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Washtenaw United: Everyday is Earth Day at Willow Run Acres in Ypsilanti

Farmer T.C. Collins
Willow Run Acres
Farmer T.C. Collins


T.C. Collins started gardening and farming at 2-3 years old with his great-great-grandparents. As a descendant of former slaves, the legacy of farming and gardening has been preserved in his family along with other often lost traditions.

His Southern roots gave him an appreciation for green space, and he has been living "organically" since before it was popular.

T.C. manages many gardens and farms throughout Michigan and Ohio.

He also reached over 2,500 students pre-COVID-19 with his classes, workshops, volunteerism, and community engagement through gardening and farming every year.


Willow Run Acres

Willow Run Acres on Facebook

Willow Run Acres on Instagram

Willow Run Acres Contact Info

Washtenaw Black Farmers Fund

Ann Arbor Rotary Club & Willow Run Acres Partnership

Volunteer at Willow Run Acres


David Fair: A Happy Earth Day to you! This is the 54th edition of Earth Day, and it serves as a reminder of the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability, encouraging us to come together and take action for a healthier planet and brighter future. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU. A lot of the work toward a more sustainable future happens somewhat quietly on a day-to-day basis, much of it done by people who work the earth in rather small-scale ways. One such person is Farmer T.C. Collins. Farmer T.C. is the founder of Willow Run Acres in Ypsilanti, and he's committed to sharing his expertise and teaching current and future generations about gardening and farming. Thank you so much for making time for us today, Farmer T.C.!

Farmer T.C. Collins: Thank you!

David Fair: I'm just venturing a guess, but I imagine that every day is Earth Day for you.

Farmer T.C. Collins: Yes, it is!

David Fair: How did you first get connected to the earth through the process of farming and gardening?

Farmer T.C. Collins: Well, many, many years ago, back on June 8th, 1973, was one of the turning points in my life where my great-great grandparents, they were enslaved residents at the time, former slaves, and also were sharecroppers. And they were both going back and forth about work that they did during their lives. And being a young child, we were told to listen and observe and not speak up at that moment of learning about gardening and farming.

David Fair: You mentioned that you come from a family of slaves, and they have that history to them. Is there now a sense of freedom in gardening and farming for you?

Farmer T.C. Collins: Well, the struggle still exists. There's many barriers and many walls that exist. But for the most part, it is a lot of freedom.

David Fair: What has your commitment to farming and gardening taught you that you use in the rest of your everyday life?

Farmer T.C. Collins: Most important is just connecting with the soil, smelling it to the most part, getting to know nature itself and just giving back as much as you can, because the earth itself is giving it all to us. So, the only thing that we can do is just give it back to the earth.

David Fair: And I would venture to guess then that you've met a lot of people like me who have never really farmed and really only garden at all when spring rolls around, and it's time to weed by the front porch. What might people like me be missing by having such limited exposure?

Farmer T.C. Collins: I would say the most part is just relaxation and fun.

David Fair: That's important, isn't it?

Farmer T.C. Collins: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. Because whenever you get a chance and just dig in the soil and you discover new things and plant some seeds, a lot of times you see things that grow that was on the package that you think that's going to be in there, but sometimes you get a seed or two that is different from the bunch, and it's just always a good surprise.

David Fair: WEMU's Earth Day edition of Washtenaw United continues. We're talking with the founder of Willow Run Acres in Ypsilanti, Farmer T.C. Collins. Willow Run Acres is located at 111 South Wallace Boulevard in Ypsilanti. Now, Willow Run Acres has a mission beyond just exposing people and creating opportunity for community gardening and farming. It aims to spread awareness of some serious social issues, inequities, and access to fresh and healthy foods--food justice, if you will. And it provides opportunities for economic development in the Black community. Farmer T.C., is there enough funding to support people of color getting started in farming in Washtenaw County?

Farmer T.C. Collins: No. No, there's not. And it needs to be more funding. There needs to be more grants, and more grassroots opportunities that can develop from that. But, yeah, the road is a very hard road. And a lot of communities, specifically in the Black communities, need a lot of support with grant funding.

David Fair: You've been advocating for more funding to specifically get Black women into farming. Are there enough Black women locally that you brought into that you have expressed a desire to pursue a career in farming, if there were adequate support?

Farmer T.C. Collins: Well, let me say it this way. In the Black community, a lot of people, they have a fear of it reminds them of slavery, and they have that little taboo on their shoulder that it reminds them of the past. But we're trying to break ground and understand that the past is the past. But going forward, owning land and enriching the land itself is freedom. And cultivating fresh fruits, vegetables and even herbs and medicines can actually break those old cycles into new realities.

David Fair: So, if we're going to break old cycles and forge a new and better future, one of the missions has to be to get young people involved and serious among your personal and professional missions to educate youngsters in farming. What is your process in getting young people connected to the earth once they've come by Willow Run Acres to learn?

