Can Farming Take Root In Detroit?

In a sparsely populated area near a new single-family home development off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Westside Detroit, there is a cacophony of braying and neighing, quacking, smacking and buzzing.

In the midst of the low-income houses overlooking the freeway there sits a farm. At the farm grazes two horses, a pony, a host of fat and shiny hens and roosters, an aggressive sheep, fuzzy angora rabbits, some ducks and milk-producing goats. There’s a fruit orchard with a chicken run and bee hives near which roosters sit for shade. On the farm’s red barn sits a windmill installed by a Nobel Peace Center artist to provide energy. The farm produces honey, veggies, fruits, herbs, milk, eggs and the occasional science classes’ bloody dissection project.

It’s the farm of the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a public school for pregnant teens. And while it’s an unusual find in Detroit, it is not out of place.

Fields of purple wildflowers in wide-open tracts, pheasants flying over mounds of green shrubs, fish fries in outdoor lots, acres of urban lawns and gardens with corn, tomatoes, okra, cabbage, eggplant and squash, and quaint white houses with porches surrounded by fields — it all sounds like rural Alabama. But drive through sections of South and North, East and West Detroit and a lush urban prairie is what you will see.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but there are an estimated 40,000 vacant lots in Detroit, leftover land from the city’s mass exodus. With such open space, the question is immediate – what to do with it all? The sparsely-populated expanses can be viewed as land of endless opportunity or a great burden, expensive for the city to service and part of the reason the city is frighteningly low on cash. Enterprising Detroiters such as science teacher Paul Weertz at the Catherine Ferguson Farm have taken matters into their own hands, using open land as a farming resource. Brother Rick Samyn at the eastside Capuchin Soup Kitchen has created a working garden that provides education to neighborhood children and fresh fruits and vegetables at food stamp centers and soup kitchens. Why not?

Others benefit from buying houses surrounded by green space for a taste of country in the city. You can live 10 minutes from downtown in Detroit and grow pumpkins on your double lot, too.

Meanwhile, some in city government and elsewhere have floated ideas of relocating residents from sparse areas to denser ones in order to save Detroit on the tremendous cost of providing police, fire, water, sewer and the like in areas with few residents. Such a move would allow the city to beef up service to more densely populated areas, but would require politically-volatile condemnation programs. Public condemnations take place commonly for the construction of highways and manufacturing plants — former Mayor Dennis Archer threatened to condemn property for casinos that were never built on the riverfront. Nevertheless, re-organizing the city population using condemnation programs would become a political hot potato.

“We still think of ourselves as a city of a million-and-a-half people, and we haven’t made tough policy decisions about how to shrink the city and shrink services,” says city developer Colin Hubbell, who worked for Coleman Young and Dennis Archer before branching out on his own. Hubbell proposes to give some of Detroit’s land “back to God,” meaning a return to nature.

“When this area was settled it was wild and forested, and then there were farms, and I think there’s a great opportunity to give some of the land back to God, give some to urban farming and take some tracks off line. You don’t do it randomly, you could do some reforesting of native plants and let God take over. The periphery you maintain, you could do bike paths, create wetlands, green areas. It’s a huge issue. It’s a daunting issue. The reason no politician has wanted to tackle it to date, well every side has winners and losers. You’ll have the 80-year-old woman who’s been in her house forever and the plan to relocate her will, well, you can see the headlines. ‘The mayor wants to kick an 80-year-old woman into the streets.’ There has been talk in high-ranking places. But at the same time there’s a thought on when to make it public.

“Sometime in the near future, people at the city, county and state level need to get their arms around it and figure out a strategy. The population is shrinking but the geography isn’t,” Hubbell says. “I’d rather be a great city of 700,000 people than a struggling city of 900,000. If we had 700,000 we’d still have more people than Atlanta and a lot of other cool cities that people travel to.”

Other, less radical ideas have been floated. Detroit think tanks such as the Grace Lee Boggs Center and the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Architecture have talked about creating mass urban agricultural communes on stretches of unused land.

The Adamah project was born out of UD-Mercy. The idea is to create a cooperative and productive urban farm on sparsely-populated land on the eastside of Detroit, from the Detroit River to Interstate 94 near E. Grand Boulevard. Adamah envisions a working farm with co-op living and working arrangement to help tend greenhouses for veggies, fruits and flowers; a forest and lumber mill; cattle, grazing land and a dairy; a shrimp farm and other projects.

