Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Backyard Poultry Debate on Michigan's West Side

On the west side of the mitt, in my home town of Holland, a debate on the role of backyard livestock is heating up. Chickens are one of the greatest pets a child could ever have and have economic, nutritional, and practical advantages as urban livestock. 

Currently only a few cities in Michigan allow people to keep chickens as pets. In these cases, birds are able to provide eggs daily, can fertilize and control pests in gardens and can be enjoyable family pets. The only cities in Michigan that I can find that allow chickens within city limits are Ann Arbor, Benton Harbor, Lansing, East Lansing, and Traverse City. Several of the cities require permits and most have a cap of 4-5 hens and do not allow roosters. Having no roosters mean the birds are quieter than an average dog and the eggs are sterile and 4 birds cannot become 20.

My father just had an article published in the Holland Sentinel about the shift in public and residential policy that is needed in a nature starved and agriculturally isolated environment.

This is one of the hurdles that needs to be overcome in order to encourage positive changes that democratize and decentralize the American food system. If we want to develop urban environments that are therapeutic and foster discovery and personal ownership of food production, these simple steps are vital. I would encourage individuals to enquire as to the local laws surrounding a handful of backyard hens. If they are amenable I encourage people to take advantage of them. If laws do not allow them write a letter to the editor in local newspapers and push for new coop laws.  Public perception and policy toward the keeping of a small number of reasonably contained and maintained urban chickens needs to shift in order to push Michigan towards wider sustainability and healthy living.




Friday, May 21, 2010

Introducing Myself

Hello, I am one of the newest members of the UAID blog team here and I figured I would briefly introduce myself.

I am T. Michael Kates, a graduate student at Michigan State University. I work in the Field Crops Entomology Lab. I am doing research on soybean aphid control. My work involves breeding plants that do not need to be sprayed with insecticides as frequently, lessening environmental impacts and increasing the profit margin for growers. I am also looking at ways of preserving the natural pest control services provided by insects naturally in the environment; examples include lady beetles and predatory flies.


I am not directly involved in the urban agriculture work OF UAID, but I bring my larger perspective of agriculture. My interests center around sustainable food production that include urban and rural food systems as well as educating youth on agriculture. Feel free to check out my personal blog or look at some stuff I have had published in the past.


I hope to pop in here every once in a while and discuss some of the happenings in Michigan agriculture.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


We've been quietly busy lately - I gave two workshops at Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts, a consortium I attended my senior year of high school, one for the European History class and another for the Environmental Science students. Overall, I felt the workshop was well-received and the students were interested in (or at least respectful of) the issues presented. The AP Environmental Science instructor is already very involved with Detroit agriculture - her only recommendation was that the next time I do a presentation, I bring a goat with me!

We're also still pursuing the idea of a therapy garden at the Children's Center. Currently, we're putting together a proposal for the center to look at; perhaps we'll send it to other places that serve vulnerable children as well. Once that's done, we have grant applications to do and Americorps volunteers to apply for.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Update: Therapy Garden

Not so long ago, I posted about "nature deficit disorder" and my concerns for Detroit's children. As a step toward ameliorating this problem, I've talked to a contact at the Children's Center of Wayne County about establishing a therapy garden there to be used for individual and group sessions. He liked the initial idea and will "kick it around" with someone who knows more about their buildings and grounds.

This afternoon, I met with Myung Ju, a monk/architect at the Detroit Zen Center, to discuss the requirements and costs of the type of green roof that would be necessary at the Children's Center if there isn't ground-level space available for a therapy garden. She was very helpful and encouraging, although she cautioned that with the increased weight of a green roof, re-framing is necessary in many buildings. I hope to meet with someone at the Children's Center soon to learn more about their building structure and materials so that we can better estimate costs.

I was also excited to find out that the DTE building in Detroit has the same kind of green roof that we'd like for the Children's Center - high intensity, which allows for people to walk on the roof (of course, this requires more structural work because it's heavier). She also mentioned that Chicago has multiple green roofs worth visiting. If we manage to take a trip out to Milwaukee this summer to visit Growing Power and some other organizations, a stop in Chicago may be in order.

What do you think about the idea of green therapy? Have you ever seen a green roof?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Detroit's Lead Dilemma

When everyone talks about revitalizing Detroit, right-sizing the city, and creating urban homesteads, they plan for at least some urban agriculture to fill in. UAID loves this idea and sees it as a potential solution to Detroit's food system issues. However, there are obstacles to be overcome before large scale urban agriculture becomes reality.