Farmer T.C. Collins: I'm glad you said that. One of the most important things is to connect with parents with children and letting the kids know that it's okay to play in dirt, making mud pies, going back to something that a lot of parents say, "Don't let the kids play in mud!" But we encourage that because you get a lot of excitement, a lot of endorphins start to release and energy releases when you start playing in mud and dirt. And when my youngest daughter--she's older now--but she was the one that really inspired to do a potato program and that helped out a lot. And to this date, we average probably about 5000 children annually to teach them about the history of potatoes, the history of the Peruvian residents, and just going forward with that.

David Fair: So, it's education, but it's hands-on experience as well. Are you seeing evidence that many of the young people who go through these programs at Willow Run Acres are sticking around to farm and garden there, and also taking those lessons home and working the earth around the house?

Farmer T.C. Collins: Yes. Going back to the potato program, several years ago, there was a young child who was in preschool, and he never did like eating potatoes. He was scared of them because he saw that the sprouts on the potatoes. And he was afraid of it. Well, he got to overcome those fears. And now, to this day, he is growing his own potatoes. And he eats potatoes now. So, it is a good turnaround that introducing kids to something that they never seen before, or if they have a phobia or something, to overcome it just gently and lightly and just gradually work yourself into gardening. And we have plenty of kids. And now, there are adults now that are doing their own farming.

David Fair: We're talking with Farmer T.C. Collins on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United as we mark Earth Day 2024. You know, big agricultural and animal farms often pose severe risks to the health of our environment. Pesticides, chemical fertilizers and animal waste creates runoff and contaminates our waterways and water aquifers. What are the sustainable practices that you utilize at Willow Run Acres?

Farmer T.C. Collins: One of the things that we try to work with is that we work with residents and teach them that the milkweed plant is a very important plant in the ecosystem, and we need to have more monarch butterflies to fly back and forth from Mexico to the United States and to Canada to do that trans flight. And what is important that monarchs need to have that food--the milkweed. And all it takes is just save a small patch in your yard and start growing milkweed. So that way, it starts the pollinator gardens in your yard or in your neighborhood. And those little animals, they do remember where they came from. And they do return, from monarch butterflies to different varieties of bees and including the hummingbird. And recently, if you look online, there is a interactive map that shows you the flight of the hummingbird. And we have been seeing some hummingbirds that's been flying through here. There's a lot of rose redbud that's been blooming, and they've been just going at it. So, yes, hummingbirds are very important and not using pesticides and a lot of things of that nature that destroys the ecosystem. I understand that there is a balance, but if you just hold off on a lot of those chemicals, you will see wildlife start to grow even more.

David Fair: So, it serves the ecosystem as a whole instead of looking at it as one plot of ground. And that's a more comprehensive and effective way to look at it. Now on your website at willowrunacres.com, you have a quote at the bottom of the front page that has served as words of wisdom to so many through the generations. It says, "The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step." What does that mean to you?

Farmer T.C. Collins: Well, every step is a counted step. And there was a radio personality. His name was Electrifying Mojo. And he would always say that every time. And he would always use that quote. And it stuck with me when I was younger, and I never understood that then. Well, I got the opportunity to understand that when I was hit by a drunk driver and in a coma for six months. And in that road of recovery, I had to start all over again. I had to learn how to chew, how to walk, how to run, how to be an adult in a child's state of mind, because being in a coma, it takes a lot away from you. So, that first step--it stood out. And that's where it began. And I had to start all over again. And from that moment onward, I chose to devote my time to get back to the community one step at a time. And I use that same quote to this day.

David Fair: Well, hopefully, not many have experienced the trauma that you've undergone. But if some of us do want to take a step and a journey and learn more from and at Willow Run Acres, what's the best way to get involved?

Farmer T.C. Collins: The best way to get involved is just give us an email at willorrunacres@gmail.com or go on the willowrunacres.com website and leave us a message. And we will try and get back with you as best we can. We're doing a lot of activity in the community by going out building blocks, where residents can have tools to their own garden space. And we're here to advise everyone and also to help out as much as we can.

David Fair: Well, thank you for taking time today to share your insights. And Happy Earth Day to you, Farmer T.C.!

Farmer T.C. Collins: Thank you so much! You have a great day!

David Fair: That is Farmer T.C. Collins, the founder of Willow Run Acres in Ypsilanti. He's been our guest on our Earth Day edition of Washtenaw United. For more information, take a look at our website at wemu.org, where we have additional information for you. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. And it comes to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


This Earth Day, United Way for Southeastern Michigan wanted to shed light on the importance of gardening and growing our own food. Taking the time to grow your own produce releases NO carbon emissions and doesn’t require the use of hazardous chemicals like pesticides or fertilizers that commercial farmers often use.

Planting also helps us connect with nature and learn something new. Farmer TC Collins also teamed up with United Way to bring attention to the experiences of African American farmers and gardeners in a special edition of the What’s the Word Wednesday Townhall Series.

In addition to Earth Day, April is Global Volunteer Month, and we welcome you to share your talents and passions with other members of the community, on our new Volunteer Portal. Many of these opportunities involve giving back to our planet through gardening and nature restoration.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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