The Gratiot County Community Garden, located in Alma at the corner of Downie Street and Pine Avenue, wasn’t easy to put together, according to seniors Mackenzie Hemmer of Wolverine; Shane Henry of Gobles; James Budrick-Diaz of Joliet, Illinois; and Kelsey Johnson of Escanaba. But considering the area on which it stands was merely a vacant city block as recently as this past spring, it’s been worth it.
“Giving people who need it access to food and being able to educate them on why that is important is key to this project,” Hemmer said. “Maybe there’s one thing that you say to them that leaves a good impression and has an impact. That makes everything worth it.”
The property, which was formerly home to Alma Middle School, is used with permission from the real estate development firm Gemini Capital Management of Breckenridge — which is co-owned by Alma graduate Ryan Smith ’06.
Several months ago, Smith approached the nonprofit organization Live Well Gratiot, a subset of the Gratiot County Collaborative Council, with the intent of establishing a community garden at the site. Live Well Gratiot members Alex Montoye ’10 and Dale Sanders, who are both faculty at Alma, as well as retired faculty member Ed Lorenz, saw an opportunity for Alma students to give back.
“All of the interns who are organizing the project are from Alma College,” Sanders said. “They solicit volunteers and make sure the volunteer schedule is filled. They also solicit donations of materials. They’re healthcare administration majors and are doing this as part of their graduation requirements.”
At almost a third of an acre, the garden is currently home to tomato plants, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, zucchinis, peppers, melons, and many more fruits and vegetables. Rows of flowers line the edges of the plots.
Materials were largely donated by businesses and community organizations that have gotten involved; including MidMichigan Health, the Mid-Michigan District Health Department, TriTerra, Alma College, the Gratiot Isabella RESD, Bravehearts Pub, Gemini Capital Management, the St. Louis Farmers Market, Child Advocacy, the Gratiot Integrated Health Network, and Fleis & Vandenbrink.
Financial support comes from a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is designed to benefit communities that do not have access to fresh produce.
Produce from the garden, which volunteers began to harvest in July, has been cleaned and made available to anyone who wants it on a first-come, first-served basis.
Budrick-Diaz, who intends to pursue a master’s degree in public health administration from Central Michigan University, said the project is a good example of how nutrition works to benefit the public health.
“If you’re not actively searching for and consuming the right foods, it’s not going to work out well for you — because unfortunately, the stuff that is bad for you is easy to find,” Budrick-Diaz said. “What we’re trying to do is make it extremely easy and inexpensive for people to find healthy, delicious food.”
Just because the end goal is to make things easy for other people, doesn’t mean the garden has been easy for the students.
One of the biggest challenges in putting the garden together has been keeping it well-watered, especially considering the late June drought-like conditions that struck the region. The block has no access to city water, Hemmer said, and efforts at bringing in water from the Alma Fire Department did not come to fruition. The garden was finally saved by the Alma United Methodist Church, located nearby, which let the group use their water — provided they could string together enough hose to reach between the church and the garden.
“It’s about 500 feet away, so it was a lot of hose,” Hemmer said. “We have a sprinkler system now, so we don’t need quite as much. But for a while, that was a sight to see.”
Another challenge has been the travel involved. Hemmer makes a five-hour jaunt from home about twice a week, while Henry treks about four-and-a-half hours biweekly from his home to get the job done. Johnson and Budrick-Diaz are largely able to work from home though, as they specialize in managing the group’s social media presence, research, grant writing, and other tasks.
“We didn’t have any idea what this looked like before we showed up for the first week of planning,” Hemmer said. “This is something you need to be in-person for, but obviously we’ve been very concerned about everyone’s health. So, that part has been hard. We’ve tried to make the best of it.”
Through Facebook, Johnson has managed to coordinate a strong volunteer effort. Her weekly, online call-outs have procured dozens of volunteers from all walks of life, mostly based in Alma. She has also helped create relationships with local K-12 school groups and correctional facilities volunteers, who assist with gardening on a regular basis.
“The volunteer response has been really good and we’ve gotten tremendous feedback from the community in general,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to see how this is becoming a project for the whole community, not just Alma College students. I’m hearing a lot of people saying, ‘Alma needed something like this.’”
According to Henry, the group has been assured two years of use on the site before next steps are decided. Gemini is on track to begin a residential development on the property within the next year, he said.
Until then, he’s thankful for this moment and all it has provided the community — as well as himself.
“Before this, I had no experience gardening or anything like that. It’s been amazing to see the response of the community,” he said. “To see the plants come up and knowing they’re going to feed people who need it, that just feels great.”
Montoye said the project is a great example of Alma College’s commitment to partner with the community around it, and the students have served as ambassadors for the college.
“The student interns have made the difference in this project, between it not succeeding and being successful like it is right now,” he said. “They were the difference between an empty lot and the vegetables we harvested today. They have taken on ownership, making connections with community partners, soliciting donations and doing big things.”