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So What's Wrong With Urban Farming Anyway?

In addition to opposing land management strategies that would "displace" Detroit residents by clearing out abandoned homes, Jesse Jackson is also now coming out strong against the idea of large-scale farming in the city limits.

"Detroit needs investment in industry, housing and construction -- not bean patches," Jackson told host Paul W. Smith on WJR-AM 760.  "If people want to farm, they'll farm in zones."

OK, I agree that Detroit is, or at least should be, a manufacturing power first and foremost. Building stuff that people want to buy will always be the key to economic relevance. Nothing wrong with planning for the day when we can churn out pallets of solar panels and windmill blades over at the old Budd plant or wherever.

But why does this totally preclude the idea that agribusiness can thrive here? Why can't Detroit seize on its manufacturing roots to revitalize its industrial sector, spur growth in construction and, at the same time, make space for substantial agricultural operations?

We have more than 138 square miles of land, plenty of it having been empty for a very long time. You mean to tell me that there's nowhere in Detroit that would be feasible for growing food on any sizable scale? Yes, I get that the region would do better to use some of the outlying land around the exurbs. But we can't even talk about moving a basketball team without venomous exchanges among regional leaders, so I can't see the wisdom in suggesting Detroit continue twiddling its thumbs on land issues in hopes of a workable regional solution.

Further, we've got major farmers ready to move into the city and set up shop. Where are the big industrial operations that are waiting — pleading — for the chance to get on the tax rolls?

When it comes to quality-of-life issues in Detroit, the limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables is often cited. Now granted, I'm not suggesting that Detroiters are flocking to the coon man en masse — there're still places like the Eastern Market and some good independent grocers in the city — but I don't get the fierce opposition to the idea of adding another dimension to that supply or to the city's economy.

I'm not suggesting that everyone don overalls and grab a hoe — shoot, I can't even keep a cactus plant alive — but unless there's compelling data out there to suggest that Detroit couldn't benefit by setting aside some land for agricultural use, what's the issue here? And really, it's not as if I'm looking for a reason to support some giant farm conglomerate. I think community farms are a wonderful thing, too, and should be encouraged also.

I'm asking sincerely here and expecting lucid responses: What are the truly compelling reasons as to why a large urban farm wouldn't be a good idea for Detroit? Hey, maybe you're right...but for now, I can't see it.

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  • 1

    Large urban farms will not work long-term in Detroit, or any urban area for that matter. The key to urban success is close proximity to needs/wants and large farms scattered around the city disrupt that. Maybe farms in Detroit are a good idea right now because there are not other industries currently placing greater value on the land, but it will not work in a revitalized city long-term.
    David Ownen's book Green Metropolis, while mainly pointing out environmentally friendly aspects of urban living, explains why urban living works and why it doesn't.

  • 2

    Handed down in my family was a Geographic Dictionary of 1803. It talked about the Detroit River being one of the most beautiful rivers in America... so crystal Clear that you could look down and see the fish. And the shores were laden with beautiful fauna and flora and French farms and vineyards extending back up from the shoreline.

    Ever hear of Dexter Ferry and his brother Hawkins?
    Well they were the scions of the Ferry Seed company and the areas extending eastward from the Art Institute were the Ferry Seed Farms. Ferry was the big name in seeds at one time in America, long before Henry Ford.

    Hawkins wrote the boon on the History of Detroit Architecture and Dexter was on the Board of the Center for Creative studies and I met with him on a weekly basis when I set up Michigan's first Construction Management firm and built the famous "tinker toy" building. Dexter was of the somber old cut with dark clothes and high top shoes.

    So Imagine what I thought when after eating lunch with my friend at the Polish Yacht Club we drove by the Dexter M. Ferry School and saw that it had been fixed up in the last bond issue with new windows and a new roof and flag pole.

    Under the EFM the school had been abandoned and stripped of it's windows and even the flag pole had been cut off and an indigent set a fire in the building and messed up a spandrel panel. Such a shame to see that absolutely beautiful school abandoned.

    So... nothing wrong with the soil for farming. Problem is how do you amass a large enough area to be efficient in production?