One obstacle that UAID is particularly interested in right now is heavy metal toxicity in the soil. Because of Detroit's industrial past, there's a lot of stuff in the soil that doesn't exist in rural environments. One heavy metal that's of special concern is lead. It's common knowledge that Superman's powers were affected by lead - turns out humans are affected too. According to the EPA, if not detected early, children with high levels of lead in their bodies can suffer from damage to the brain and nervous system, behavior and learning problems, such as hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and headaches. Adults are also affected, with symptoms such as reproductive problems (in both men and women), high blood pressure and hypertension, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain.

Detroit's lead levels come mainly from leaded gasoline (and is therefore prevalent everywhere that lots of cars were driven, which is . . . everywhere) and lead-based paint (a problem in older houses if children live in them and eat paint chips or if the houses are demolished and the paint isn't properly managed). 3.8% of children in Detroit have lead poisoning (and since there's no real threshold where lead starts to have effects, any child with lead exposure could have some symptoms). This seems fairly low until you consider that this is three times the state average percentage and means that in a class of 25 children, at least one is likely to have lead poisoning. Remember all those things that lead poisoning did, like causing brain damage, behavior problems, and learning difficulties? Imagine trying to succeed in a school environment already behind because of lead poisoning.

Obviously, we don't want to increase levels of lead poisoning by feeding people produce contaminated with lead. However, there are many questions in this area. Here are just a few:

1. Do plants take up lead as they grow? Do they all take up the same amount? Knowing how much different kinds of plants will absorb lead can help us decide how much remediation to do and which kinds of crops to grow.

2. Are typical methods of remediation applicable to this situation? Typical methods may involve removing contaminated soil and replacing it with clean soil.

3. What other methods are available for remediation? Could we use phytoremediation (plants that take up lead, thereby removing it from the soil) or vermiculture (worms have filtered soil for thousands of years - perhaps they can remove lead)?

The good news and bad news is that there's much we don't know - which means that we need to learn a lot, but there's potential for a solution. And on the plus side for the D, if they find it, other cities can use it, which will show the world that Detroit still leads innovation.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Group Blog

When UAID started this blog (as Detroit Goat Farm), we intended it to be a group blog. However, that didn't happen at first, and it ended up being me sharing my thoughts. While I think my thoughts are interesting enough, I'm guessing readers would appreciate multiple perspectives.

With that in mind, I've invited a few other people to post - hope you find their thoughts fresh and insightful.

Monday, May 3, 2010

UAID in a Nutshell

When we go to conferences, or social events, or other gatherings where people hear about UAID for the first time, people want what I call the "cocktail version" of what UAID is: a brief description that gives them the general idea. This is normally a struggle, partly because we've been involved in fairly limited activities so far compared to what we dream of doing. Essentially, because we're in the beginning stages still, there's a lot of shaping left to do.

I struggle to fit UAID in a nutshell - it certainly isn't almond sized, or hazelnut sized, or walnut sized. Maybe if I go for coconut-sized (a coconut is the largest nut in the world), I can manage it.

I picture UAID as a web of connections, or a network of bridges, between people who are and/or should be interested in Detroit. So far, we have some departments from Michigan State University on board, a bookstore in Lansing, and a community collective in Detroit. We're looking into additional partnerships all the time. The key, for us, is innovation (the word "initiative" helps convey this - the idea of a beginning, a fresh start). Detroit needs something new, something fresh, something knowledge-based. I know many people don't see agriculture as a knowledge-based field, but especially in urban areas, there's a lot of learning that needs to happen before it reaches its full potential. We see the challenges of urban agriculture not as an impediment to success, but as a pathway to fixing overall food systems.

That said, we are not about starting new community gardens, although we love community gardens and hope to see more of them - Greening of Detroit is doing a great job with that, and I'm constantly amazed by the level of support they offer Detroiters. We're not about starting goat farms, either (although some people do know us as the "goat girls") - though we love goats, think there's a place for them in the city, and have worked to create opportunities for that. We're not about aquaculture, or green therapy, or alternative energy. We're about seeing all of those things working together in a process that creates a sustainable economy for Detroit.

That's UAID in a nutshell.