Soil Survivor: Talking with Noah Link, Founder of Detroit’s Food Field
Almost fifty years ago, deadly riots shook Detroit for five days. The city smoldered with economic, racial, and social friction long after the 483 recorded fires were extinguished. Hundreds of families were left homeless, and ultimately hundreds of thousands left town. The tax base dwindled, education quality declined, and many schools closed.
Today, blocks from where the 1967 12th Street riots started, a four-acre organic farm flourishes on the grounds of a former elementary school.
The conditions are not all rosy. “You sure you want me to leave you here?” a skeptical Uber-driver asked as I climbed out with my camera on the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard (formerly 12th Street).
Food Field spans a city block. Adjacent to the Boston-Edison Historic District, once home to Henry Ford and boxer Joe Lewis, the area, like much of Detroit, is dotted with vacant lots and burnt-out buildings.
Farm founders Noah Link and Alex Bryan, both Michiganders from Laingsburg, planted the first Food Field seeds here in 2011. They purchased the lots from the Michigan Land Bank, which acquires abandoned and tax-foreclosed properties.
Task-focused yet affable, Link made time on a recent Saturday to give me a brief tour. His rapid speech was outpaced by his long-limbs as I hurried to keep up on the 90-degree afternoon.
The farm is sprawling. What are some challenges?
It’s hard to manage because of the size. We have three people part-time during the week, plus volunteers. There are ups and downs but we’re meeting expenses and paying help. Budget is tight. I work full time and I have some woofers right now.
“Willing Workers On Organic Farms”, like couch surfing for farmers. People come and stay for free and work on the farm.
Do you live on site?
I live here part time and share a house in Boston-Edison. This place is also available on Airbnb. (The “cosy shipping container house includes a loft bed, couch, small kitchen…wifi, hot shower plus an outdoor composting toilet” for $75/night. It has a 5-star rating for cleanliness.)
What is the property’s history?
This used to be Peck Elementary School. A baseball diamond backstop is now my chicken yard. Before that it was part of Sacred Heart Convent.
Your visitors were eager to introduce me to the baby turkeys.
Yeah, we incubated them in the (wood-fired) hot tub in the hoop house.
What are you excited about this season?
The urban livestock ordinance that’s in progress. We will have less risk (since) right now the city can show up and take the animals.
What’s swimming in the hoop house?
A mix of catfish and bluegill.
Is the system hydroponic?
Aquaponic. It combines hydroponics, without soil, and aqua culture– the best of both elements. Fish waste creates plant fertility that would be artificial in hydroponics. Plants filter out the water for the fish. It’s more or less a closed-loop system. The only inputs are fish food and rain water, to make up for evaporation.
It took two years to raise the funds. We lost the first batch of fish in 2013. Now there are around 400 but we lost a bunch a few weeks ago. We had a lot of rain, which caused a power shortage. In the winter we run the pump less and the fish hibernate.
The top row is over my head – is that basil?
It’s a mix of transplants – basil, cabbage, kale, tomatoes, cabbage and peppers get started up there (before being transplanted to the field).
The sump pump brings the aquarium water up to these plant trays. We run it a couple of hours per day. We could add more fish but would need to run the pump more.
And solar panels power everything?
Yes, we are off the grid. We chose solar because of problems getting power connected on the farm, the process became more and more expensive. There were no utilities left from school. It’s been a rocky road, but I’m not sure what we could have done differently.
Tell me about your neighborhood.
It’s changing. A few neighbors live across the street but there is more demolition and people are leaving. The best would be to stop the foreclosures, but it’s better to tear down the blighted houses than to let them rot.
You grew up in the middle of the state, what drew you to Detroit?
My parents are from here and I went to school in Ann Arbor; I was interested in urban agriculture and there is so much land here, a lot of potential.
Where are the thousands of pounds of Food Field produce sold?
We have a cooperative, City Commons CSA, with three other farms and we sell in Eastern Market, Corktown Market, and wholesale to restaurants. [We also have] a farm stand on site, but there’s not a lot of traffic there.
We got approved to do Double Up Food Bucks so people can use stamp benefits here too. (As part of the Fair Food Network, Double Up Food Bucks allow eligible shoppers to earn credits for free Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables whenever they make purchases at farmers markets.)
Are you also a beekeeper?
I just host the hives. Rich from Green Toe Gardens comes every week or two to collect honey.
The Food Field website mentions farm-to-table meals. When and where?
Yes, we host Friday dinners. And some brunches too. They’re announced on our Facebook page.
Do you have a typical fall day?
We’re doing more harvesting and less planting and weeding [in the fall], so we have more time for other projects– like finishing the deck.
Learn more about Food Field Detroit here.