In the 1970s, Flint, Michigan was the richest city per capita in the United States. Now, it is the poorest. The population has declined 40% while violent crime has increased inversely. Buildings are boarded up. People are in despair.
In the heyday of General Motors, one of the thousands of factory workers was Jacky King. Unhappy on the assembly line, Jacky and his wife Dora decided to open their own karate studio, King Karate, and to begin working with the youth in their community. They soon realized that if they wanted to teach self-defense, there was something even more important than karate: farming.
“I may never need to kick and punch somebody, but I’m always going to need to eat,” Dora says. The Kings founded the Youth Karate Club and Harvesting Earth Farm, and now mentor young people with the gardening, harvesting, and selling of fresh vegetables and fruit in Flint.
Before land can be farmed, it must be reclaimed, a process that–after up to forty years of dumping–may take years in itself. Having already reclaimed the land they own, the Kings now look for abandoned land to begin reclaiming and farming. In the half-deserted city of Flint, trashed houses and lots are easy to come by. “You going to tell me that I can’t have chickens, but I can have a drug house? A house of ill-repute? I’ll see you in court,” Jacky says. He predicts that Flint will be the #1 hub for urban farming within the next ten years.
The days of getting forty acres and a mule may be gone, Jacky says. He tells his students to “take four tenths of an acre–and a bike.”
Flint has long felt abandoned by the automobile industry, but lately Ford returned to deliver to Harvesting Earth Farm a check for $50,000. With that money the Kings will install geothermal power into the hoophouse, increasing their growing season by two months. The farm has also relied on support from the Ruth Mott Foundation. The Kings hope that by 2014 they won’t need to accept grant support. “You can make a living selling vegetables,” he says. “And it’s legal!”
“Poverty sucks the life out of people,” Dora King explains. “The sense of hope is the one inoculation we have against poverty.”
The Kings of Flint screens Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at Wild and Scenic in Nevada City, California.