This is a transcript of the June 25 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast for what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. For this season of Working, we left the East Coast behind and flew to Detroit. We’re speaking with eight people who are drawing on the city’s complex history as they work to create its future. In this week’s episode, we visited an urban farm run by a guy named Greg Willerer, who goes by the nom de farm “Brother Nature.” We followed him around an acre or two of carefully cultivated land as he harvested spinach and other greens then packaged them up to sell to at local restaurants. If you listen carefully, you might hear an adorable duckling chirping in the background as Greg clipped away at his crops.
Greg Willerer: You hear the ducks back there?
Brogan: Yeah. I went and said hi to one of them.
Willerer: They are so funny.
Brogan: Are those your ducks?
Willerer: Yeah. Well, my daughter’s ducks.
Brogan: Willerer also talked to us about responding to the cycle of the seasons and about his favorite crops to plant. But then, of course, he also went into the underlying urban dynamics in Detroit from decades of white flight to more recent efforts toward revitalization that both underlie and complicate his work. Then, in the Slate Plus extra, Willerer tells us about some of the equipment that makes life on an urban farm feasible.
What is your name and what do you do?
Willerer: My name is Greg Willerer and my wife and I run Brother Nature Farm. We are an urban farm and a rural farm. We have a 6.9-acre plot out in the country as well, but we’re an urban farm that specializes in salad mix.
Brogan: What does urban farming entail in Detroit? How is that different from farming as folks might think of it normally?
Willerer: It’s different because it’s smaller plots and it’s often difficult because the city doesn’t really want to sell us a lot of this land.
Brogan: This was land owned by the city that we’re on now?
Willerer: We own this plot, but not all of the farm that we’re growing on here. It’s not possible for us to buy it just yet. They’re more open to having speculators come through and buy lots, and not doing anything with them than they are for people to actually take care of them.
There’s a downside to that. You have smaller spaces and people are trying to do high-efficiency things like microgreens and salad. Then on a positive note, you have a really nice array of restaurants and markets, and a close distance between the restaurant and the farm here, so a lot of urban farmers are doing really well if they’re selling things that are very efficient in a small space like flowers or fruit, like strawberries and stuff like that. Other efficient growers are doing value-added products, things like that. You have a sort of micro marketing strategy where you have people in the neighborhoods and you have people at the markets and restaurants that you could sell to.
Brogan: How much land do you have out here? How much land are you growing on?
Willerer: This is just under an acre, which is about nine lots. We own about four of these lots.
Brogan: You’re growing salad greens. We’re in a greenhouse structure right now. What are you growing in here?
Willerer: There’s a little bit of spinach, a little bit of mizuna, some other Asian greens and arugula. We put lots of arugula and baby mustards and all kinds of things in the mix that you wouldn’t typically see in a spring mix. A spring mix is so universal nowadays. It doesn’t really taste like anything, so we tend to put things in that have a sort of extreme flavor.
What I’m giving you guys is called mizuna, but it’s not your usual restaurant mizuna. It’s something that has a sort of delayed reaction.
Brogan: Really slow, spicy arrival of flavor.
Willerer: Yeah, yeah. In June, when it’s really hot, it smacks you in the face five seconds after you stick it in your mouth, so it’s really unusual.
Brogan: It’s astonishing. I’ve never eaten a green like that, I don’t think.
Willerer: Yeah. Having something that is unique in terms of its flavor and color, and shape, and also something that is unique and hours old, and not days old before the customer gets it.
Brogan: Because you’re taking it right to the restaurants or—
Brogan: Right now, you’re harvesting some of these greens.
Brogan: Clipping them and putting them in a—bagging them up, I guess, right?
Brogan: This is, at this point, mid-late afternoon. What do you do most of the day?
Willerer: Most of the day on Fridays, I’m harvesting, and most of the day on the beginning of the week—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—we’re planting. A good chunk of my time, there’s like different things that I get to do. Some of it’s using the New Holland right there with the old-school bottom plow—
Brogan: Big old blue back [inaudible].
