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Karate farmers take back the neighborhood

Hakim Gillard works at the Harvesting Earth farm and he also works at King Karate in Flint.
Photo by Kyle Norris
Hakim Gillard works at the Harvesting Earth farm and he also works at King Karate in Flint.


King Karate is a martial arts studio that’s been in the Flint area for 22 years. But in the past few years, the couple who run the studio have broadened their definition of self-defense…and that’s why they’ve added farming to their arsenal.

18 year old Hakim Gillard has a lot on his plate today.

First he’s got to harvest vegetables for tomorrow’s farmer’s market...

“Then I have to finish weeding the rest of the inside of the second greenhouse. Then I have to go to karate to teach. It’s like Superman, I get out of my work clothes and go right into my karate clothes.”

Gillard is a second-degree black belt and he teaches younger kids at King Karate.

He also works on the karate studio’s farm.

Dora & Jacky King own King Karate. They started the Harvesting Earth Farm in 2008.

Dora King says they were noticing that the kids they taught were struggling with things like attention deficit disorder, asthma, even obesity, and they wondered about the connection between those conditions and what kids were eating.

“We would see kids with just sugar, just a bunch of 100% sugar stuff, whether it was the pops or the fruity drinks or it was a lot of stuff with dyes in it.”

The karate studio is located in a food desert — with dozens of liquor stores, but not a lot of places to buy nutritious food.

Dora King says they realized self defense extends beyond physically protecting yourself from another person.

“Whether it’s what I eat, what I think, who I hang out with. All those aspects come into my self defense.”

Vacant lots are another problem in the neighborhood.

One spot, across the street from the karate studio, became a place where people dumped mountains of trash.

In fact, Jacky King says neighbors approached the karate studio asking for help with the situation.

“They came to us personally and said is there anything we can do about this dump? And this had been dumped on for over 20 years.”

So the Kings spent their own cash and bought the property... and they cleaned up years of industrial trash.

Then they tested the soil, continuously, and nursed it back to health. There are now two greenhouses on two acres of land. They’ve also got honey bees... and 30 chickens. And solar panels power the greenhouses.

Students have to volunteer their time on the farm in order to advance to a higher level belt in karate.

Some of those kids are amazed to find out that food actually comes from the dirt.

Hakim Gillard says he didn’t know too much about growing food before he became a karate farmer. But next year he’s headed to Mott Community College to study agriculture and business.

“I’ve learned if you feed people the right kinds of food they’ll feel a lot better on the inside. And if they see the good things in their neighborhood they won’t have those bad thoughts like I’m going to go down the street and see a dope house or bad things like that.”

Gillard says now other people in the neighborhood cut their grass and weed their yards. And take better care of where they live.

In fact, the Kings like to say the whole idea behind the farm is kind of like those TV shows... where people “flip” a house.

But in this case, they’re flipping an entire neighborhood.

The Harvesting Earth Farm recently won the “Best Small Farmer of the Year” award in Michigan, given by the federal government (from the NRCS, which is a division of the USDA). It recognizes people farming in environmentally friendly ways who are also making their communities better places.

Kyle Norris is from Michigan and spent ten years as a host and reporter with Michigan Radio, the state’s largest NPR-affiliate. He lives in Seattle and works as a substitute host and producer at KNKX.