The Rapidian Home

Grow, eat, and learn with Urban Roots

Founder and Executive Director of Urban Roots, Levi Gardner, shares his thoughts on what urban farming means to him and how the community can get involved.

/Urban Roots

Want to learn more?

If interested in getting involved with Urban Roots, visit their website at or stop by their office and farm at 1316 Madison Ave SE Grand Rapids, MI 49507.

/Urban Roots

/Urban Roots

As Founder and Executive Director of Urban Roots, what does an average day on the job look like?

I try to start most of my days with yoga if I can and then I have breakfast. I used to skip over those things and now I find that if I don’t do them in that order, my day doesn’t work out very well. After that, there’s no such thing as an average day. I could be spending some time with my staff imagining or executing programs or meeting with members of my board. Today, I will be working at two different gardens teaching classes and workshops. The thing that I love the most about being an executive director is I feel like the conductor of a symphony and all of the various pieces are playing together and the goal is harmony. So, whether that’s working on something that’s short term or seeing into what the long term goals are or developing or envisioning strategy, I get to do that and set the things in motion. Now, since it’s summer, I get to play as well so it’s a lot time growing, thinking, imagining, dreaming, teaching, and eating.

What is your favorite part about working for Urban Roots?

Because the job is taxing, it takes a lot from me and from my family. Through our mobile classroom program or occasionally here, we just have really beautiful moments of the simple things like weeding, watering, cultivation, or pruning, the things that got me started in all of this. Last week, we sifted our first batch of compost from our bike powered compost service and it was just beautiful. It’s those moments where I actually get to touch, taste, or see the things that we are doing and not just be at a desk. I did this because I didn’t want a desk job, but I still found myself relegated at a desk sometimes. So, any of the time where I can be doing the human work is the most fulfilling for me.

How did your compost collection service come about?

This neighborhood, this community, and this land has been subjected to what's called disinvestment, which means resources being pulled out. When we define resources we don’t only mean dollars, we mean intellectual capital, experiential capital, social capital, and natural capital, which can be in the form of soil fertility. One of the questions was how do we get more resources here while simultaneously addressing a problem and a need people have which is where do I throw my organic matter because just going to the trash and being burnt in the incinerator feels like a huge waste of resources. We looked at two different problems and thought there’s actually an opportunity here for us to collect and capture resources that we can compost. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s just gorgeous and most people on their home scale wouldn’t be able to make that happen. We pick up compost once a week, and since launching the program in April we’re at about 4,500 pounds of waste. Our goal for 2018 is 100,000 pounds of waste. That’s what we really want to get to and thus far, the responses have been amazing for people to spend $4 to $5 a week to have their compost go to something that is not the trash and build soil fertility at an urban farm while teaching people. That’s success all the way around.

Why do you hold free, farm fresh dinners at your open houses?

When you say the words farm to table, often that means it’s a very elitist, exclusive club. There’s some amazing farm to table restaurants in town that we love, and they charge a good amount because they are worth it and they value their employees and farmers. Unfortunately, farm to table sometimes doesn’t mean everybody is invited. To invite our community whether that be volunteers, donors, literal neighborhood members, and collaborators to an event and do something as simple and benign, but also something as transformational as share a meal felt like a really good idea so we do three of them a year. Our next one is coming up Friday, August 25th, and it’s just a chance for people to go share a meal together. The last one we had 80 or so people come in, and again eating a meal is this thing we all do all the time and yet we feel as if it can be transformational on how we think about place, economy, soil and food. They’ve been beautiful and we’ve loved doing them.

What other activities can people do at the open houses?

One of the things we’ve invited people to do is to just walk around, learn, see, and visualize. We have a very specific way of doing things and we’re constantly learning, but we want to invite people into growing, eating, and learning together. The meals are a specific time to eat together, but we also want to invite people to grow and learn together so every question from “What does compost look like? What is soil fertility? What is interplanting? What are the appropriate planting and harvesting dates for x, y, z crop?” There’s so much of what we call ecological literacy or agricultural literacy, which is the same way people can be literate to read a book, a person can be literate to read a farm, and we want to invite people into not tilling up land, but rather harvesting them as spring greens and throwing them in a salad because they are absolutely delicious and they pop up anywhere there is cultivated ground. Those are the sorts of things that are beautiful and wonderful to learn together as a community, and we define community really broadly to mean anyone that grows, eats, or learns together with us.

Do many people come to your open houses asking how to start their own garden?