Even without such grand schemes, already in Detroit activists and community groups have developed a vibrant community gardening network as part of a worldwide trend. Urban activists across the globe have seen a great need for city gardens as a method of providing fresh, healthy food where it is otherwise too expensive or altogether unavailable.

Berlin and Vancouver boast vast urban gardening programs as attractions to their city. In greater Bangkok, 70 percent of urban families raise food, mostly part-time. In Moscow, the percentage of families raising food more than tripled between 1972 and 1992, from 20 percent to 65 percent.

In Detroit, the food options for inner city residents are to date, deplorable. Corner stores throughout the city offer not much more than canned, packaged, hydrogenated and processed foods and sugar drinks ¬– disease and obesity waiting to happen.

Unless you live in Southwest Detroit, where Latino markets offer abundant selections of fresh fruit, meat and vegetables, you might be out of luck for fresh foods in Detroit if you don’t have access to a car ¬– unless you have a community garden.

Some 80 community gardens are part of the Detroit Garden Resource Program, run by four groups: The Greening of Detroit, the Detroit Agricultural Network, Michigan State Extension, and Earthworks Gardens at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

To participate, families with individual gardens pay $10 a year and community groups pay $20. In return, they receive hundreds of dollars worth of vegetable plants and seeds, flowers, compost and other supplies. The garden program provides training and classes in urban gardening. Schools and churches and neighborhood groups have stepped up to participate.

Take the Rosary Community Garden run by Sister Joan Baustian just off Woodward Avenue. The nun operates the garden with the help of a group of neighborhood kids and provides enough fresh vegetables to feed six neighborhood families.

“It feeds quite a lot of people,” Baustian says.

The garden is a tremendous resource for Terri Reese, a 50-year-old woman who works the garden every day. Reese carries a worn puppy stuffed animal with her wherever she goes, and talks to it while she gardens.

“I’m from Nashville, Tenn., a big family. That’s how we ate. I can’t just see a weed. I have to pull it,” Reese says.

With no grocery store in walking distance, the garden provides eggplant, mustard greens, tomatoes and a host of other veggies.
Then there’s the community garden at John R and Alger Street. The bucolic garden-scape sits on what used to be an abandoned lot and dumping site, says Ashley Atkinson, program director for The Greening of Detroit. When prostitutes started using the lot to turn tricks, the community decided to put a stop to it. They called the Garden Resource Program and now the lot is a garden replete with a stone pathway and benches, flowers and shrubs in a tidy landscape pattern. Neighbors maintain the garden and a community.

On a recent sunny day the neighborhood cat wandered among the flowers chasing a butterfly and four neighborhood teens came to talk about the garden.

“We be here sometimes chillin’ with our lady friends,” says Rodrick Grant, 19. “We play our part in keeping it up.”

Atkinson and Lindsay Turpin, the Garden Resource Program coordinator, say the benefits of urban gardening are vast. Not only does it provide fresh, healthy food, but it beautifies communities and raises property values, as well as provides opportunity for inter-generational contact. Older people from down South take immediately to community gardens, as do younger kids, Turpin says. And it’s a quality of life issue.

“Look at the lot at Alger,” Atkinson says. “You can either have a lot that takes your property values down the wrong road, a dumping site, or you can spend $10,000 on it over 10 years and increase your values significantly.”

“It’s a key element to building community, having a place where people can interact and meet their neighbors,” Turpin says.

The garden resource program not only provides gardeners in its program with everything they need to start a productive garden, but offers training and volunteer opportunities. The program gives out hundreds of dollars of supplies in return for $10 to $20 to join and attending one session annually.

“Getting people to come to the potlucks and work days and to volunteer in the gardens, that’s very important,” Turpin says. “Making the gardens successful and sustainable, you can’t do that by giving out seed packets.”

If you’d like to see a sampling of Detroit’s urban gardens, the Detroit Agricultural Network is holding an urban garden tour from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 10.

The tour is free; sign-in starts at 4:30 p.m. at the 4-H Community Center at 5710 McClellan. Donations will be accepted. There is limited space. To reserve a space contact Ashley Atkinson at 313-237-8736 or [email protected].

For more info visit Greening of Detroit at

Visit the Boggs Center at

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