Willerer: Yeah, and it’s the combination of a variety of tasks, but a lot of time is spent plowing and raking, and tilling. We do a lot of that by hand, but the plowing is with the machine.
Then we have all these breweries and friends that are landscapers, and coffee shops, so you can see there’s a lot of coffee grounds in the pile over there. We typically have, I would say, about 400 cubic yards of landscaping and restaurant waste, not food scraps, but just the coffee grounds. Nothing that’s gonna attract mice or even rats, but the brewery waste and the leaves break down super-quick if you turn it with that loader.
Six months later, we have all of this compost that’s finished and ready to go on top of our rows. When you were walking around you might have noticed the sidewalk. It’s hard to see because we’re about two feet above what used to be the sidewalk and what was level to the sidewalk.
Brogan: That’s just from accumulated ...
Willerer: Every year since like, what, 2005 and ’06, when I started breaking ground on a lot of this, every year we’re adding more materials. In fact, before I even started farming I had mulched everything with tons of leaves, wood chips, and brewery waste to form an organic barrier. That would keep some of the grass in check. It would keep some of the other weeds and even some trees that I cut down from tunneling through because you’re suffocating everything.
It’s almost like this green version of slash-and-burn because you’re composting on top of things, and you’re keeping a barrier between the old plants and the new plants.
Brogan: I’m interested in this detail that some of what you’re churning into the compost area is coming from local breweries, local coffee shops, is that true too?
Brogan: It seems like some of what you’re doing is possible because of other businesses, other startups and things like this, that are active in Detroit right now. Fair to say?
Willerer: Yeah. It depends. There’re a lot of businesses that are—to be honest, they’re frivolous, like where are all these upper-middle-class, almost millionaires, to buy all of these froufrou watches and interesting things that people are doing with these Detroit startups. I don’t know. It’s just some of the startups that you hear about in the city are not really things that Detroiters themselves would even use or bother with. We’re very atypical.
But there are some businesses, a lot of restaurants that have started up and other food businesses that—we’re all pretty symbiotic. We often use the word “ecosystem” to talk about how a lot of these food businesses, whether they’re restaurants or people that are doing on-the-shelf products at the grocery stores sometimes use the stuff that I’m cutting right now or stuff from other urban farms. Even DPS, Detroit Public Schools, buys a significant amount of things like squash and stuff that doesn’t perish right away for the menu at a lot of Detroit public schools.
Brogan: How did you get started in this in the first place? You said you got going back in 2005?
Willerer: Yeah. I was a teacher at the time and I was a very good teacher.
Brogan: I believe it.
Willerer: I just got really tired of teaching to the test. I was at a charter school and you know how things go. If you know your history, like when the economy goes bad, they, meaning like the employers, think that you should just be grateful to have a job and, a lot of schools, not just my schools, but a lot of schools were treating their teachers really unfairly. Whether it’s not having any sort of say in our curriculum, we were trying to form a union. It wasn’t about money. It was more about just not teaching to the test and just making things that we thought we could do to make the school better in a very intrinsically motivated way. That ended up badly for a lot of people, including myself.
I was gardening a lot and a lot of this newer generation of gardeners was selling our products at [inaudible]
Brogan: They were selling products that you were growing?
Willerer: Yeah. We were selling extra heirloom tomatoes and basil, and salads, and stuff like that. It was something I was doing in the summertime. My students and I were doing a lot of community gardening as well. A lot of them were in a program to sell at the markets and it was just really inspiring and really exciting. My mom’s a chef and my brother’s a chef. I knew the value of how much a lot of this stuff costs even if you’re wholesaling it.
A lot of the basil and micro greens and other things like that are really expensive. Just looking at what I was doing, I just challenged myself to expand the farm a little bit more and then get it to a point where I could make a living, and make as much as I was teaching doing this, and on an acre.
Brogan: Did you?