    Efficiency is the key, operative word.


  • 3

    I hope Jesse Jackson does not walk back his remarks about urban farming it is not a economy that will restore cities it has value but urban farming is not a Marshall plan for our decaying urban venues. Jesse was correct of course if we can rebuilt Baghdad then we can do Detroit. There is an ugly underlying theme about urban farming which suggests that this is the best people in urban venues can aspire to. I challenge that premise on a number of levels...

    Urban farming has value but not as a economic machine for urban venues..What is also troubling is the notion that hi-tech industries and ventures that involve cutting edge themes are never considered when the urban populations are poor people and lower class folks..

    It is interesting how the city could quickly embrace Quicken into its design but lacks the creavity in urban planning for blueprinting a new city that does not involve shrinking it...

    • 3.1

      gthrasher has it right....the underlying premise to this whole "urban farming" hoax is that it is the best that we can hope for given the people who live in the City. It's at best a pie in the sky idea that ia something for the po' folks and at worst, a condecendingand unintentionally racist idea about class in our society.
      Community gardens are one thing and might be a good idea as a means to unite neighborhoods in a common effort but urban agriculture as an economic generator is a flawed concept. It can do nothing to make the city viable economically and can only serve to divert attention away from what Detroit really needs. It's a "consiience easer" in that we can look back at the crumbling city and its cast off citezens and say, Hey, we tried...." but it misses the point completely.
      Sadly, the point is that we have come to the point where we accept that there is an "us and them" paradigm at work in our society and "they" can only expect to achieve a certain level while "we" get the good suff.
      gthrashers nailed it!

  • 4

    Ah regrees!

    Now if Darrell does not understand the word efficiency I'll report him to the State Boards and have his Engineer's license pulled and have him cited and fined. ;D

    We'll put him in bib overalls and plop him up on a traveling lawnmower and he can expound upon philosophy or politics or something and end up in the Huffington Post on Detroit.

    But Darrell could become aware of the type of windmill that would work here.

    Here's the article: /emagazine.php?art_id=1456

    A retired Detroit Automotive Engineer perfected the Wind Engine in his retirement.

    Growing up on a farm in Western New York State he learned about Windmills the hard way... Aermotor 18' dia one.

    Now every damned politician has that 3 bladed fan on their letterhead... the symbol of stupidity in engineering design... very low efficiency fans.

    Bill hit the theoretical maximum efficiency of 59% not 25%. And he used to go into hysterics over the NASA 3 bladed ones. :D

    He advocated the fans being built of Stainless Steel. Now can you name a City that knows how to work metal in a mass production mode?

    If you can't, please don't talk with me.


  • 5

    Are we talking about trying to feed some underserved citizens with a neighborhood garden or a full-fledged for profit industry? If we're talking about the former then yeah, why can't it work in Detroit? It would take what a plot or two to service service city blocks full of residents.

    But if we're talking about the latter then... yeah, count me in agreement with JJ. You'll never assemble the amount of contiguous land to make the city a financially alluring destination for agri-businees. This is just a distracting discussion that completely ignores why it is that Detroit dysfunctions as an urban center.

  • 6

    Boy, that was an undeserved comment by a citizen who may be undeserving!

    Undiscerning at least.

    Do any of you remember WWII?

    Well Remember that the Packard Merlin cleared the skies of the Luftwaffe. The Packard Merlin redesigned here by Nils Joel Skrubb that the housewives built on the assembly lines.

    Housewives? Yup.

    The Brits couldn't believe it!

    Nothing like thinking that you are superior.


  • 7

    Oh, BTW, Hizzhonor knew how to drive a real Mustang.


  • 8

    Downside to urban farms? Don't see any, but I'm not an expert. There might be a lot of crop damage from raccoons and crop loss from two-legged thieves, but what's the down side to fresh food, employment, and business? Medical marijuana might be a large cash crop. Another possibility is hunting clubs (e.g., pheasants, similar to Pele island). Sport fishing , pleasure boating, and sailing might be expanded.

  • 9

    It never ceases to amaze me how right politicians can get it on the one hand and how absolutely pitifully wrong on the other.

