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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Ann O'Connell
Sun, 06/02/2013 - 9:09am
My grandfather fed his 5 kids through the Great Recession and mde a little extra money by building a greenhouse (mostly from scrap lumber and discarded windows) and raising a large garden on the extra lot he bought along with the house on Detroit's east side. He would start bedding flowers and vegetables in the greenhouse for his own garden and for sale. Produce went to feed the family and occasionally for sale when there was enough to spare. I have two clumps of rhubarb that originally lived in that garden.
Linda Pierucki
Sun, 06/02/2013 - 12:19pm
Although I am all for home gardens,and have one myself, I do not live in an urban area-and likely would not try to grow edible crops there if I did.This entire 'urban farming' idea is beyond ridiculous when you suggest urban areas can provide out-staters with food: Fully one-third of Michigan farmland is now fallow.It is fallow because the exodus of large-scale vegetable farming to the desert southwest where the growing season is year-round and cheap stoop-labor gladly walks across the border to work for cheap. This has made Michigan's traditional truck farming unprofitable even when the extra costs of heavy irrigation and fertilization for the Arizona desert are added in.. Manual farm labor pays very little . . and I seriously doubt many urban Detroiters are going to get blisters from a hoe handle for minimum wage. Michigan has many thousands of acres of rich muck land ideal for growing vegetables-if it were profitable, they would still be growing them here. It is not-even on a large scale. AND (a BIG and), that land is not contaminated by copious amounts of residual lead and other heavy metals in the soil. Do a bit of non-ideological reading on the subject: the high levels of lead in the blood samples of Detroit's children comes primarily from wind-blown dust-dust off those empty lots and streets! Detroit is the poster child for lead level testing in children for a reason: two hundred years of lead-based paint chips, auto exhaust and heavy industry residue has thoroughly polluted every square inch of those future urban farms. Soil remediation costs money-and I suspect you expect out-staters to pay for this? Then, there is the issue of treating the city water to remove the chlorine and fluoride: the chlorine kills the beneficial microbes in soil, reducing the nutrients available for those vegetable crops to absorb. As for the fluoride, well, read about it here: http://www.naturalnews.com/037138_food_crops_irrigation_fluoride.html There is no shortage of farm-able land-and no shortage of clean soil and water with which to grow it-crops with a high nutrient content and a more wholesome product. If farming created jobs, the unemployment rate in these former farming communities would be far lower than it is. And if nobody out here in the vast wilderness outside the city's borders can grow their own vegetables, where do you think all that food at Eastern Market comes from?? Yup-it comes from here! Please, do a little research with an eye to the practical: urban farming is just the latest bright idea of the liberal elite. It sounds great, looks good on paper as long as you dont get too deeply into the logistics of it and makes you fell good. -but doesnt have any credibility as a viable solution to ANY problem. And the tomatoes would probably just about glow in the dark!
Larry Gabriel
Sat, 06/08/2013 - 8:53pm
Linda, you bring up many thoughtful points about urban farming, and I agree that it is a very tough industry to develop. However I know the people who are at the center of this movement ha spent a lot of time working it out. Here are a few points to think about: 1. I don't think Detroit is going to be shipping produce to folks across the state. the focus here is to feed people here. 2. Regarding lead. Gardeners are very active in soil remediation. There is a soil testing program. The central gardening organizations promote organic gardening and composting. People are using raised beds and building up their soil year after year. One guy I know has built up his soil on five lots about two feet above the sidewalk level. There are a couple of commercial composting operations in town. Nobody expects anybody else to pay for this. Gardeners are doing it themselves piece by meal. 3. Fluoride. I read the link to the fluoride story. Yes fluoridated water is an issue but at least we are not spraying more on the produce. Many gardeners have rainwater collection systems for watering gardens. 4. A study done by Michigan State University showed that Detroiters could grow about 70 percent of vegetables and about 40 percent of fruit that Detroiters consume on about 20 percent of the vacant land. 5. There are numerous gardeners making $3,000 to $4,000 a year from a lot or two. That's not a lot of money but in tough times making that much money and feeding yourself can make a difference. It's better than waiting for somebody else to do something. I know two different small family farms that make about $500 per week nine months of the year with the use of greenhouses. That's significant. 6. We are trying to figure out how to do it and we know that we need to take a step beyond just growing food to processing it. Also, there are numerous folks in town who are keeping bees and chickens, and a few who are keeping rabbits and goats. One family keeps all of these and gardens on four lots. A family of six eats almost entirely from this eight months of the year. Finally, if you do a little research you will find that about 25 percent of food worldwide is grown inside cities.
Thu, 08/01/2013 - 4:51pm
Great article, Larry, and excellent response to the concerns that Linda raised. Not sure why I didn't catch this piece earlier, but glad I found it now--Aug 1! A lot of people are talking about multifunctionalism in agriculture--they typically mean the kind that happens in rural areas--to highlight the many benefits agriculture can provide society when it is not done using an industrial model. Urban agriculture of the grassroots kind practiced in Detroit is truly multifunctional in ways these 'multifunctionality' thinkers didn't even conceive of! Your piece does a nice job showcasing many of these benefits!
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Mon, 06/03/2013 - 9:21am
It has been happening for years and the food is sold at the local markets. We use green houses, no glowing tomatoes. The land is empty, the whole east side of Detroit is empty. It is wonderful to be able to feed your family from your own back yard in Detroit.
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