Willerer: I did. It took a couple years. Fortunately, I was in place where I didn’t have a mortgage because I bought the white house there. I bought it with cash. Then recently my wife and I, you know, which, this was about 10 years after I bought the white house. Fast-forward, I’m married and my wife and I were living in the white house at the time. We bought this corner house too, cash.
Yeah, we were making a living doing this and with the freedom to decide what we were going to do every day and not having someone undo the work that you’re doing, or telling you what to do and all this other stuff. It was just a much more enjoyable lifestyle to have the freedom to decide everything that you want to decide during a given day instead of being told what you’re gonna do, how you’re gonna do it, and how much time you should have to do it.
Brogan: I imagine that one thing it does though, have to necessarily direct the rhythms in your life, to some extent, is the seasons.
Willerer: Yeah, and the weather. There were times last year where it was just really hard to go out because it was so hot. We had a heat wave, you know?
Willerer: We are at the mercy of the weather and I would rather be at the mercy of the weather than someone who thinks they know how to teach, and someone who thinks they know how to make policy decisions.
Brogan: Yeah. How much does it affect your bottom line, though? Do the economics of urban farming change throughout the year as crops change and such?
Willerer: No. We’re blessed and we’re fortunate enough to have so many restaurants nearby. Not all of them want our stuff, but a lot of them do. What we’re doing is a sort of import replacement, a term that economists use. Stuff that doesn’t need to be imported can be replaced locally. We have a superior product that tastes so much better than the stuff that’s imported from California and Mexico, or wherever spring mix comes from. Because of that, there’s always a demand for our stuff.
Brogan: It’s spring. You’re growing these spring greens, some of which are really unlike, as you showed us before, you know, anything you’d normally find in a spring mix bag. What do you grow the rest of the year?
Willerer: Pretty much the same thing. There are some things specific to the summer that we do. We’ll have some lettuces that we grow that can handle the heat better than arugula and spinach, that do not like the heat. Then in the fall, we’ll just replant the same mix that you see right here and we’ll grow that again in the fall. A lot of this stuff, like this spinach, for example, that I’m cutting, it’s from last September. It wintered over and it goes dormant in the winter, but it’s still alive. Then it grows again in the spring. I’m cutting on it now and it’s about to go to seed, so we’re gonna rip it out and we’ll put back in some more spinach, back in probably in September for wintering over.
We don’t really have to work over the winter, but to be honest, that big steel beast right there is the plow for the truck. A lot of these restaurants I sell to, I’ll plow snow for them in the winter months. It’s one of those things, like I’ll have nothing to do for six days. On the seventh day, we might get a little bit of snow and I’ll go out and do some work. It’s pretty chill—most of my winter is like a summer vacation where I’m just drinking and playing ice hockey, basically.
Brogan: What are your favorite things to grow out here?
Willerer: My passion is truly in leafy greens. I love growing things that are atypical that have a much better flavor. One of my favorite things is purslane. Purslane is this little tiny weed. It looks like a jade tree plant, but smaller and it grows in some impossible places, like the cracks in the sidewalk and stuff like that.
It’s a succulent, so it grows really well in the heat of summer. Then it ends up—now there’s none, but here it’s still kind of cold to see it. Actually, this is one right here. This is just a little sprout of it. See how it looks like a jade tree plant and has a red stem, and a green rounded leaf like a jade tree. But it tastes citrusy and it’s juicy because it’s a succulent. It sequesters so many nutrients, so it’s really, really beneficial for your health, for your energy level, all of these things. For years, we’ve grown it without actually planting the seeds because it comes up as a weed, right? Then we encourage it, it goes to seed in certain places, so this time of year we’re planting arugula, mizuna, or something else.
When the soil temperature gets to be about 65, the stuff that we just planted will sprout and then purslane will sprout on its own. It’s like a garden volunteer, what a lot of people refer to. It’s amazing because you cut it every week and it’s tasty, and it’s exotic-looking. People don’t expect to see that. Even some of my friends will take it off the plate thinking that I put a weed in there by mistake, but it’s this amazing plant.
Brogan: I do notice that there are some other plants that I would recognize, at least, as weeds, clovers, and little sprigs of grass, and things, like is this some kind of a dandelion here?
