With a shaky hand and her neck craned anxiously away from her target, 14-year-old Jordin Powell timidly slid a sprig of broccoli toward the cow as it wiggled its head through the iron gate.
“Wait!” screamed Jordin, as the cow cocked its head and used its tongue to help snatch the greenery, salivating a tad too close for comfort. “Oh God!” she yelped, as the cow’s tongue caught not just the broccoli, but Jordin’s forehead.
The feeding was part of a fast-paced weekday morning that Jordin and two dozen of her Mary McLeod Bethune Academy classmates spent at Pingree Farms, immersed in agriculture – in industrial Detroit. Over the course of 90 minutes, the youths collected and stored eggs, cleaned out rabbit cages, carried 50-pound bags of feed, fed pigs, got an anatomy lesson on fowl and even caught a chicken.
Tromping inside the duck cage and helping pour feed into a barrel, 13-year-old Mary Range is focused enough to guide a few of her peers on what else needs to be done. But Mary admits to being so scared her first day there that she wanted to go home.
“I had never seen anything like this before. I’d never worked with animals,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Yet later she can laugh about her “craziest day here.”
“The craziest and the coolest is when I fed the sheep and the rams, and they backed me into a corner,” Mary recalled. “And I learned with the rams . . . not to turn your back on them, or they’ll ram you. It was crazy, but it was fun.”
Home to 28 chickens, 12 ducks, two horses, 15 cows, 20 sheep, a couple dozen pigs, half a dozen rabbits and eight goats, Pingree Farms stands in stark contrast to its surroundings. The enclosure sits squarely in the middle of Milton Manufacturing’s property near Grixdale in Detroit, not far from the intersection of 7 Mile Road and the I-75 freeway. Surrounded by metal gates, it’s a development you could easily miss. The squeals and smells don’t overtake you until you get inside.
“It’s something different for them; they seem to like it,” explained Prince Fason, a 31-year-old behavioral intervention specialist from Bethune, on Detroit’s west side. “It’s a lot of responsibility. It makes them more mature. It gives them a sense of purpose.”
A new purpose is what Milton Manufacturing’s owners sought more than a decade ago, when they began clearing dilapidated buildings from a 12-acre area around their manufacturing operation. First they began filling the now-vacant land with crops. An initial home to thousands of seedlings and eventual produce soon gave way to honey bees, before the current farm.
Pingree’s evolution reflects the adaptability of its host business. The metal fabrication company began in a small garage in 1946 with a half-dozen workers to serve needs of the defense and automotive industries. It has since grown to a multimillion-dollar corporation employing more than 200 and serving major corporations such as Navistar, the federal government and Detroit Diesel.
The quirky nature of Pingree Farms’s locale also mirrors the ways of the company’s owner, Jim Green. Employees typically need just a high school diploma to work there, and the facility, while home to people making metal into everything from doors to brackets, also houses a large-scale model train set, a sewing shop and military vehicles that roll each year in the Veteran’s Day Parade in Detroit.
It’s Green’s doing that the animals are there, too. He caught the farming bug as a kid while visiting his grandmother outside Lansing, when he tagged along with college students learning farming at Michigan State University. He later turned that passion into an agricultural engineering degree. But he shelved his farming affinity to become part of the family business, and in 1993, he bought out his father’s share. His wife, Shelly, became the majority owner 13 years ago.
When the nearby vacant land was acquired, his son was put in charge of maintaining the grassy grounds, and he pitched the idea of a garden. The animals, which came later, arrived in part because some had been housed on Green’s property outside the city and his now-adult children were no longer around to help with the upkeep.
Holly Glomski, who serves as the Pingree manager, bristles at any suggestions that the farm is out of place in the city. But Pingree’s existence certainly hasn’t gone without its share of challenges.
After receiving 10 violation tickets from Detroit Animal Control, Green wound up in court a few years ago. The judge urged the parties to work out an agreement. If Pingree could partner with a school to make this a learning lab, city officials said, he could continue to operate.
The quandary has been the city’s reticence to allow urban agriculture. The city’s planning commission has been working to craft agriculture rules for several years. The Detroit City Council passed an ordinance to allow for planting, but delayed addressing the issue of livestock. The regulations issue has historic roots: In the 1890s, Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree launched a potato patch plan as a means of providing food and work during a depression. Today’s farm pays homage to that with its name.
So now there are Pingree partnerships with Wayne State University, the 4-H and Detroit schools. Students in Pingree’s programs have participated in state and county fairs and left with top placement for best of show, Green said.
Glomski, who grew up on farms and has managed them in northern Michigan and for Michigan State, says there’s a serious disconnect between the food we eat and its origins, and by partnering with Detroit schoolchildren as well as the 4-H club, the facility is bridging that gap.
“We research our phones, our cable, but many people don’t know how our food is raised and produced,” she said. “For some people it’s a shocking experience that the chicken they fed last week will one day be chicken noodle soup.”
After the cleaning and feeding is done, the youths settle around a pair of picnic tables for instruction. Today’s lesson is on the body parts of a chicken.
“Does anyone know how long it takes a chicken to hatch from an egg?” poses Glomski. Answers range from several months to a few weeks.
“It actually takes 21 days,” she says. She explains that chickens have an instinct to protect themselves, and a student raises her hand to say that the birds like to stay in groups.
Then it’s back to the coop, in this case a room big enough to house the whole class and then some, and the students have formed a wall by standing arm to arm so as to hem in the hens and the roosters. Problem is, there are a whole lot of gaps in the wall, because the students are nervous and antsy. So instead of being grabbed, most of the birds bounce up quickly and run out through the students’ legs.
But Devin Williams, 14, scoops up one of the largest birds, squeezes the chicken’s legs together, rests it under his arm, and holds it like an old pro. Earlier he’d explained that you “have to hold it in an L shape,” to keep it from going berserk.
“When I first came, I thought it was going to be boring,” he explains. “But I enjoy it.”
All of this goes far beyond the company’s original goal of getting rid of some surrounding blight.
“When we started out with some chicken and cows, did I envision 48 schoolchildren, 50 4-Hers coming? No,” says Green. “But I didn’t imagine Milton was going to go from 30 people to 200. I don’t know where it can go, what it can be.”