A farmers market and U-pick garden that represents the people it's servicing have been the dream of lifetime gardener Takunia Collins or T.C., the frontman and founder of the non-profit agricultural education group Willow Run Acres.
With the closest grocery store to the MacArthur Boulevard neighborhood in Ypsilanti being over two miles away, Collins plans to revive a grassy, vacant lot in the area with new life through a farmers market and community garden called Clay Hill Farm Market. The market, which will serve one of the highest concentrations of low-income residents in Washtenaw County with fresh produce, is set to be located just south of the Superior Branch Ypsilanti District Library.
Willow Run Acres is fronting the cost for the community farm through aid from the American Rescue Plan Act. The Superior Township Board of Trustees voted unanimously to allocate remaining Covid relief funds to Willow Run for this project. The fund has a cap of $190,000, but Collin’s said a fully sustainable project will cost around $450,000, which includes an energy-efficient water system, equipment and supplies, a rainwater harvester and compost.
Collins was trained as a chef before he was involved in a car accident with a drunk driver in his mid 20’s that forced him out of work and back to his roots as a gardener. He has been gardening since he was three or four years old, learning traits passed down by his great-grandparents who were slaves, his grandma and grandfather who were sharecroppers, and his mother who was a domestic worker. Collins also started teaching his neighborhood friends the basics of gardening at this age and saw the effect it had on them.
“They took ownership of it. They took pride in the plants they identified,” Collins said.
Now, Collins himself takes pride in giving back to the Ypsilanti community through Willow Run Acres. The farm hosts free classes for the public, provides food for community food gatherers to give back food, and has partnerships with many school districts across Washtenaw County to instruct gardening programs to all ages of students.
“We buy stuff and give it right back to the community because the community helped me get back on my feet," he said.
Willow Run Acre’s teaches the basics of gardening to connect where food comes from. Part of the education is learning about food literacy by giving meaning to generic terms like mixed greens- mustard, turnip and collard greens put together- which builds consumer’s relationship to their groceries. To further help diversify people’s cuisine, Collins also said the farm tries to grow potatoes other than white potatoes because it’s the most common potato sold.
“We grow red potatoes, we grow purple potatoes, we grow yellow potatoes, we grow fingerling potatoes, we grow heirloom potatoes to get the mind to open up,” he said.
While food prices are expected to grow more slowly in 2023, the US Department of Agriculture is predicting all food prices will rise 7.5%, which is higher than historical average rates. Fresh vegetable prices are expected to rise by 1.3% and processed vegetables will see a staggering 11.4% increase in 2023.
“We are building a farmer's market for the residents to have access to food, an area to have a U-Pick Farm, a fruit and Orchard for fruit and rambles and strawberries to be established, and also an area where residents can sell their own produce and do the same that I'm doing because I don't want to be the only one with my elbows out because that’s not fair," Collins said. "If I see an opportunity that we can all share the space, then we should all share the space."
The goal of the market is to allocate land to community members of all ages to those who may never had opportunities to own land. The market will be self-sustaining and residents will have space to grow, harvest and sell produce.
Willow Run Acres is seeking volunteers to help in their efforts. Collins is currently working on paperwork and checking all the compliance boxes on the proposed area for the market and garden. As the weather improves, volunteers of Willow run Acres will begin signing up for work days to clean up trash, mark trees that need to be cut down and remove invasive plants to begin the construction process.