While homegrown food is nothing new to the city of Detroit, a new wave of enthusiasm for urban farming is enticing longtime residents and University students alike to start growing.
Detroit, which continues to grapple decades-old issues of blight and vacant lots, has plenty of land prime for farming. Urban farming has become increasingly popular in the last 10 to 20 years, allowing Detroiters to grow the city new roots through agriculture. The farms and gardens are being used to help the city not only as a food source but also by connecting community members.
The trend has garnered both regional and national media attention as the conversation on how to repurpose unoccupied urban properties continues. Although the movement towards agriculture in Detroit is called “urban farming,” many of its participants are technically gardeners because of the small scale of their projects, Hantz Farms President Michael Score said.
“People grabbed onto urban farming as a name, and there is not an absolute definition of a farm, so when someone is gardening and they say they’re a farmer, why would you argue with them?” Score said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a gardener but for some people, they want what they consider the prestige or the status of being a farmer.”
LSA senior Nick Breslin, who farmed with Detroit-based group Keep Growing Detroit over the summer through Semester in Detroit, a University program where students do internships and take classes in the city, said the organization’s goal is to improve the access to fresh food and foster a culture of sustainability. Detroit residents have seen decades of limited resources in neighborhoods, including food deserts and inadequate police forces, among other things.
“In Detroit, there really isn’t that much money so people have to learn to do things themselves,” Breslin said. “Three years ago, the police response time was 45 minutes on a 911 call. Since the services aren’t available, people find ways of doing it themselves. Urban gardening is the biggest one of all since Detroit has almost no grocery stores.”
KGD helps Detroiters with urban farming by giving them the tools to have their own farms, and also by showing them how to use these tools. They also allow their Grown in Detroit members — a program run by KGD — to sell their produce with them at the city’s popular Eastern Market, and split the profits evenly.
Though urban farming in Detroit is made possible by the 40 square miles of vacant land, portions are unfit for safely growing food. Detroit has a problem with severe lead and heavy metal ground pollution in some areas thanks to its industrial past and present. KGD provides testing services to see if a given locality can sustain produce.
“If there is lead in the ground, we recommend that you don’t even dig because there’s lead in the dust and it can really harm children and the elderly,” Breslin said.
For neighborhoods where urban farming has blossomed, Score said Hantz Farms in particular has helped to reduce crime through their landscaping.
“It’s harder to commit crime in a full neighborhood,” Score said. “If half of the houses are lost to foreclosure and abandoned, now those structures provide hiding places for illegal activity. If I’m dealing contraband and I use a warehouse and the police find it, they can’t track me down because I don’t own the property.”
By tearing down vacant structures, mowing grass and planting trees on empty land, Hantz Farms takes away the environment that criminals use to their advantage.
“If we rip out all the brush and tear down abandoned houses and keep the grass mowed, now when somebody commits a crime it’s out in the open,” Score said. “Even if there aren’t any houses on that street or on that block, you can see two, three, four streets over. Somebody can see you. Today, everybody has a cellphone with a camera on it, so if someone is committing a crime they have the sense that they are visible and vulnerable.”
Starting an urban garden in Detroit on less than an acre does not require permission from the city, but farming with multiple acres requires permits and, not infrequently, time spent in court. Some Detroiters simply use vacant land in Detroit once maintained by the city or the school system for farming without paying the city or acquiring permits.
“I know of one guy who is mowing and baling hay and he probably has 10 to 20 acres but he doesn’t own the land, but he is harvesting stuff that’s growing on public property,” Score said.
Some Detroiters also illegally keep livestock within the city limits, mainly because it goes unreported by neighbors who receive fresh eggs or milk.
Along with its fundamental uses, urban farms and gardens are also established to create a sense of community in Detroit by bringing people together to work towards a common goal.
LSA junior Meredith Burke planned a future vegetable garden over the summer for the Neighborhood Service Organization, a nonprofit that provides support services including housing for vulnerable Detroiters. Her work included meeting with landscape architects, finding out what kinds of produce the residents of NSO’s Bell Building wanted to grow and making sure the garden would be functional for residents with disabilities.
“A lot of the people (in Brightmoor) are low income or no income so most of the food they eat is processed and comes out of plastic bags,” Burke said. “An urban garden would give them fresh non-chemical, non-synthetic food, and it’s also building that community of working together for a common goal. There are so many resonating and kind of rippling effects that are associated with an urban garden.”
University alum Tyson Gersh, president and co-founder of Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, said Michigan students have a lot to offer to Detroit. He became interested in urban farming from his landscaping experience that helped him pay for college and founded MUFI on the principles of education, sustainability and the community of urban farming.
“You can’t expect people overnight to become enlightened and inspired to commit their lives to a good cause, but a lot of students have unique skill sets or are developing skill sets that there’s not a lot of access to in Detroit,” Gersh said.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Neighborhood Service Organization.