Levi Gardner is trying to raise $1 million to make his dream for his urban agriculture venture, Urban Roots, a reality.
Gardner started Urban Roots in 2013 as a for-profit business, but during its first two years he realized it is better suited as a nonprofit. He is currently going through the 501(c)3 approval process for that designation.
“I wanted it to be a social enterprise, but then I realized we can do it from a nonprofit platform because nobody wants to donate money to an LLC,” Gardner said.
He added, “People want to support the work we are doing.”
Gardner said becoming a nonprofit is also a reflection of the learning process he’s undertaken since embarking on his journey and how his mission for Urban Roots has evolved.
“When we started, it was urban farming as a way of redeeming spaces,” he said. “For me, the line between social justice and ecological justice doesn’t exist. They are the same thing.
“If Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,’ then there is no difference between social and ecological injustice.”
Gardner had been growing produce and selling it at the Fulton Street Farmers Market when he began feeling that maybe he was meant to do more. He started to ask himself, “Who is learning about what we are doing? Who are we empowering? And how are we addressing the big issues of injustice with what we are doing?”
The answers to those questions led him to Urban Roots’ current mission and programming.
“Today, we are a social enterprise that wants to serve as a platform for education and empowerment through urban agriculture,” he said. “Urban agriculture is about people and fostering relationships.
“What I was doing originally was farming for farming’s sake. The people on the back end were the consumers, and that’s still a degenerative system. Now, we want to invite people — we believe growing food is an invitation into being fully human.
“Our mission is now to support that vision — not just about growing to sell but inviting people into that process.”
Gardner said Urban Roots focuses on three key goals to achieve that vision.
First, Urban Roots plans to launch a mobile classroom so it can partner with other organizations on how to plant a community garden and educate them on the techniques needed to sustain their new food source.
“Everybody thinks a community garden is really cool, but they don’t exactly know how to do it,” Gardner said.
The mobile classroom will be supported by a grant Urban Roots received from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation via YMCA.
Second, Urban Roots is preparing to renovate its future home; it has big plans for developing it into the “ideal space” over the long term. Currently, Urban Roots is located at 1059 Wealthy St. SE, with two offsite farms.
Gardner hopes the new space, 1316 Madison Ave. SE, will support current and expanded programming as well as an active onsite half-acre to full-acre community garden that will be worked by its employees, interns and community members.
The produce will be available for sale via a membership and through onsite and mobile farm stands.
“We will continue to do a lot of the things we’re doing at our current location — classes and workshops, and we are looking at partnering with Bethany Christian Services to do a youth education program. It will be our hub,” he said.
He said the new location is better suited for partnering with a host of organizations he thinks can benefit from the type of programming Urban Roots does and wants to do in the future.
“We are excited to be moving into the Madison Square neighborhood,” he said. “We feel like there is an opportunity and space for us to join with others doing good work.”
He noted the neighborhood suffers from an average income that is less than half of the median income in Grand Rapids, highlighting a need in the neighborhood for more opportunities and support.
Urban Roots plans to be fully moved into the new space some time next year.
Gardner expects to fulfill his overarching $1 million vision for the space over the long term, with five years as the current goal for a fundraising campaign.
Third, Urban Roots is focused on working with local businesses and organizations on permaculture, which Gardner defined as permanent agriculture and a “holistic system for building resilience in our lives.” It includes edible landscape design.
“Urban Roots designs and installs beautifully arranged edible gardens and educates the owners on maintenance,” Gardner explained.
He said he recently worked with Brewery Vivant on a permaculture project, which involved planting fruit trees, brambles and perennial nuts and creating a system to capture more storm water.
Gardner’s work in urban agriculture dates back several years. After he graduated from Grand Valley State University, he took a job at an architecture firm, working as an environmental advocate and teaching workshops on LEED certification.
His interest in social and environmental justice was growing, and he realized he wanted to be involved in sustainability and the environment on a deeper level. He enrolled in a program at Michigan State University, earning a master’s degree in community sustainability and ecological food and farming systems.
“I did my graduate research on experiential pedagogy, learning outside of the classroom, which included lots of guest lectures, research and classes via the tool of experiential education,” he said.
At the same time he took a job with Grand Valley State University’s fledgling community garden, helping turn it into a full-fledged farm. It is now known as the Sustainable Agriculture Farm and is connected with a newly created certificate offered by the university.
Gardner said a lot of what has influenced the course of his life has been the many books he’s read. He describes himself as an avid reader who is impacted deeply by the things he reads.
He also is a big fan of TED Talks. He said a TED Talk on why people follow business leaders greatly impacted his thinking.
“A lot of businesses, people and organizations try to focus on the what — what are we doing, what do people care about — but people are interested in the why,” he said.
“Most of the time I’ve done things, it’s not been about the what. … It’s been about the why.”
He said society promotes the idea of “buying more stuff and making more money,” but people end up miserable.
“I think we are all desperately searching for a ‘why’ that is something better than what we are told,” he said.
He added, “Average incomes have increased an enormous amount since 1950, but the percentage of the population who claims to be ‘very happy’ is still floating around 30 percent, so it’s not about money or things — they aren’t working for us. It’s got to be about something different.”
That “something different” is what drives Gardner.
He also believes in the importance of failure — another lesson he’s learned over the years.
“I’ve failed at a lot of things, but my mantra is ‘fail fast and move on to the next thing,’” he said.
The ability to accept failure and reevaluate has allowed for the flexibility that has kept Urban Roots afloat since 2013 and that Gardner expects will help the organization succeed into the future.