Fiasco threatens bid to create farms in urban wasteland

By Jennifer Yachnin | 02/01/2016 01:02 PM EST

FLINT, Mich. — The wrought-iron arches over the main street proclaims the town as “Vehicle City,” recalling Flint’s heyday as the birthplace of General Motors and home to auto manufacturing.

FLINT, Mich. — The wrought-iron arches over the main street proclaims the town as "Vehicle City," recalling Flint’s heyday as the birthplace of General Motors and home to auto manufacturing.

But walk a few minutes south to where Roxanne Adair has hung a very different shingle in an impoverished city pockmarked with idle industrial tracts and abandoned houses: Flint River Farm.

Adair, who was born and has lived most of her life in Flint, started the farm in 2010 on vacant lots less than a mile from downtown.


"It’s important that people think about where they’re getting their food," said Adair, who also teaches at the nonprofit Edible Flint, which supports residents who want to grow their own fruit and vegetables.

And recently, Adair said, many Flint residents have begun to ask whether produce from their gardens is safe to eat.

The Flint River Farm tire sign
The Flint River Farm just south of downtown relies on well water, but owner Roxanne Adair says she has fielded many questions about soil quality in the wake of lead contamination in the city’s water supply. | Photo by Jennifer Yachnin.

The worries stem from Flint’s water crisis — lead contamination in the city’s drinking water after a switch to local river water in 2014 corroded service pipes and allowed the powerful neurotoxin to seep into water supplies. The decision to tap the Flint River was a cost-saving move ordered by a state-appointed emergency manager for the bankrupt city.

Although the city returned to using Lake Huron water in late 2015 — following months of prompting from local residents who complained about the taste and appearance of their water, and private testing that showed lead poisoning among Flint children — the corrosion in pipes and private plumbing has prompted city and state officials to declare the water undrinkable.

While federal and state officials negotiate how to repair Flint’s water infrastructure, city residents must rely on bottled water and filters for their drinking, cooking and even bathing needs, although state officials have declared the water safe for the latter (E&ENews PM, Jan. 28).

That has left some residents with questions about whether the city water they have used to irrigate personal and community gardens for nearly two years has damaged their soil, Adair said.

The question Adair is being asked, she said, is, "I water it with my outdoor spigot; am I essentially concentrating lead in my soil by doing that?"

But such concerns may not be necessary: Recent testing by Michigan State University’s Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences suggests gardens may not have been significantly affected by the recent spike in lead levels.

"Their initial feeling was that the lead level in the water was not the same risk in the soil as it is that they clearly are for people. Ingestion was a far more serious mode of exposure and potential poisoning," said Terry McLean, an educator for the Michigan State University Extension’s Greening Michigan Institute.

University tests of the Edible Flint demonstration garden, located in an area of the city that recorded some of the highest lead contamination results, showed the soil’s lead content increased by 0.0025 parts per million, or a 0.0025 percent increase.

MSU Extension notes that garden produce can be safely grown in soil with lead levels of less than 300 ppm. The demonstration garden registered lead levels of 93 ppm in the spring of 2015.

Nonetheless, McLean said MSU Extension is still formulating its advice for local gardeners in the next growing season, and will likely urge local growers to use hose filters as well as to retest their own soil.

"We are formulating that plan depending on water quality when the growing season begins again. The trust levels in regard to the water in our community are very low, so we are recommending that we increase the numbers of gardens who have their soils tested," she said.

Edible Flint operates a Garden Starters Training Program that offers kits with transplants and seeds, as well as services like soil tilling, soil testing and compost delivery.

That program has also conducted more than 250 soil tests for participating gardens over a five-year period, McLean said, totaling about 50 new garden soil tests per year.

McLean said the program would like to do three times that number in the next season by revisiting gardens that have been previously evaluated for lead and other contaminants.

"Just so that folks have their previous results and the new results to compare and hopefully have peace of mind on that aspect of it," she said. There are more than 300 gardens participating in the Edible Flint program, including 100 community gardens and more than 200 plots at private residences.

As much as donations of bottled water have poured into the city, McLean said Edible Flint has been contacted by sustainable food advocates in Michigan to offer assistance, as well as a Kansas-based community garden that could provide the program with hose filters.

In the meantime, Adair said, she advises worried home gardeners to stick to fruits and vegetables and avoid growing leafy greens like spinach and cabbage, since heavy metals tend to accumulate in the green leaves and stalks of plants.

Farm for sale

During a recent weekday morning at her stand in the indoor Flint Farmers Market, Adair noted that the 4.5-acre urban farm she runs avoided coming into contact with the city’s contaminated water for one reason: Four years ago, she opted to dig a well on the property, in part because of high utility costs.

"We were watering 4 acres worth of plants, and we couldn’t pay the water bill," Adair said. She also noted that plants didn’t fare as well because of chlorine in the Lake Huron water the city was purchasing from Detroit’s water utility at that time.

While smaller farms can subsist on rainwater, Adair sought to install a 96-foot-deep well on the property.

She acknowledges that she had to fight city officials to demonstrate that she wasn’t going to use the well water within a home — her organic farm is situated on 21 contiguous city lots — but she ultimately won her case, and the farm began to irrigate with well water in 2012.

Adair said when a state-appointed emergency manager announced the city would switch to the Flint River as its water source in 2014 in an effort to cut costs, she immediately noticed problems.

Following a day working on the farm, which produces a range of produce — including apples, tomatoes, strawberries and carrots — Adair said she began to run bathwater, only to watch her tub fill with brown liquid.

"Anything that comes out of your tap that color, it’s common sense not to bathe in it," Adair said.

Adair, who said she has long attended Flint City Council meetings and spoke against the initial switch, would now like to see state laws amended to avoid similar disasters in other cities.

"When you try to save money at the expense of public health, it’s going to happen somewhere else," Adair said.

Dressed in a green John Deere sweatshirt and green knit cap on a snowy and cold morning, Adair also lamented that the ongoing water crisis has created an effective "redlining" around the city, making lenders and insurers unlikely to back the purchase or sale of land in the community.

According to local media reports, Adair herself is seeking to sell the Flint River Farm, offering the property and its equipment for $50,000 in a public ad last fall.

"People will continue to dwindle," Adair said. "Flint’s homeowners are going to disappear."