Urban Farming in Detroit

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative Garden
Courtesy Michigan Urban Farming Initiative

Abstract - My goal in writing and presenting about Urban Farming in Detroit is to show how diverse the urban farming initiative is within the city. I would like my audience to understand the farming history of Detroit, and see that Detroit has turned to gardens throughout the city’s history to sustain itself in the greatest times of need. I was able to visit different initiatives, and communicate over emails to urban farmers in the area. The internet and Facebook also played a role in searching out businesses and urban farmers in Detroit. Overall, I had a more difficult time finding commercial farmers who were willing to speak to me about their growing processes, but the non-profit farms were happy to talk and show me how they have come up with concepts, how they have built their organizations, and where they are headed in the future. Urban farming initiatives are addressing some of the most significant problems the city faces. The major focus of many non-profits is to work with people on issues like illiteracy, vacant blighted land, and food insecurity.

At the end of the 19th century when Detroit was facing extreme food shortages, Mayor Hazen Pingree made it possible for residents to come together, helping each other provide for their families using the vacant land that surrounded them. This time of struggle, and Pingree’s plan would inspire later leaders of Detroit to look within the city for relief to economic problems. About 40 years later, after the Great Depression during the 1930s, history seemed to repeat itself, when both unemployment and famine raged. The mayor of Detroit at that time, Frank Murphy looked upon its past for answers, turning to Mayor Pingree’s program for inspiration, he formed the Thrift Garden Program. This program helped residents turn to their surrounding land and with the help of the city, residents started farming. If we jump forward another 40 years, we find Mayor Coleman Young also looking upon Pingree’s potato patches and thrift gardens of the past for inspiration with his Farm-A-Lot program. Again, if we fast forward about 40 years and here we are today, urban farming in the city of Detroit. The city is in need of fresh food, people are unhealthy, and obesity is rampant within the city. There are now organizations like Keep Growing Detroit which manages the Garden Resource Program and other farming initiatives toward a goal of helping Detroiters grow fresh fruits and vegetables themselves. Over the years, the “Motor City” has turned to gardening when the economy has declined. They are run by people who are driven by their passion for gardening and their determination to provide sustenance while promoting better heath to those who live within their communities.

Urban farming can be documented back to 1894. Times were tough; Detroit, like the rest of the country was going through an economic crisis. Unemployment and crime rates were on the rise, and many residents, including many immigrants were hungry. Adding to the crisis, public funds to help those in need had run dry. However, the mayor of Detroit, Hazen Pingree knew that the city of Detroit had something-- there were thousands of acres of land available in and around the city. Also, many were desperate and willing to work. Pingree knew that many of the immigrants had farming experience. So, with the land and the willingness of the people, all he needed was the funds to start his program. Pingree took his vision to the wealthy, who chose not to help with the cause, calling the struggling working class “lazy.” He then went to local churches, who scoffed at his plan, donating just under $14.00. Pingree was so determined that he looked at his own assets to start a farming program. He sold his own prized horse for only a third of its value in order to start the program. Land was split into parcels and those parcels were offered to residents via an application system for farming. The struggling residents could come together, plant farms with crops of potatoes, beans and other vegetables and help each other overcome this economic crisis and food shortage. Crops that first year were valued at over $14,000 and yielded over 65,000 bushels of potatoes. The next year, the crop’s value doubled. The rest of the nation was watching Detroit and Pingree’s plan. Pingree’s potato patches became the “Detroit Model,” which would be copied and implemented by major cities across the United States.

Detroit’s economy eventually recovered and began to thrive once again with the production of the automobile. However, the boom was only temporary, and again the American economy was hit with the stock market crash of 1929. Detroit residents were unemployed, struggling, and hungry. By 1931, Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy saw the struggle and looked for a way to relieve the hungry and preserve the “work habits” of laid off workers. Murphy looked at the success of Pingree’s potato patches and developed his own plan: The Detroit Thrift Gardens. Once again, the neediest residents signed up for access to land and equipment, and they set off to farm. The thrift gardens were structured so that more experienced farmers were placed in charge of the lesser experienced applicants. It was the experienced farmers responsibility to lay out the design of garden beds and help the others by teaching them how to garden, and under their direction, the farms flourished. However, there were stipulations this time around: all applicants had to sign contracts stating that they would keep track of whether this plan was successful or not, and none of the “farmers” were allowed to sell their harvest, keeping the focus on helping feed everyone. Detroit continued the program through 1936 when the economy began to recover, and residents went back to work.

In 1974, urban farming was in the spotlight again in the city of Detroit. Coleman A. Young had started the “Farm-A-Lot” program. This program had two goals, the first of which was to help eliminate blight throughout the city, and the second was to encourage citizens to grow some of their own food. If a resident wanted to start their own garden project, they would call the city, who would then supply residents with vegetable seeds and flower seeds. Each resident applicant would then be assigned a lot. There were said to be about 3,000 lots available, but this time around, farming wasn’t as popular, and only a fraction of the lots were used. The program continued until around 2002, but then without funds, the program was dissolved. However, the Farm-A-Lot program had lit a spark in some of the residents, and had taught participants an invaluable lesson on the importance of growing their own high-quality food.

