Taking root: Growing food, engaging community a way of life on West Side farm

The face of urban agriculture in Detroit, and much of the nation, is that of young white people, not unlike myself. Commonly these folks are not from the communities they work in, they have degrees from prestigious colleges, hands on training at farms in rural areas, and good intentions. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, the fact that they dominate while the city's black majority remain on the sidelines blocked out of funding cycles and media exposure, is decidedly so. What to do? Be a hater and go on about how white people control everything? Try to become a part of white organizations that don't address the needs of African American communities?

A small band of politically active and community driven groups are taking another road, creating their own projects to address their own needs, and in the process inspiring others to follow their example. The face and the methods of organizing around urban agriculture that is done in Detroit has been radically changing in the last five years by these groups, forcing organizations to talk openly and address issues of race, class, and corporate control on a daily basis.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) just celebrated its five year anniversary. Looking at their list of achievements, you would be more likely to guess that they had been around for a least twice as long, if not more. In those short years they have built not one, not two, but three farms.

The current farm is located on the westside of River Rouge Park. Walking over the crest of the berm next to Outer Drive, one is awestruck at the expansive sea of collards, squash, peppers and tomatoes that is called D-Town farms. Starting with two acres of land, and an additional five acres to expand to, it makes for one of the largest urban agriculture projects in the city, if not the largest. The farm houses more than just vegetable crops; including three hoop houses with another on the way, several beehives, a mushroom garden, composting area, and medicinal herb patch.

In addition to all of this D-Town is getting more support and credibility as a regional training center for Will Allen's Growing Power, the nationally celebrated urban agriculture project out of Milwaukee. To DBCFSN vice chair and former farm manager, Nefer Ra Barber, the farm is important because "it's powerful, tangible proof of what DBCFSN is doing. It's not just talk".

While the farm may be the tangible part of what DBCFSN is doing, it's certainly not the only part. Perhaps more important to the city as a whole, DBCFSN is also responsible for the crafting of the City of Detroit's Food Policy, and largely for the creation of the Detroit Food Policy Council. They have also formed the Ujiamaa food co-op to help supply the need for low cost healthy food though co-operative buying power.

Perhaps most impressive is how all of this has been done with no major grant money, but though personal donations, membership dues and and a huge amount of sweat equity. Only recently they were awarded their first grant from Kellogg. Do the folks with DBCFSN see themselves as a continuation of previous people's movements? "Movement stops when it loses momentum," Barber says. "To keep momentum it needs to turn from movement into a way of life."

While only in it's third season and much smaller, but no less passionate, Feedom Freedom, in the far southeast corner of Detroit, is quickly changing the community it's a part of.

I had the chance to sit down and break bread (actually spinach pie and salad lovingly prepared with ingredients out of our garden by my Stacey), with Feedom Freedom Growers Wayne Curtis, Myrtle Thompson, and Wayne's daughter Kezia Curtis.

"This is not some warm and fuzzy garden" Kezia is quick to point out. During a recent community gardening workshop she was a part of, she was surprised to discover how few of her classmates were motived by the deeply political implication of this work. But then few people grow up with Wayne, a former Black Panther Party member, as their father versing them in political theory from an early age. While many people might not come to the garden expecting conversation about community, self determination, and local economies Kezia thinks that it's a perfect place to have deep conversation. It's welcoming, accessible, open, and creates a safe and comforting place to meet. Many of those involved with Feedom Freedom were just walking down the street and became involved through conversation with those working in the garden reaching out to them.

If Feedom Freedom seems like a labor of love, maybe that's because it's so deeply connected to the love that Wayne and Myrtle have for one another. The garden was started early on in their courtship, and as the garden grew so did their relationship, eventually leading to marriage.

Wayne is certainly not most peoples idea of a former Black Panther Party member. He is soft spoken, gentle, warm, and quick with a slightly mischievous boyish smile. Seemingly quiet at first, once he gets rolling you will quickly find yourself schooled in history, philosophy, economics and politics. Those simple questions turn out to be much more complex. If Wayne is the intellect of Feedom Freedom then Myrtle must be the heart. She exudes passion for this work, where she begins and the garden ends is hard to determine. When she speaks of the garden it is not as a place or an object, but an extension of herself. Between the two of them, it's hard to not feel inspired and attracted to their work.

While the Black Panther Party (BBP) is best know for brandishing loaded shotguns through the streets of Oakland (which for the record was completely legal under California law), there was much more to the BPP. Though firearms always seemed to overshadow the "survival programs" like free breakfast, clothing distributions and sickle cell screenings, the community programs made much more impact. While it's tempting to see the work of Feedom Freedom as an extension of the BPP's "survival programs" Wayne is quick to correct that notion.

"The conditions that existed before do not exist," Wayne says."Some of the strategies coincide with what's going on today but the tactics have changed, the concepts have changed. You can't use old terminology to explain new phenomena."

If old terminology won't explain new phenomena, then what explains the purpose of the work of Feedom Freedom growers? While organizing, community building, and developing local economies come up several times, the idea that comes up over and over again is the idea of transformation. That the gardens are a place for us to make personal and community transformation. While capitalism has managed to turn almost everything into a commodity, the gardens still function as a place for us to connect with objective reality (though with corporate sponsorship becoming more and more common, even this may no longer be true) and with each other, becoming the people we are destined to be be, not just a consumer of capital culture.

Groups like DBCFSN and Feedom Freedom growers continue to challenge Detroiters to imagine another path forward, one in which all have quality food regardless of race and class, preserves peoples dignity and doesn't rely on outside funding.

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