Jessica Ratzow figured she’d be all settled into her career by now as an energy company geologist. Instead, she spends each day digging in the dirt as part of the urban farming movement — and she couldn’t be happier.
“I love it,” she said of her backyard organic farm in West Bloomfield. “Any day out in the garden is better than sitting at a desk.”
Passersby would never suspect that behind the unassuming white house on Honeysuckle Road is a thriving garden producing some 40 varieties of vegetables, including squash, lettuce, potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, melons, peas, onions, radishes and herbs. The food is organically grown with products approved by the nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute; but it’s not certified organic because, Ratzow said, obtaining that designation is prohibitively expensive.
“Nothing says growing a family like an apple tree — setting roots, producing fruit.”
The neighborhood, located just north of Middle Straits Lake, was established as low-income housing for factory workers in the 1930s. “Everyone had a victory garden,” Ratzow said. “So, I picked the name Root Revival Acres for my business to show how I am bringing it back.”
Rocks To Roots
Ratzow, 36, graduated from Wayne State University in 2010 with a degree in geology.
“I like geology because it’s a blending of all the sciences — chemistry, physics, biology — and it touches everything from water to energy to farming,” she said. “But when I graduated, all the energy-related jobs had bottomed out. I applied for two years straight.”
She ended up working on and off at Emery’s Creative Jewelers in Farmington Hills and, for the past several years, as a secretary at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield handling Sunday school and preschool. Meanwhile, she became intrigued by the burgeoning urban farming movement and decided to apply to the nine-month organic farming training program at Michigan State University. She was accepted, but only learned at the very last minute that she’d also been granted a scholarship.
“I had to give the temple very short notice; so, from that March to June, I still worked the school on Sundays and Wednesdays,” she said.
She and her husband, Adam, were married in their backyard in September 2015, where six fruit trees commemorate the occasion. Three are pear trees gifted from the MSU organic farm, and the other three are apple trees the couple gave to each other.
“Nothing says growing a family like an apple tree — setting roots, producing fruit,” Ratzow said with a smile, patting her newest “fruit,” a baby coming in September who will join big sister, Hannah, 14 months old.
“This garden is something I can take the kids to and they can be a part of. I was carting out compost with Hannah on my chest,” she said. Adam, whose IT job in Downtown Detroit puts him in a whole other world each day, is “beyond supportive,” she said, even building the greenhouse where seeds sprout.
“If we won the lottery,” Ratzow said, “this is all we’d do.”
Launched with the help of a grant from Hebrew Free Loan, this is Root Revival’s second full summer of operation. Ratzow has big plans.
“This is a startup,” she said of her backyard plot, which is surrounded by a solar-paneled electric fence to keep wildlife out. “I am looking for a bigger plot to increase production. If I had space, I could grow a lot more; and I need to produce in the winter to do a consistent business. But land in Oakland County is very expensive.”
A Labor Of Love
Ratzow spends about 30 hours a week in the garden, does a few pop-up stores at special events and sells her produce each Saturday in front of the house. It’s not all sunny days and sneaking a fresh strawberry here and there. She continually harvests and replants to keep the plot productive, and pest management is a big challenge. She’s thinking of digging a well to offset high water prices (last summer’s bill was $700) and recently lost a few days of work after badly burning her hand on a hot tiller.
“It’s high overhead — equipment, seed, soil amendment, hiring help when I need it,” she said. “It’s hard to make a profit.”
That is something she wishes consumers would keep in mind when paying more for organic produce. “Spending that extra money is supporting local food growers and the Earth’s health. And when you understand the true labor that goes into growing food … well, you can spend that money on organic asparagus or at Starbucks.”
Organic farming helps the environment, she said. “Without soil health, you have no plant health and without plant health there is no human health,” Ratzow said.
“From World War II, chemical fertilizers started being applied to our food at an exponential rate.”
Lisa Fein of West Bloomfield likes buying from Root Revival’s Saturday market. “We go almost weekly. It is so nice to support someone local and to know she is not using pesticides,” Fein said. “And you can’t compare it to what you buy in the store; the taste is so amazing. Last summer, I had something new I never had before, ground cherries. I was eating them by the handful like candy.”
They taste, Ratzow said, like “a cross between blue cheese and pineapple upside-down cake.”
Ratzow grew up attending Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills and now goes to Temple Shir Shalom. Her Jewish upbringing, she said, gave her a “moral compass.”
“In my life, Judaism serves more of a traditional family role,” she said. “Nature is my spiritual course.”