Willerer: Yeah. That’s how you know if it’s organic. You go to some farms out in the country and everything is organized in rows. There’s nothing coming up except the corn or except the soybeans. It’s because they spray the hell out of stuff. If you’re going through someone’s vineyard, or you’re going through someone’s farm, you can tell. ... Yeah, there’s grass growing into the side of the greenhouse, and it’s a little unkempt compared to some other. You can trust that if you have a 2-year-old child or something and they’re gonna be in here, that they’re not gonna get something that is gonna make them sick or give them a rash where they break out because everything in here is chemical-free. Everything on our little area is chemical-free except for the lawnmower.
Brogan: You’re listening to urban farmer Greg Willerer, aka Brother Nature. After this brief break, he tells us about selling the plants that he grows to local restaurants.
* * *
Brogan: If someone was here in Detroit and they wanted to visit a restaurant where they could potentially find some of your salad greens, where would they go?
Willerer: There’re a few places. There’s a nice little bodega grocery store called The Farmer’s Hand at Bagley and Trumbull in Corktown. It’s a little 20-minute walk from here. Farmer’s Hand is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a sort of consignment shop for local farmers, so our stuff is on the shelf there. Other farmers have their things on the shelf as well, but there’s also a sort of bodega sandwich shop. They make sandwiches and wraps, and things like that. You can get a bite to eat, you can get some really good coffee, things like that as well, and other products that are Michigan products. Everything at that store that’s being sold comes from a radius of about 100 miles, maybe 200 miles from their store, so you can definitely count on it.
Hey, Mama Vicki.
Mama Vicki: Hey.
Brogan: Do you have to spend much time—
Vicki: I want to know why you chasing the ducks.
Brogan: —developing your business? Do you have to reach out to other businesses and build relationships and such, or do people just come to you at this point?
Willerer: That’s a good question because we were largely doing this while the grocery stores gave up on Detroit and there were no major-chain grocery stores for years. Then, all of a sudden, three or four years ago Whole Foods moved in and now Meijer came back to the city. A lot of our usual customers that would be at Eastern Market don’t bother showing up anymore because—
Brogan: Was Eastern Market a farmers market?
Willerer: Yeah. It’s the biggest kind of a hybrid market with wholesalers and farmers, biggest market probably in the country. We sell a lot of our stuff there, but it’s frustrating because a lot of people ... they gave up on it.
I have these bags all prepped for you, Livie. For the—
Livie: Something else in there.
Willerer: Yeah. There’s sorrel, there’s spinach, there is mizuna in here and that should be enough.
I could put more spinach in it if you need it. Then there’s three bags I’m forming of just spinach by itself or I would go down to two. That’s what the customer is getting, a mix of pretty much everything that we grow.
Brogan: Are there days where you’re just at the market all day or are you here on the farm most days?
Willerer: Saturdays we do the market all day. We’re there early in the morning until probably about, I’d say, 3:30 at the latest. Then the other days, we’re doing a lot of wholesaling now because some of these other farmers’ markets just aren’t busy enough, so ...
Brogan: Is that where you’re having to call up restaurants and try to sell them on your things or—
Willerer: Oh, no. We don’t have to do that anymore. They actually call me now. We bend over backward for a lot of the chefs and they remember us, and take care of us for that. Although we are doing something new and unusual. By this August, we hope to have a trailer, not like the trailer you see the ducks going in and out of, but a sort of landscaping trailer that’s enclosed that we get a service window on and we do a sort of food or produce truck out of.
We do our salads to-go, so people could get a salad to go for five bucks that would probably be twice that in a restaurant, that other urban farmers could sell some of their things, whether it’s jam they made or stuff that they’re harvesting on their farm. It would be like fresh food and some prepared foods as well. We’re gonna partner with not just other urban farmers, but an organization called Food Lab, which is a business incubator in the city of Detroit that has ...