During the mid-1990s, inspired by the Farm-A-Lot program, the Detroit Agriculture Network (DAN), a group of non-profit organizations saw the benefit of urban gardening within the city and looked towards a future of farming in Detroit. DAN was able to obtain government grants like the Community Foods Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFPCGP) thanks to the 1996 Farm Bill (Pothukuchi). This would allow DAN to grow and help to get another urban gardening initiative on its feet in the early 2000s. That organization would be known as the Garden Resource Program (GRP). The GRP has been the “mother” of many different gardening programs in Detroit. Acting much like the more experienced gardeners in the Thrift Garden project of the 1930s, the GRP helps other farmers in setting up their farms and maximizing their yields.

In 2008, with thousands of people having moved out of Detroit, homes being foreclosed and lost in the housing crisis, Detroit and the rest of the country were facing an economic crisis. In 2013, Detroit had to file for bankruptcy, and the future looked bleak. However, in the backdrop of despair, there was the garden resource program (GRP), and others like it, which were reshaping the way residents were thinking about food. Through the years, Pingree’s Patches, the thrift gardens, and the Farm-A-Lot program serve as important lessons to citizens. These programs cultivate a passion for urban gardening that remains. While some of the farming programs today are not reliant on the city government for funding, the city works with farms to purchase land, or even allow some community gardens to use city owned land.

Many of the urban farming initiatives rely on government grants and donations, and most are registered non-profit agencies. Keep Growing Detroit is the non-profit that manages the GRP, and has established itself as a model for many future urbans farmers. Their mission according to Sonali Devarajan, who coordinates events for KGD, is “to promote a food sovereign city where the majority of fruits and vegetables Detroiters consume are grown by residents within the city’s limits.” KGD makes a point to go into communities and educate the residents of Detroit about the benefits of community gardening. KGD will work side by side with residents to build their community gardens; they encourage residents build relationships while making community connections. By doing this, KGD is helping the neighborhoods of Detroit build a stronger sense of belonging. KGD also tries to involve the youth of Detroit in its mission, offering different youth programs, including apprenticeship and leadership programs.

With their youth programs, young Detroiters are taught about the greater mission of food sovereignty and are able to work with their peers as a team to achieve that mission. This leads to youth developing leadership skills and carrying on the mission within their own personal communities, and eventually carrying out the mission for future generations. In 2013, Detroit instated an urban farming ordinance, which put in place a set of rules that outlined procedures for urban farmers to follow along with definitions of practices and activities related to urban agriculture.

All around Detroit, urban farmers are challenging the conventional rules of farming. In Detroit’s Brightmoor district, vertical farming is taking off. As John Gallagher writes in “Vertical farming sprouts in Detroit’s Brightmoor district,” Jeff Adams, a former marketer for the auto industry has started his company, Artisan Farms, who uses hydroponics to grow plants indoors in confined spaces. When growing plants hydroponically, it is possible to grow a large number of plants in a much smaller area. According to Adams, he has about 6,000 square feet of space, which he believes he will be able to install 40 vertical racks. This is equal to about 20 acres of farmland (Gallagher). Adams plans to start selling his goods at the Eastern Market, and he is in the process of working with Whole Foods to sell his products around metro Detroit (Gallagher).

The city’s urban gardening initiative is not limited to outdoor spaces; there is also some surprising experiments taking place within the city. Lizzie Grobbel, an environmental engineering student from the University of Michigan set up a successful shrimp farm in 2014.

Her pilot project is in the basement of a vacant home in the city. Grobbel, who was studying to obtain her Master’s degree in environmental Engineering completed the pilot program as part of her degree, but her studies and process has inspired another family to start a commercial shrimp farm within the city of Detroit. They are currently seeking out a large enough building to convert into commercial shrimp farm within Detroit. Another company who is cultivating seafood in Detroit is Central Detroit Christian Farm and Fishery, who pride themselves on using the waste from the fishery as fertilizers and a water source for their hydroponic beds. The CDC grows herbs and microgreens in these hydroponic beds within the same facility as the tilapia. The CDC is in an old party store that has been renovated to house their business.

They only employ people from the neighborhood in which the facility is located, and they pride themselves on raising their fish and their herbs without the help of any hormones.

Detroit has a volatile history. It has stood in the face of adversity with the will and determination to fight its way out, and it has come out a little better after each of these fights. The city of Detroit has been the leader in manufacturing, only to fall to its knees during the Great Depression. It has reemerged as a model city, only to fall to bankruptcy. Detroit has learned from its potato patches, thrift gardens, and Farm-A-Lot programs. It has been shown the value of community and fresh food and now understands that through the hardest times, they have been able to pull through with hard work and determination. With the struggles came lessons, and the reemergence of a new generation who are striving to make Detroit healthy, one garden at a time.

Works Cited

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