Yeah, oh all the time! To be honest, there are very few people who don’t want a garden. It’s deeply ingrained in the human experience to want to touch and taste things that are real, whether it be wine that is connected to the vineyard, a salad, or even eating an artisanal bread and knowing that has a story connected to wheat which has a story connected to a farm. We all want that, very few people want to eat something out of a box that has no story. We want to grow those things too. Somebody can tell you the value of a carrot is 25 cents, but to the kid who planted the seed, watered it, cultivated it, and harvested it that thing is worth a hundred dollars because it’s the most amazing thing ever. I say a hundred dollars only cause that’s as abstract to the kid as the value of growing the carrot because he or she knows that it’s valuable. A lot of people want to learn and we’re continuing to learn as well. It's been incredibly valuable and we want to grow and learn with our community.

How can people get involved at Urban Roots?

You know, there’s always something. We have group service learning where we have groups come out for a workshop or a work experience and then share a meal together. We have volunteers here all the time, whether it's hilling potatoes, repairing bio-boxes, or preparing land for a shed. One of the things that is beautiful about cultivation is that it’s in perpetuity. You’re always cultivating as opposed to construction where you build a thing and it's mostly done other than tweaks. Cultivation is constantly happening because nature is constantly emerging new things. There is always something to be done here and there’s always a way to learn more.

Why should groups come to Urban Roots for service learning?

The idea of service learning is a popular one that’s starting has emerged in the academic community, which says volunteerism is a one sided thing, it’s not a transactional relationship. What we’re understanding now is that actually everything is the opportunity to be able to serve and learn so it’s mutually beneficial. In ecological terms, we would say its symbiotic that there's a symbiosis, a relationship between the two things. Sometimes people will say, “Hey, we want to volunteer,” but we’ll say, “Actually, you don’t just want to volunteer because you don’t just want to give yourself. You want a mutually beneficial relationship, which means you invest in something and you have something invested into you.” That’s the most beautiful relationship. I was reading a book on happiness that said this research coming out of Harvard said that people don’t want to be underpaid or overpaid relationally. They want equitable payment and equitable relationships. People come here and they get to give us a small donation to cover the time and cost and like I said, a tour where they learn some things, a work experience where they can contribute to something, and then a meal. That’s a great experience to learn more about themselves, their humanity, and the earth and to contribute to something good.

What do you think the future holds for urban farms?

Cultivation, which is the ongoing working of the land, is a constantly unfolding process. There's something in ecology called dynamic stability, which seems like a contradiction in terms cause stability feels like it means something is not moving and dynamic means it's changing. An urban farm can contribute to the tapestry of dynamic stability for any metropolitan region, which means things are always changing, evolving, and moving, but hopefully a growth towards redemption, reconciliation, restoration of ourselves and other humans, of ourselves and the earth, and of ourselves and our food, sun, soil, and water. My hope for Urban Roots is that we can contribute to a Grand Rapids that is a thriving one and not just thriving for certain people and certain areas, but thriving for all people. It is our human right to have healthy water, healthy soil, healthy air, safe homes, and community joy, and whatever way an urban farm like Urban Roots can contribute to the tapestry we want to be a part of that. Thich Nhat Hanh, zen Buddhist monk, has an excerpt where he says that the garbage and the rose interare. When you are creating garbage, you can see the rose in it, and when you are growing the rose, you can see the garbage in it. He’s obviously talking about compost and organic matter, and literally last week I had a group of students where I held up what used to be banana peels, coffee grounds, and food scraps and put it on a carrot that in four weeks from now I will be eating. You’ve never seen the growth of something that is going to sustain your body in your trash in that way. As humans, we are incredibly complex and so much of industrialism has pushed us away from our humanity, rather than reconcile us with the things that make us humans, and my hope is that Urban Roots and urban farming in general can restore the beauty that is our humanity.


As a community farm, market, and education center, there is always something happening at Urban Roots. On August 17th, there will be a “Compost You Can Really Do” workshop from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m., where you can learn all about how to decrease your waste. Three times a year, Urban Roots also hosts open houses where everyone is invited to learn more about the organization and share a free meal together. The next open house will be on August 25th from 4:00 - 8:00 p.m. and is kid and family friendly. On September 20th, Urban Roots will hold its first fundraising event on the farm. For $50, there will be a five-course meal made by Jeremy Paquin, the head chef from Grove, and it is a chance to gather together as a community and support Urban Roots.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.