Again, it’s like that ecosystem. People are helping each other to get their food businesses started and there is a lot of cooperation, not competition between each other. When you do that, it’s a smart strategy because the competition isn’t coming from our neighbors or from other farmers. The competition is coming from corporate America. We want to try to get people in the city to stop going out to the suburbs and going to those strip malls, and spending their money there. Instead, support each other here in the city, mom-and-pop businesses, black-owned businesses, and even farmers’ markets.
Brogan: At this point, are there any persistent frustrations to urban farming for you, or is it all sunshine?
Willerer: The city, basically. The city has no idea how many people are really interested in coming here as a tourist to see urban farms and to see all of these small businesses and restaurants. It’s the same thing as like a New York or a Toronto, but on a Detroit scale. People don’t go to New York because they want to see this big new Target or Macy’s. Maybe some people do go to see Macy’s, but they go to New York or Toronto to be a part of that mosaic of small businesses and restaurants, and kind of get lost in that labyrinth that is a New York or a Toronto, or even other major cities like Seattle or San Francisco. They don’t go there for the one-horse nature of things.
But the way our city is functioning, they’re catering to Little Caesars, they’re catering to these large companies to do their thing. That’s not how you build a city. That’s how you get people excited and then it crashes. The nature of our economy is so fragile and like why people would put so much time and money and resources into stadiums and stuff like that is just so insane to me. Where, if you want people to really support a city and to do something long-term, you should support the people, the neighborhoods, and the small businesses.
Brogan: Under the best-case scenario circumstances, what would your business look like? How do you hope to make it grow?
Willerer: If we could buy the lots beyond the little stuff close to the house that we have, it would look like a sort of Area 51, but without ... aliens would all be salad growing in sorts of hangers.
Brogan: It seems like a lot of the houses around here are, if not abandoned, then actively dilapidated. Does that mean that the city itself owns them? What’s the story there?
Willerer: Most of it, you know, just people like—I don’t want to say black people because it’s really not—a lot of the black folks didn’t just leave their house sitting there, you know, if they left. A lot of this is still this continuation of white flight where these white people here and here, and the house that we just bought, they just left the house. That house right there was gonna get torched like a lot of other places, probably, if we didn’t intervene to buy it. People, for decades, were just leaving their house or they were torching them themselves to get the insurance money.
Then people look at black Detroit as the cause of all of this blight and devastation. It’s not. It’s like white people leaving the city and it’s still been going on. It’s easy for me to witness that here because this is largely a 50/50 neighborhood. It was like mostly Appalachian and black in the ’60s. It’s easy for me to see that here in this neighborhood. Other neighborhoods are different, but a huge case of that is white flight and Detroit is still unable to get it right.
You have this amazing city, a huge city that used to support two million people plus and now there’s under 750,000 people living here. You have this amazing housing stock that hardly any other American cities would have where you have that classic two-family-flat thing with the hardwood and a full basement. That kind of housing stock that’s over 100 years old is unlike any other, you know, and you have whole neighborhoods that are in their next phase of being gutted, this time because of the banks kicking people out. It’s sad. It’s really sad. If Detroit could get it right, it would be they would find a way to protect that housing stock and keep people in those homes, and kind of start from there because it’s a major asset.
Three pounds of spinach right here. Five ... OK, so that’ll be $40, plus another $20 for the spinach.
Vicki: It’s all $8 a pound?
Willerer: I would just give them that because it’s just $20 for this, because it’s just under.
Just $60 for the whole thing. Here’s some chervil and onions there.
Brogan: You alluded to urban tourism, people wanting to come visit spaces like yours. Do you get people coming through who just want to check out the farm?
Willerer: This is a first time in a long time I’ve ever noticed a tourist season with Detroit.
Brogan: This year?
Vicki: Now look. I told you to get back in the …
Willerer: She’s talking to the ducks.
Yeah, you just notice a lot in this neighborhood especially because we have Hostel Detroit and this white house is actually gonna be turned into an Airbnb or Brother Nature Airbnb, which will be open in a couple weeks, actually. Then just a lot of places in Corktown since we’re so close to downtown, you know, a lot of people we know have an Airbnb. There’s just a lot of people that are speaking German, or French, or something, coming through here and there’s a lot of tourism here. I don’t think the city realizes that.
