The yard of Kara and Phillip Kurzeja’s house on Fairview Avenue was too shady for gardening, so they rented an empty lot from the Ingham County land bank three blocks away where the soil was terrible.
“It was essentially a small house that had been bulldozed and then a contractor backfilled with gravel and industrial backfill,” Phillip said.
It took three rounds of tilling, growing buckwheat, adding compost manure and straw — more than a year in all — before they had “soil that you could actually find a worm in.”
But things went quickly from there.
“It started as just growing food for ourselves,” Kara said. “We wanted to be more self-sufficient, spend less on our groceries. We like fresh food. And it rapidly became more than we could eat.”
She bought a pressure canner, did a lot of canning, but their harvests soon became more than they could reasonably can.
“That’s when we were like, ‘Maybe we could turn this into a small business,’” she said.
Four years later, Ancona Farms is spread across three lots on Lansing east side: the original lot on Hayford Street where they sell what they grow on Monday nights in the summer, a lot on Detroit Street that they’ve planted with cornelian cherry trees and a lot at Magnolia Avenue and Harton Street where they grow everything from miniature kiwis to lemon cucumbers to Marconi beans that they first sampled in Croatia.
“We’re trying some diversification this year,” said Kara, who also works as an elementary school music teacher.
They didn’t necessarily set out to be urban farmers, but Lansing is where they found a house they love, where they live, said Phillip, who holds degrees in botany and plant physiology from Michigan State University and who worked for the state Department of Natural Resources for close to a decade.
And farming is “what we do.”
“It’s worth doing because, squirrels stealing your corn and wind blowing over your tomatoes aside, it’s a lot of fun,” he said, “and it’s a way to connect with the natural world in a very basic sort of way. There’s nothing more primal than food, right?”