Detroit has a long history of agriculture, from the French farmers who colonized the area and set up ribbon farms along the river to the Panic of 1893, which prompted Mayor Hazen S. Pingree to open empty lots for farming. With the growth of the auto industry, the city’s agriculture faded into the past. Now, as the city plans for shrinkage, a resurgence in agriculture is making its way through cracks in the urban fabric.
Why Urban Agriculture?
Urban agriculture was legalized in Detroit in 2012, and has been framed as mutually beneficial for the shrinking urban area: vacant areas, usually threatened by growth and development, are free for farming, while the new economic sector reduces the negative affects of shrinkage in many ways. Aside from economic benefits such as job opportunities and sales, these farms can bring fresh fruits and vegetables into food deserts and education in functional skills to residents of all ages.
The movement has also been connected to social justice. Many urban ag proponents believe in “food sovereignty,” or the right to healthy, local, cultural, and sustainable food, and the right to make decisions about ones agricultural systems. On the other hand, some more profit-minded farmers have moved in, and gentrification concerns have arisen as the movement grows in popularity. Obviously, urban farming isn’t a panacea for all urban ills, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea.
Other effects of urban farming include environmental benefits (food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table), beautification, and increased physical activity. While many benefits can apply to any city, shrinking cities like Detroit benefit exponentially. And Detroit has committed to the idea: as of 2017, there were as many as 3,000 farms and gardens in the city, producing approximately 5 percent of all fruit and vegetables consumed in Detroit, with no sign of slowing.
Sources and More Information:
- “Legalising urban agriculture in Detroit” by Flaminia Paddeu
- “Detroit’s urban farms: engines of growth, omens of change” by Paige Pfleger from WHYY
- Tomorrow by Cyril Dion, Chapter 1.2: “Relocalizing Production: The Urban Farming Adventure”
Many farms, organizations, and other groups have committed to growing in Detroit’s vacant land. Here’s just a few of the most notable, in no particular order, and what makes them stand out:
- The Greening of Detroit: In 1989, the Greening of Detroit began a simple mission: replace the trees lost in the mid-1900s to urban growth and Dutch elm disease. Since then, its goals have expanded to include all sorts of greening, including the Lafayette Greens park and garden in downtown Detroit, as well as educational programs in healthy eating, farming, and gardening for all ages.
- D-Town Farm: At 7-acres in Rouge Park, D-Town is the largest farm in Detroit, and is dedicated to promoting food security and careers in agriculture of all sorts. Other activities at the farm include beekeeping, solar energy, and large-scale composting.
- Earthworks Urban Farm: Sponsored by a group of Capuchin friars, Earthworks’ 2.5 acres produce a diverse supply of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers, many of which aren’t commonly found in the U.S. The products are sold through the Grown in Detroit co-op and served in the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.
- Keep Growing Detroit: Possibly the largest, although not the flashiest, organization on this list, Keep Growing Detroit’s over 24,000 volunteers maintain 1,603 gardens and farms. Their goal is clear: food sovereignty, with the majority of fruits and vegetables Detroit residents consume grown inside the city.
Beyond farms, other organizations range from places to sell produce to business groups dedicated to the socially and environmentally conscious triple-bottom-line. All these people and more are dedicated to growing a new Detroit, one seed at a time.