As I arrived at the Kids’ Food Basket farm to volunteer I was reminded of a scene from Andy Weir’s bestselling novel, and later movie, The Martian. That might sound odd, but it really was what first struck me about the farm. As on Weir’s fictional Mars, volunteers were working hard under the beating sun to make improbable green shoots sprout from the cracked, dry Earth. The difference in scale was that, while Weir’s Mark Watney worked only to feed himself in a hostile environment, the volunteers and staff at Kids’ Food Basket were working to feed hungry kids across the very city whose encroaching urban sprawl threatened their tiny parcel of farmland, as fragile ecologically speaking as a human habitation on Mars.
That might sound overly dramatic, but the story of the last Grand Rapids farm has been just that. Despite the looming big city all around it, the farm on Plymouth Avenue near Leonard Street had remained a farm for over 100 years until it went up for sale in 2016. With the support of the Wege Foundation, the local non-profit Kids’ Food Basket, which was forced to move five times during its seventeen years in operation, was able to purchase the last remaining farm land within the City of Grand Rapids. Here they were able to build their new headquarters and expand their response to meet community needs, including educating visiting students.
The farm is supported by volunteers, one of whom has a special connection to the property. Volunteer Madison Herbart’s great-grandfather owned the farm during the 1940’s. Since the farm changed hands she has come back to volunteer for Kids’ Food Basket. We had the chance to interview Madison to learn about her family’s experiences on the farm, both before and after it was owned by Kids’ Food Basket.
What years did your great grandfather work the farm? What main crop/s did he grow?
My great grandfather, Carl, bought the farm in the 1940s and lived there for [a few years]. Carl was a quality control engineer at Fisher Body (General Motors) so the farm was just a family home and hobby rather than a career … There were cherry trees, grapes vines, asparagus, tomatoes, corn, sunflowers, green beans. Mary [Madison’s Aunt] remembers visiting years later and seeing that the farm would have a food stand even after it sold.The family also had cows and pigs. … My great grandmother would can vegetables, but she hated it. The family would also brew root beer in the basement, but sometimes the bottles would explode. Once there were kittens birthed in the car which made Carl mad, but he let Mary keep them there with the windows rolled down a little.
When did your family sell the farm?
The Herbarts moved from the farm to the Detroit area when Carl got an offer with Ford Motor Company who he worked with for another 20 years.
What was your family’s reaction about Kids’ Food Basket finding its home at the farm and that part of the land would remain a 9-acre farm?
My grandpa Roger and aunt Mary were very pleased. … They thought their father Carl would be really happy to know it was still a farm, and being used for a good purpose. Aunt Mary and Roger think it’d be fantastic to go and visit the farm. Mary hopes she can see it in August (she lives in Georgia) on her trip to celebrate Roger’s 80th birthday.
What are your childhood memories of your grandparents’ farm?
My Aunt Mary’s favorite memories were when her dad Carl got a new car, and she spent time playing with the little girl next door. Mary enjoyed making tunnels in the snow around the property in the winter. They’d also make igloos with all of the snow. They walked to school at Beckwith Elementary (it’s now an Adult Education Center at the corner of Beckwith and Leonard). As a child, my Aunt Mary would try and get into the pig pen to play with the baby pigs, evidently she did once, and her mom didn’t like that. Grandpa Roger would use the sticks from the trees and the grape vines to build huts/tents and pretend to camp. My grandpa Roger … tried to set the barn on fire a few times (though he’d say he was making a camp fire!) He tells the story that once the GR Police came by because there was a fire in the neighborhood and they thought it was because of “the little red head kid,” he was innocent (that time), though.
Kids’ Food Basket includes educating more young people about farming as part of their mission. What impact do you believe farm experience has on young people? Do you believe that more students should spend at least some time on farms?
Aunt Mary loved having fresh vegetables, but she doesn’t have a green thumb herself. Her husband Bill was always the better gardener in their marriage. Aunt Mary thinks it’s really important to spend time at the farm, [especially] with the pandemic because there could be a shortage of vegetables.
What place do you think sustainable agriculture has in the environmental movement?
It’s important, being a farmer is an essential role.
Is there anything else you would like to share about the story of the farm?
Carl is the great grandson of Johann Fredrick Herbart. Johann was a German doctor of philosophy who specialized in child psychology. My family has a Webster Dictionary that credits him as a founder of kindergarten. Johann was also in one of my text books while I was in an FSU Psychology Senior Seminar course. I am now a school psychologist with Mecosta Osceola ISD but I live not too far from the farm. It’s almost poetic that KFB works with school age kids, completing a circle almost with my family history and present day.
Even though Governor Whitmer has issued a state wide shutdown, life hasn’t simply stopped for most people. Nonprofits serve a variety of needs for the citizens of Michigan and those needs did not shut down when the state did. Quite to the contrary, many of Michigan’s non-profits are now more vital than ever to people who have been displaced by COVID-19.
Since schools have shut down, children who are reliant on school programs for their meals are going hungry. To help with this need Food Basket is continuing to provide meals to children even while school is out. Kids’ Food Basket normally relies on volunteers to staff a production line where meals are packed, but in the era of COVID-19 that is no longer an option. Instead, Kids’ Food Basket is asking that volunteers who are staying home donate to their efforts so that they can continue to feed vulnerable kids even though resources are short during the current crisis. You can find out how to help at https://www.kidsfoodbasket.org/emergencyresponse/.