Melvin Parson, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, never planned to be a farmer. In fact, he’d never even had the faintest interest in gardening until fate struck a few years ago. “This wonderful lady named Verna,” Parson remembers, “who got around in a motorized wheel chair, passed away in 2013. And she was a prolific gardener, and she had a raised vegetable bed. I’d lived in the neighborhood for four years and never thought about growing a vegetable. It didn’t cross my mind. But in the spring of 2014, her vegetable bed landed in my lap. I’m like ‘what the hell am I supposed to do with this?’ So I just kind of rolled with it. And I remember being out there cleaning out her vegetable bed that spring, and I could feel Verna’s spirit come over me. And I’m like ‘Verna, look, you know I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m gonna do the best I can in honor of you.’”
The squirrels and rabbits ate all of that first harvest, but Parson’s interest was piqued. He wanted to know more about where his food came from, and so started visiting the Ann Arbor farmer’s market. “I’d be down there for an hour,” he laughs, “trying to figure out what a radish was, or a beet or zucchini, and I saw nobody that looked like me, meaning African-American. And then I looked around at those who were selling me my food, and they didn’t look like me either. I’m a firm believer that either you got a seat at the table or your ass is on the menu, and it felt in that moment that the universe said to me ‘Melvin, I want you to have a seat here.’”
Ever since, Parson’s been committed to securing not only a seat at the sustainable ag table, for himself and for his community, but also a voice. “I’ve realized,” he muses, “that I automatically lock in on places where I’m excluded, where I don’t see me or my female counterpart.”
[Melvin Parson with farm volunteers]
taking a seat at the table
For Parson, taking a seat at the table looks like this: We The People Growers Association (WTPGA), an evolving farm/one-man LLC devoted to growing fresh nourishment in the food desert of Ypsilanti County. He’s already exceeded his ioby fundraising goal, raising $5,378 towards the building of new storage bins for food and supplies, towards marketing and promotion, and towards the hiring of WTPGA’s first employee – a man recently returned from incarceration.
“I spent thirteen years of my life in prison,” says Parson, “and maybe that many years battling substance abuse. I’ve been sober now for a little over seven years, and I have no idea how I got here, other than the fact that along the way, people didn’t give up on me. And I know what it’s like to come home from incarceration. There’s no jobs. It seemed like the ideal population to intentionally try and help to move the needle.”
That doesn’t mean We The People will only be working with the formerly incarcerated – they’ll work with youth, with senior groups, with neighbors. Every garden and farm WTPGA works will belong as much to the community as to the organization itself. Parson loves it when children stop by to ask questions.
Parson’s favorite veggie to grow? He doesn’t waste one second answering that question. “Peppers!,” he says. “And the reason why is because I found out I’m a forager – I like to forage. With peppers you have to almost forage, right, cause there’s so many of them, and you have to move the leaves back and look for the ones that are ready. So it taps into all of that for me.” It’s the pleasure of having to look a little harder for something good. It’s what Parson is doing with WTPGA, too.
“Farming is all about the soil,” Parson explains. “The soil is everything. You can be the best farmer in the world, but if your soil’s not good, your yield’s not gonna be good. But if you get your plants in the right soil, they’re gonna flourish. I think that about human beings, too. You put a human being in the right soil, and they’re gonna flourish as well. And that’s what I want to focus on with We The People, is changing the soil.”
and plans to grow and plans to grow
It doesn’t stop with WTPGA’s current six veggie beds in Ypsilanti County, loaned to the organization by a wonderful local church – Parson is in negotiations with an empty school in the area, and hoping to take possession of both land and building to create a large urban farm. Picture five acres of land, cooking classes, wellness workshops, and plenty of indoor space for processing the farm’s herbs and honey.
“We’re I’ll be is a total food desert,” says Parson, “there’s nothing out there.” That’s ok. He knows how to be patient. The appreciation of fresh, local food, is something he knows how to gently cultivate over time. And to get the neighborhood’s attention, he’s going to light up a gigantic pine tree in front of the school, when the holidays roll around, and decorate it with multi-cultural nativity scenes. Sounds alright to us. Follow WTPGA’s progress and happenings at their Facebook page, right here.
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Have a great idea, but feel like you need a blueprint to get you started? Or a recipe to follow? We’ve got you covered. Check out some of our very best recipes for change, here.