Oct 18, 2018 | Focus on Farming

We The People Grower’s Association is Growing

Farmer Melvin Parson’s dream to nourish the soil of the community is taking root!

by Marcy HarrisFarmer Melvin Parson holding a bunch of kale at his farm in Ypsilanti.

It is amazing sometimes how the vision of one person can bring a community together. A huge part of the mission statement for Zingerman’s is to “Show love and care in all our actions, and to enrich as many lives as we possibly can.” It’s no wonder that Farmer Melvin Parson has become an important member of our family, as he has set out to change the soil in the lives of everyone he comes in contact with by nurturing the community with his farm, We the People Grower’s Association.

Farmer Melvin has been delivering fresh organic produce to the Roadhouse for over a year now, along with several other local businesses including Frito Baditos, Miss Kim, the Lunch Room, and more. With the help of volunteers cultivating his modest half acre farm, We the People Grower’s Association behind Grace Fellowship Church in Ypsilanti, Melvin has been able to consistently provide good food to restaurants and to the community. But his dream is much bigger than a half acre.

Finding space for a large vision.

Melvin has a vision to turn his small farm into a world class urban farm that will not only provide food to local residents, but will also provide employment opportunities and education to citizens returning from incarceration. He has successfully added a Michigan-approved non-profit arm to the Grower’s Association, called We the People Opportunity Center, that is the catalyst for his vision. It is this center that will allow Melvin to use farming as a vehicle to provide these opportunities. It cannot happen on the half acre he is leasing from the church, though, so Melvin has discovered a chance to move into a larger property–the former Kettering Elementary School in Ypsilanti. Back in July, I visited Melvin to view the 10 acre space behind the school. I was super excited to see it, but was not prepared for the beauty and scope of what I walked into that morning.

Charles F. Kettering Elementary School in Ypsilanti, which is condemned and deserted.

The school is just around the corner from the church, and at the time I visited, the building was still intact, yet condemned. Melvin ushered me through a rusty fence, and as we walked into the schoolyard, it was like entering a secret garden. I got goosebumps as Melvin started to explain his vision to me of what he wants to do with the space.

There really is a giving tree. It’s in Ypsilanti.

It starts with a tree. No joke. He points it out to me, a 300 year-old burr oak towards the back of the property. I didn’t grasp the full immensity of this tree until we got closer to it. Melvin is tall, but this tree is huge. It is powerful. Melvin tells me about how when he first saw the tree, he just knew in his soul that this was where he was meant to be.

“This tree has been around long enough to see Native Americans here. Think of the stories it could tell, and the stories we can create with it.”

A large 300 year-old burr oak tree in the yard of the Kettering school.

He talks me through a vision of hanging lanterns, and benches wrapped around the tree. He sees maybe about ten returning citizens working the soil around it, all with living wages and benefits. He sees residents from the community gathered here, all engaged in different activities. A market stand here, beehives there… as we walk around the school yard, Melvin starts pointing and I can see it all materialize in front of me.

The front of the property can be a community garden, designed as a space for neighborhood residents to grow their own food, while WTPGA provides easy access to water, tools, and shares the knowledge and skills needed to produce an abundance of delicious and healthy food. The playground equipment that is overgrown with weeds can be used as trellises for fruitful vines. There’s a pole barn with farm equipment and hoop houses. The black top can be turned into a outdoor event space, where everyone is welcome to gather.

Old playground equipment at the Kettering school, overgrown with weeds.

The education doesn’t end with Kettering Elementary.

The biggest part of all of this, though, is the school building. It will be razed to the ground, leaving space for another building. This is where Melvin’s vision really starts to take shape. By establishing the Opportunity Center in its place, Melvin hopes to provide a world class culinary training facility for returning citizens and young adults in the community. It is here that Melvin sees a change really taking place. Where I see broken windows and discarded school books, Melvin sees hope and development.

“They locked the doors and walked away,” he tells me. “It’s all been completely deserted. No one loves this place as much as I do.”

The abandoned Kettering school building.It’s true. With all the work he’s put into this, Melvin’s love will nurture the abandoned property into something extraordinary. “If we can focus on bettering the soil of a community, people with flourish. People need a place to take root, and be nourished so that they can turn around and give back. Continue the cycle.”

He is so close to planting seeds of hope in Ypsilanti. One of Melvin’s favorite sayings is “When you have a vision, the universe comes back with the provision”. In this case, St. Joseph of Mercy has generously offered to match up to $50,000 raised by We the People Opportunity Center towards obtaining the property at Kettering and building the center. With the help of many volunteers and the support of New Solutions for Nonprofits, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley, and more, Melvin has a chance to start raising the funds he needs to make his dream happen.

Melvin holds up a playground statue he hopes to keep on the property as an homage to the Kettering schoolIt will start with a Harvest Festival of Thanks on October 27th at Grace Fellowship Church, where food and entertainment will be provided to the community as a way to celebrate the people who have generously volunteered and offered their time to We the People. It is here that Melvin will unveil his plans for the Opportunity Center at Kettering. All are welcome to attend this free event, which will officially launch the We the People Opportunity Center campaign.

Can’t join us at the festival? That’s okay, because there will be more ways to contribute in the future. Look for a donation page coming soon, and more information about the Roadhouse’s annual African American special dinner in January, which will offer a fundraiser for WTPOC.


Visit the We the People Grower’s Association website for more information on volunteering!