Taking root: Just in time for growing season, we begin series on urban farming in the D

Much has been made of the burgeoning urban agriculture movement in Detroit in the national and international press. Reporters from around the world have come to tell our story. I have personally spoken with journalists from Toronto, London, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris. This work is often presented as a brand new movement in the city, a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Reality is much more complex than this, and urban agriculture can never be the panacea that many would like it to be.

Largely missing from the conversation has been the voices of local Detroiters, and my hope is that this column can shed some light on and celebrate the movement in Detroit from our perspective. I'm not inclined to toot my own horn, but I do think that I am qualified and well suited to report on this movement. I've been growing in the city for the last eight years with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Earthwork's Urban Farm, I have worked with the Detroit Agriculture Network, currently serve on the Detroit Food Policy Council and the Detroit Agriculture Network's boards, volunteer at Catherine Ferguson Academy's farm, as well as my community garden Hope Takes Root, and am part of several collaborative efforts working to develop our local food system.

Detroit's current reign as the most important city in the United States for urban agriculture, is actually historically warranted. Many of the street names and neighborhoods of our city still bear the moniker of French ribbon farmers. Back in the 1880s Mayor Hazen "potato patch" Pingree made lands being held undeveloped by land speculators available to low income Detroiters, to improve their access to healthy food, as well as aid their ability to sell excess in their neighborhoods. Pingree, despite public mocking, believed in this idea so strongly he even went so far as to sell his favorite horse. This idea spread through out the country to cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York.

Immigrants coming from all parts of the globe put down their literal roots when moving to Detroit, Italians with grapes, Poles with currants. A walk down any alley, reveals a plethora of fruit trees and berry bushes tucked away in the back corners of lots, away from the pilfering hands of neighborhood youth. During the great northern migration southern blacks brought their agrarian tradition with them to the city, setting up gardens in backyards, and taking advantage of the side lots made available by white flight and abandonment. The vibrant Bengali gardens of Hamtramck teem with bitter melon, chilies and other vegetables unknown to most Detroiters are a testament to the needs for communities to preserve native food cultures.

The Coleman Young administration's Farm-a-Lot program provided low cost land, tillage, seeds and transplants to community gardens. The Young administration looked at this as a far more political act than many of today's community gardeners do. He saw this as a way of insuring control of food systems by those that were often left powerless in the 1970s economy. Many of Detroit's oldest community gardens can be traced back to this time.

Detroit's current vibrant urban agriculture movement attracts people to this work for multiple reasons.

For some it's the political act of increased food sovereignty for peoples in the city of Detroit, exhibited by groups like Feedom Freedom, the Detroit Black Food Community Security Network, and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Earthworks Urban Farm. For others the motivation is the simple act of trying to improve their neighborhood though beautifying and reusing vacant lots, such as the Georgia Street Garden, and Growing Joy on the East Side. The Backyard Garden, straddling the Detroit/Grosse Pointe Park boarder seeks to heal the wounds of divided urban and suburban communities. Still others are focused on making models of profitability, including Brother Nature Produce, the Garden Resource Program's Grown in Detroit Co-op, Edgeton Farm, and Rising Pheasant Farms. Art is the focus of projects like the Detroit Mural Factory and Artist Village. Entire neighborhoods such as Briggs, Brightmoor, and the Farnsworth community are being shaped by the gardens springing up everywhere.

Detroit's food system seems to get richer and more complex everyday. More local restaurants are serving food sourced from local farms, more farmers markets continue to open up, and small processors are developing new product lines. Exciting as these projects may be, they often fail to address the needs of the average Detroiter. They often appeal mostly to a younger, hipper, more affluent populace with greater disposable income.

But work is being done to develop improved food access for all Detroiters. Most farmers markets are able to take Bridge cards and WIC Project Fresh vouchers. Many markets support the Fair Food Network's Double Up Bucks, which increases the buying power of those utilizing the Bridge card, and SEED Wayne's Detroit Fresh program helps to stock fresh fruits and vegetables in party stores throughout the east-side. Mobile food trucks, such as the one run by Peaches and Greens, seeks to close those gaps missed by farmers markets and corner stores.

No discussion of food access would be complete without mention of Eastern Market and it's historic role in Detroit. Eastern Market is the largest historic public market remaining in the country, and at the center of much of Detroit's food culture, whereas most market districts have long since moved out of city centers. Over the past four years two of the markets five sheds have been renovated with plans to renovate them all in the coming years. Additional buildings, kitchens for prepared food, and a market garden to be run by the Greening of Detroit are in the works. In my weekly trips to the market I have noticed an increase in the number of products offered as well as a greater diversity of farmers.

In addition to access, education and community organizing are at the forefront of many groups. The Detroit Food Policy Council's Powering Up the Food System summit, this coming May, seeks to educate and involve Detroiters in our local food system and develop new community leadership. The newly formed Detroit Food Justice Task Force brings together a number of groups working on food issues and asks local citizens to think more deeply about the food system and to take personal action in shaping it. Their Cook, Eat, Talk workshops ask Detroiters of all walks of life to be a part of the revolutionary act of sharing a meal together.

Taken as a whole, I'm hopeful for the future of Detroit's food system. So many groups are doing so much to improve the quality of life for all Detroiters, and perhaps even more inspiring is how well they are working together.

Follow Patrick Crouch's inspired work and words here in Model D and on his blog, Little House on the Urban Prairie.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here.

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