Brogan: What are the other key pressure points or frustrations that you’ve had in dealing with the city apart from the reluctance to sell some of the property that might allow you to expand?
Willerer: It’s just this helplessness that—maybe not just helplessness—but there isn’t an ordinance for urban farms, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up, like you see all of this land just sitting vacant, do something with it. Encourage other people to do something instead of just paying to cut it.
Brogan: I love this duck over here.
Willerer: This duck thinks it’s a person.
Brogan: I like it.
Willerer: Hey, duck. Hey, come here [whistles].
Brogan: Do the ducks have names?
Willerer: Because there’s so many wild dogs and people’s pets that get free, and sometimes eat our animals or kill them. Because we contain the animals, but sometimes the ducks will get out and we really try to keep them in most of, you know, for nighttime and all that. Sometimes during the day, we just let them range around. It’s good for them to eat bugs and eat other things.
Brogan: How did you end up with ducks?
Willerer: Ducks have a better survival instinct than chickens, although this one’s survival instinct is questionable. The other ducks stay in a group better and they don’t go into the road, and they don’t try to run off. They stay together much better. Ducks are just easier to contain and ... I don’t know. Their eggs are a little bigger too.
Brogan: Is that mostly what you keep them for, the eggs?
Willerer: Yeah, and my daughter.
Brogan: She likes to play with them?
Willerer: Well, no. She doesn’t play with them. She just really enjoys the ritual of going in and looking for their eggs, and feeding them, and taking care of them.
Brogan: How long have you been keeping ducks?
Willerer: A few years.
Brogan: Do you ever eat them, slaughter them?
Willerer: We’ve eaten a couple of roosters because roosters can be a little ornery, but we haven’t eaten any of the ducks because they’re still laying. If we get to that point, we might make some duck soup out of it.
Brogan: But not for now.
Willerer: Yeah, but don’t tell him. Come here, come here. Sorry. I love birds, little dinosaurs. Go away.
Brogan: I lost my own train of questioning thought a little bit. Do you have any tips for people who want to get started in urban farming themselves? Where do they start?
Willerer: If you’re starting in Detroit, you’ve got to try to buy some land first because it’s crazy. You would think a city that has so much vacant land would make it easier for folks. There are some people that have bought large tracts of land in some neighborhoods and they’ve managed to do that, but some of the neighborhoods have really bad gang issues and so they’re trying to do some stuff in a place that, I think, is a little hostile.
Even the Detroit Community Black Food Security Network, they have this 7-acre urban farm out in Rouge Park and it’s a beautiful site, but they weren’t allowed to buy it. They got a 10-year lease, which I think is up in a couple years. They leased it for 10 years, but they’re not able to buy it. If I was in any position of power, I would encourage people to either give them like a 30-year lease or give them a chance to buy land like that because when you have people doing positive things, it gets more people to do other positive things and it just snowballs from there.
Here, it’s just the opposite. It’s not the power of positive thinking that is running our city. It’s this sort of mentality that I need to get something for everything that I have and sometimes greedy, miserly people trying so hard to keep everything. Then what happens is that house that they’re trying to keep, and they want top dollar for the house, it ends up rotting or falling apart and then no one can have it.
There’s a little bit of that happening in the city whether it’s, you know, they’re only selling stuff to land speculators, and they’re only ... there are some urban farmers that were able to buy their lots, but it’s like they had to go through all these hoops to get it. They were able to get it and that’s great. We can’t even go through these hoops because we’re so close to Corktown and people think we’re sitting on a goldmine here, and so whatever. It’s frustrating.
My wife often says there’s so much land in the city of Detroit and you could read some of the stats like how many ... it’s measured in square miles, like how many square miles are vacant in the city. It’s amazing. Everyone who wants to do something should have enough space to do that. There’s enough room for everyone to do something and if they would do that, we’d have a lot more here besides ... The stereotype is like fast-food restaurants, Coney Islands, and liquor stores, and some storefront churches.
