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Dig it: Detroit’s urban farms are nothing new, but newly popular

In the 1950s, my dad would take me and my siblings fishing in the Detroit River two or three times a week during fishing season. We’d haul in buckets of perch, bass and pan fish, or the occasional catfish or carp. We had a garden in the yard where we grew collard greens, tomatoes and carrots. There were two cherry trees, a pear and a peach tree in our yard. We ate a lot of stuff that we produced ourselves.

There are plenty of Detroiters who’d like to see those days come back again. That’s part of what the urban agriculture movement is about – producing good, fresh, nutritional food right where we live. Actually the urban agriculture movement is worldwide, as the population booms and the pressure to feed all those people is stressing food systems everywhere.

Detroiters have always turned to agriculture during tough times. During the economic downturn of the 1890s, Mayor Hazen Pingree urged poor people to grow food on public land, including parks and the lawn of City Hall. He was laughed at, but, within a couple of years, his program was copied across the country. Gardens were common in the mid-20th century. During the wars, gardening was encouraged so that farm produce could be shipped to troops overseas. During the Great Depression, gardening was a necessity for survival in some areas.

In the 1970s, when urban flight left the city pockmarked with thousands of vacant lots, Mayor Coleman Young instituted the Farm-A-Lot program, in which the city supplied seeds and some technical aid to citizens who were willing to put in the work of gardening those lots. Regardless of what you think about Young, in the long run this program may be his most enduring legacy.

If the urban agriculture movement is successful in changing the food culture in Detroit, it will be due to the start that Farm-A-Lot gave it. When that program was going, a group of elder African Americans with southern roots formed the Gardening Angels. It was their efforts and knowledge that helped kick off Detroit’s urban farming movement.

Today it’s not hard to find folks working the earth in the city. Just look around and you’ll see a hoop house – small, low-cost greenhouses – in just about any neighborhood. Community gardens are worked by members of block clubs, churches, schools or other community organization. Generally the food produced is distributed to members of the group.

Market gardens are those grown specifically as commercial enterprises. Brother Nature Farm, specializing in high-end salad greens, and Rising Pheasant Farm, which focuses on sunflower shoots, are two of that type. Some of the biggest urban farms in Detroit are D-Town Farm, with seven acres in the Rouge Park area, and Earthworks Urban Farm, with about three acres spread over a couple dozen lots. The vast majority of Earthworks’ produce feeds needy people at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. There are even a few efforts to get fish farms going in Detroit.

The urban agriculture movement is not just about growing food. It’s about creating a just and equitable food system. That means it’s trying to grow jobs for people in the communities where they live. Many gardeners have organized through groups such as the Detroit Food Policy Council, Keep Growing Detroit and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network to create markets for selling produce, gain access to store shelves, work on developing food processing businesses, and train people to work in restaurants. They’re even looking at opening hardware stores and creating composting businesses – every possible job that can be had from seed to plate.

Even Detroit Public Schools is digging in the dirt. DPS is the second largest landowner in Detroit next to the city itself. In 2012 DPS kicked off an agriculture program by establishing gardens at 45 schools. The gardens are the focus of an agriculture-based education that sees potential future jobs growing food in the city.

The City Council acknowledged this by passing the Urban Agriculture Ordinance a few months ago. The ordinance spells out how agriculture will develop in the city.

Detroit may contain a lot of concrete and steel, and industrial production is still the mainstay of the economy. But we’re also digging into the dirt and making things a little greener and more self-sufficient. That’s something we can share with outstate Michigan residents. Let’s eat. It might be what brings us all together.

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