving 150-200 people a day in our soup kitchen. By 2013 the neighborhood is so desolate [that] we pretty much had to shut down our youth program and only started serving [food to] the community two days a week. Now we’re doing it back up to three.
I made a clear analysis of what this neighborhood is and where it’s going. Basically what we found out was yeah it is less than a 17% population rate, yeah there has been a mass decline, yeah over 90% of the land is vacant. Those aren’t statics that social workers or people looking to support a child are looking for. They want to see a placement in a bright vibrant community, they want to see a lot of resources, they want to feel safe when they go there, they want to feel good about when they’re going there.
We looked at other opportunities in Detroit. We decided that we were never going to leave Detroit but we looked at other opportunities. About a month into seeing that there was clearly no better opportunities than where we were, my mother, who is the CEO and the executive board, made a very clear cut commitment and this was when we really started this project.
They decided as the leadership that we would never leave this neighborhood. We would do everything and anything that we could do to revitalize this neighborhood and support the current community members that live within this neighborhood. That is why I have been given the authority to do this project. To pull something that is outside of our wheelhouse, that is something different than we would ever do before. We understand that this is something bigger than Wolverine Human Services, this is something bigger than Core Orchards. This is something that a deprived community can rebuild itself upon. That’s why we’re staying in Detroit. That’s why we’re in this neighborhood.
I know that other people when they try to do something like this sometimes look like they’re displacing people or it’s not the right motivation for what they’re doing. We want to make clear that this is 100% about supporting our community and giving access to nutritional values, to educational opportunities, vocational opportunities, to experiences that people never have experienced outside of this. We really want that to be forefront. It’s cool that we’re putting in an apple orchard but it [the community] is really behind why we are doing this.
A little financial update. Over the last month, a $155,000 grant was secured from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. A matching grant from Michigan Economic Development Corporation in partner with Patronicity, a crowd funding website. WHS has raised around $30,000 of the $50,000 they need to unlock the $50,000 matching fund from MEDC. In total, $405,000 has already been raised specifically for the Core Orchards project. An impressive number, to say the least – and shows that this has a real shot of happening.
If you are interested in donating or learning more about the project, here’s the link to visit.