Brogan: Do you think you’re making the city better by farming in it?
Willerer: No, but I think we’re making the city better by organizing with other farmers. We use our tractor and the things that we have to help and to collaborate with other growers, so it’s not just about me. There’s a movement of us. It’s still small, it’s still embryonic, but it’s exciting. You can’t be out in the suburbs and tell people that the salad that you’re serving was just brought in today from a mile or two away. They don’t have that opportunity to do that stuff. Everything is so universal and product-oriented, and corporation-oriented. Out in the suburbs and here, there’s a lot of mom-and-pop places, and there’s a lot of things that are truly unique here in the city. It’s because of all of these efforts, you know? Not just urban farmers, but other food businesses and other people doing unique things. That’s what needs to be embraced.
Brogan: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today and showing us around.
Willerer: No problem.
I really don’t know what those ducks are doing.
Brogan: I really like that duck. Can we record that duck?
Willerer: Sure thing.
What’s the matter? Come here. She just identifies with people. We just got her. She was with people and now there are other ducks. Now she’s kind of like, “What are those other ducks doing?” She wants to follow us around all day. So cute.
Brogan: Well, thanks again.
Willerer: All right, see you guys. Thank you so much.
Brogan: See you later.
Willerer: Nice to meet you.
Brogan: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I am Jacob Brogan. If you’re looking for something else to check out this week, I recommend you tune in to Slate’s podcast Represent.
* * *
Brogan: In this Slate Plus extra, Greg Willerer, Brother Nature, tells us about some of the equipment that makes life on an urban farm feasible.
What’s the most important equipment to urban farming? Does it closely resemble what you would need to run a farm out in the country, or are there other tools and things that you have out here?
Willerer: There’s a whole slew of old traditions being modernized by a man named Elliott Coleman who, like me, was a disgruntled teacher that was teaching. I think they fired him for being a socialist and he went into farming. It’s kind of funny. But he’s taken a lot of these things like larger farms have done, making it easier on farmer’s backs, and arms, and legs to have a sort of, not just ergonomic, but like a body-stress-saving set of technologies.
We have this thing called the “six-row seater” and it’s this little thing with a stick, kind of like the kids lawnmower that you see up there that pops as you wheel it and it just rolls the seeds out. You can just basically—instead of just having to do it by hand—you just roll this thing out. They even have a salad cutter that has a band saw blade. You can just take it along and cut all the salad. We use that sometimes. But some of these greens right here, they’re a little weedy and I have to do them by hand.
Brogan: To avoid getting weeds in with the greens, you mean?
Willerer: Yeah. There’s a lot of technology that people are ... they’re just making smarter tools. Instead of just hoeing everything by hand, they have one that has two wheels on it. You can just kind of push it, and it will chisel in and pull stuff out, because you want to be able to use some things so you can manage your farm without a gas-guzzling tractor. They have some things that fit to a BCS tiller, which is like a high-tech rototiller and you can pretty much redo all of your rows, and mound things up with some of these hand tools and the rototiller although, you know. ...
We have a certain affinity for the tractor because we turn compost and do snow.
We’ll plow the snow with the truck, but sometimes we’ll use the tractor with the bucket and the plow simultaneously. I’ll just have my neighbor drive with me. We use the tractor for dozens of things. My neighbors appreciate me cutting some of these fields. The grass grows pretty thick this time of year and bugs start, you know, mosquitoes get really bad everywhere in the summer. But when you have a brush hog you can kind of just cut that stuff down and minimize how bad the bugs are, and stuff like that.
Having a tractor and, you know, for this 1-acre farm is great because it’s just more than an acre. To be able to have a play area over here, we have a bunch of vacant lots over there, so it’s nice to have that.
Brogan: To be able to expand into the other space. Just a little more flexible.
Willerer: Or just do nice things for our neighbors.
Brogan: Sure, gotcha.