Interview with Devon Wilson, Urban Farmer and Founder of Sunlight Gardens

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Devon Wilson is a young urban farmer in the industrial city of Battle Creek, Michigan, USA. A year ago Devon and then co-founder Olivia Jayakar started Sunlight Gardens, an urban farm growing fruits and vegetables in the middle of a food desert; an area without easy access to fresh produce.

I had the pleasure of meeting Devon while he was an intern at Sprout Urban Farms. Even then I could see his interest in urban agriculture. Although he will continue to produce and sell vegetables, his main passion is to spread awareness and education on healthy eating to his community. This includes backyard vegetable gardens, participating in community gardens, and supporting local farmers markets.

Tell me a bit about yourself and Sunlight Gardens.

I was born and raised in Battle Creek, a proud BC native. I grew up and had a great family but we just didn’t have a connection with our food and that was what made me want to get into this whole farming field. I always loved food, just stuffing my face and whatever, but I didn’t know that what I ate was bad for us and bad for the planet. I grew up in an area that was definitely considered a food desert. The closest grocery store was at least ten miles away. There was a liquor store around the corner and we’d buy bags of Hot Cheetos and Honey Buns. I was just eating food from there not knowing that it was bad for me and unhealthy.

I basically found out by getting on the internet more; using Google and YouTube; finding out that these things like high-fructose corn syrup and food colouring make the food look good and pleasing to your senses but really bad for your body. I was shocked and immediately mindful that this was destroying our bodies. It was my mission to make farming cool and normal and re-establishing the connection with our food.

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How did that lead into setting up your own garden and producing and selling vegetables to your own community?

I was kind of like, hmmm, no one else is doing it. I didn’t really have an example of a healthy environment that grows and shares their own food. Like I said, I was born and raised in Battle Creek and there’s really not that much of it happening. It was definitely out of necessity. I was online researching how what they do to our food, spraying vegetables with chemicals.

I was appalled at age 13 by what we do to our food. I just thought, I’m going to do it. I don’t care whether people think it’s lame or boring. This is something that’s important to me and something that I want to see get better; our relationship with our food. Okay, I’m going to become a farmer.

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Do you find that you are alone in your passion with growing your own food or do you see others with similar interests?

I definitely give credit to Sprout [Urban Farms]. Jeremy [Andrews] and Devon [Gibson]; they were doing it. They already had a garden established. But no-one my age was on the forefront. It was due to Sprout that I was able to take that interest a little more seriously.

If I never saw that, I would have just given up or went to college to be a food scientist. It was after I started volunteering at Sprout, I was telling my friends about it and their interest was sparked.

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What was involved in the early stages of Sunlight Gardens?

I worked at Sprout Urban Farms as an intern and then I managed the farm for two years. It was after two years managing the farm that I went to Hawaii. I was there from November to February of 2015. It was in Hawaii I got the inspiration. I was living on a 45 year-old example of permaculture with this woman who was a master gardener. She had pineapple bushes and lemon trees, limes and avocados. I would have fresh guacamole every morning, it was a dream.

That gave me inspiration to live my dream and make my reality what I wanted it to be. So basically, I was coming back and I was going to go to school but I already had a lot of farming knowledge; Jeremy offered me and Olivia the chance to lease the land and use their facilities.

I first thought it wouldn’t be the right time but I talked to my teachers and administrators and they thought it would be a good idea. As long as I stayed focused I would be able to get a lot out of the MSU Organic program and apply what I learned on the farm.

This year Olivia and I found we had different interests in how we wanted to run the farm. I wanted to add more of an educational aspect to Sunlight Gardens whereas Olivia was interested in traditional market farming. Although we are still happily sharing the same piece of land, we have separate farms. Olivia’s farm is called Squash Blossom Farms.

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What is the direction of Sunlight Gardens for 2017 and on?

My vision for Sunlight Gardens is to serve the community as a template urban farm to expose and educate communities on growing their own food. I want to bring groups of people from all demographics to Sunlight Gardens and show them a full circle experience of farming: Sowing the seed, planting the transplant, doing a little bit of weeding, harvesting and cooking the plant.

To make this happen I will have all stages of growth on the farm. This might sound difficult but we’ll always have something planted and seeded.

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Last year and then going into this year, what sort of vegetables, fruits and herbs have you been able to grow?

We grew a lot last year. We grew too much stuff. We had beans, peas, kale, collards, squash, tomatoes, peppers, okra, turnips, and radishes. We grew arugula, beats, and all kinds of lettuce. It was awesome and we had a beautiful stand at the market because we had all these different foods but it made it difficult to manage all the crops.

We would have been more profitable and provided a bit more quality if we had streamlined what we grew. That is what I’m doing this year. I’m only going to be growing five to six crops per season. And it’s basically just to make things smoother.

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What has your experience been having a farm in an urban setting?

It’s been good but it’s also kind of crazy. It really is a healing thing to have [a farm] in any community and especially in a community that is impoverished and struggling with food insecurity. When I was in Hawaii everyone was happy all the time. Their default mood was happy.

In Battle Creek, the default mood is unhappy. They’re dissatisfied because things aren’t going their way. I feel like having the farm offers beauty and something that is out of the ordinary instead of worn out houses. It offers a light to the community. They are able to come and volunteer and go home with bags of vegetables.

Obviously there still is violence and drug addiction. I grew up in a neighbourhood that is almost a mirror image of where my farm is located. We see the same guys strung out in the morning walking around. One of the craziest moments was last year. Olivia and I were tilling in the field and we heard these bangs. Olivia asked, “Is that firecrackers?” and I was like, “I don’t think so… it’s August.”

We come to find out two people were shot right across the street. I think it was a twenty-year-old guy and girl. And here I am with the tiller, tilling the field. We didn’t know exactly what happened until we got home and I read about it on the news. I knew something was wrong because two cars sped off but I just didn’t want to think about it.

There still is work to do in these communities. It’s a yin and yang situation. There are good and bad people. It’s not senseless, it’s just a way to make money. It’s a mentality. It doesn’t scare me away. It inspires me to keep going.

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What advice might you have for those who are thinking about starting their own backyard vegetable garden?

I would say don’t be scared of failure; a lot people feel like they don’t have a green thumb. But plants are resilient. They are like people in the hood. They can take a beating. Just start. Get some seeds and soil and get them planted. It’s a lot easier than it seems.

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This July, Sunlight Gardens will be partnering with the Battle Creek Chamber of Commerce to host a Food Festival on Devon’s farm. They will be exploring the many nuances of food and how it brings people and cultures together. Stay tuned for more information and how you might get involved.

To find more out about Sunlight Gardens be sure to follow Devon’s page on Facebook.

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