No Jobs, Bad Transit, Good Gardens:
the Agrarian Tour through Detroit
Finally arriving in our destination, we – Agrarian Road Trippers – jumped head first into Detroit’s urban agriculture scene to hob-knob with some agrarian minded folks in Detroit – the folks who will remain to keep on fightin’ the good fight, even after the Social Forum vacates the city.
Upon arriving in Detroit, we ate lunch with folks engaged in the US Working Group on the Food Crisis, a collection of people assembled to reinvigorate local food systems, craft new policy, monitor faulty policies, and represent the voices of growers across the country. Then we settled into our living accommodations at Fort Street Presbyterian in downtown Detroit before heading out for a tour with Lindsay Turpin from the Greening of Detroit.
Lindsay works for the Greening of Detroit’s Garden Resource Program, helping start and support neighborhood and community gardens across Detroit. Detroit is sectioned into eight clusters, with each cluster containing one garden leader who communicates the resource and technical needs of each of the gardens inside that particular cluster. Right now, the Garden Resource Program oversees over 1200 gardens in Detroit.
Detroit’s had her fair share of bad news: high crime, high poverty, no jobs, bad transportation. However, a growing movement in the city is drawing the attention of outsiders. Urban agriculture in the city of Detroit is thriving. No the flip side, access to fresh food is a great concern – as there are no retail food chains inside the Detroit city limits. Large chains refuse to move into the city, stating that the demographics of consumers in city limits are not economically viable. Not to mention Detroit’s population is on the decline.
Such an environment has left Detroit residents no choice but to leave – or take up a shovel. With the help of the Greening of Detroit, folks are now gardening in full force, as well as learning how to keep bees and can and preserve their harvest. Greening has also started a youth employment program, called the Green Corps, to train youth in urban agriculture and urban forestry as well as teaching valuable job skills. Since 1998, over 500 youth have been employed through the Green Corps program.
One of the sites that we visited on our tour with Lindsay was Catherine Ferguson Academy – a high school for pregnant teens and teenage gals with children. The school has horses, chickens, bees, a mature fruit tree orchard, and over two acres in vegetable production. In addition to managing the livestock and tending the vegetables, the girls oversee a nursery and hoop house production to distribute plants to gardens throughout the city. Right now there are approximately 300 girls attending Catherine Ferguson – and all are allowed to bring their children to school for daycare services. Recently a documentary called Grown in Detroit was released, telling the story of Catherine Ferguson Academy.
I should also mention that it is against city code to keep livestock in the city of Detroit.
However, policies do not keep the Greening of Detroit from help more and more people grow and tend their own food sources. Partnerships are the background of the organization. The city helps with access to land – providing one year permits – while other land trust organizations with help community members buy the land over time. Greening is also fortunate to partner with Michigan State University’s Agriculture Department, so that a number of students complete their Ag Practicum in Detroit. Strong, diverse partnerships help Greening obtain funding from a number of sources: Kellogg and Kresge Foundations, MI AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps*VISTA, and Workforce Development.
As far as the problem with keeping livestock, Lindsay says that you need to make sure you have good relations with your neighbors. Give them some vegetables. Agrarians in Detroit aren’t just farmers – they are organizers. Recently Greening has received some requests to help with marijuana – but that’s an area Greening chooses not to go.
Our next stop was D-Town Farms, a garden operated by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. D-town is a 2-acre plot, growing vegetables as well as operating a city tree nursery, bees, berries and mushrooms. In addition to in-ground growing, D-town has a number of tire container planters. Farmers at D-Town sell at the Eastern Market on Saturdays, as well as help facilitate a market cooperative called Grown in Detroit (not to be confused with the documentary), helping small growers into market growing.
Brightmoor Community Gardens was our final garden stop for the day. Brightmoor is the exemplifies urban plight in Detroit: a crazy cycle of high rent without security deposit keeps renters on their seats until they lose their jobs and evicted. As soon as the house is vacated, the house is stripped – of plumbing and wiring – left an abandoned shell, useless as a habitation. The costs to fix up the house now outweigh its overall value. So the house sits vacant. Unless a nearby gang is hosting an initiation – which frequently results in the burning down of vacant houses. In the midst of the craziness, there grows garden – or two or three or four.
Brightmoor Community Gardens are headed by Riet Schumack, cluster leader for the area. She supervises the 22 kids who maintain the gardens, mow the grounds, paint garden murals, and plant fruit trees in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit. The kids are under the understanding that working in the gardens is not a job – it is a profit-sharing venture, the more work each kid puts into the garden, the more money s/he will take home from market. Riet works with kids ages 9-18, increasing her ranks from 12 kids in 2007 up to the 22 she has now. Last year they produced 1,300 pounds of food from their collective gardens – which is distributed to the neighborhood families, as well as sold at Eastern Market and to a variety of area restaurants. In addition to helping neighborhood youth, Riet oversees her own backyard farm-stead, tending a garden and greenhouse and keeping bees for honey, chickens for eggs, and rabbits for meat.
With a crash course on urban agriculture in Detroit under our belts, we head back downtown for the March to the US Social Forum and Opening Ceremony. Then an evening of preparing for our workshop the next morning.
End Day Nine. End Part Five.