    Look at that damned dufus flapper in Jennifer's back yard.

    How on Earth could she do that?

    She should have set up a competition on Wind Engine Efficiencies just to see if Bill Allison was right.

    We should be building high efficiency wind engines right here in Detroit.

    Solar panels are very low efficiency.

    Do it right? Naw... just keep on trucking like a bunch of stupid lemmings.


  • 10

    Like you, I cannot understand the Rev. Jesse Jackson's issues with urban farming. While manufacturing has been the backbone of Detroit's economy, it has also been part of its downfall. Having various economic options is not a bad thing. Urban farming, if done well, could open up various possibilities. Below is a link to my blog with my open letter to Jackson.

  • 11

    We seem to be missing several points on urban farming. Large tracts of continuous land is not needed if the farming is done with hydroponics or aeroponics. Urban faming, when coupled with alliances with local universities or high schools, could result in students experimenting with creating hybrids or produce that is less susceptible to bruising. Students studying produce, say soy beans for example, could be asked to come up with other uses for the product, possibly creating new industry. And if hydroponics or aeroponics is used, engineers in the Detroit area could seek to develop better technology that could be used to produce growing systems that can be sold around the world.

    On another note: Detroit became a manufacturing hub more than 100 years ago. But it is not what it was and may never be again. So now might be a good time to begin experimenting with other ways to reinvent the city, as well as how it interacts with its surrounding communities and institutions. Detroit once had 1.8 million people living there. Once the 2010 Census is completed it night be lucky to have 800,000.Time to rethink and reshape the city.

  • 12

    I believe that many people (e.g., racial minorities) who have grown up in starkly urban environs have become socialized to think of our immediate surroundings as the only way things could/should be. We believe that smokestacks and smog equal civilization. The much greener suburbs/exurbs are 'the boondocks' and 'the sticks' at best, Klan-land at the worst. Environmental activism has become synonymous with the "tree-hugger" cliché' of relatively affluent Caucasians who insist on all-organic foods, don't use deodorant and whose toilet paper probably has wood-flakes in it. Dilapidated urban parks have become more known as hang-outs for the homeless or thugs/gangs, and not much is thought of it.

    In particular for Detroit, the population has hemorrhaged over the decades to the point where there is less than half the population than the city had in the mid-1950s, and dropping. News reports indicate as much as 30% or more of landspace in the city is vacant. Public schools designed to serve 2,000 students now serve 400. Many neighborhood blocks have half the houses they used to, and not all that remain are even livable due to abandonment. Long-defunct factories, empty warehouses, burnt-out storefronts, and condemned apartment complexes still stand as glaring eyesores, and are also ripe for not just innocuous squatters, but criminal types doing drug business and predators who may take victims there. The gaps in population density make it tougher on having a regular police presence everywhere (in a city of shrinking budgets/deficits). Decaying water mains breaking are a regular occurrence; the rationale against proactive infrastructure reform is that the city tax-base isn't sufficient to cover the costs of a radical overhaul.

    If the ongoing crisis for American automakers hasn't sent the message home, the era of being a high school graduate/GED holder (or at one point, even a dropout) and then segueing into a family-supporting career at a steel-refining/vehicle parts/assembly factory is done. It just is. There is no mass-manufacturing movement that attracted black folks (and others) in droves to Detroit and elsewhere. People here have to accept that the population won't ever be what it was. It's way past time to embrace new industries, and seek resources to provide the training for adults and younger people to get involved.

    Part of that involves thinking outside the box for creative uses of available land. City schools should have plots of land to work on with students for credit-- push curriculums in schools stressing agriculture, soil science, botany, forestry, urban planning, etc. Why not have fruit & vegetable farms, why not have forest preserves, why not have some bikes-only paths? Unfortunately, once the more cynical, jaded, and uneducated sorts in local leadership/activism get introduced to ideas like urban farming, shutting down depopulated neighborhoods, and "re-greening" in general, the tendency is to start accusations of suburban land-grab, or "They want to turn Detroit into a Plantation" which adds a totally unnecessary racialized spin to redevelopment efforts. Of course, if one is to look at this through the lens of African-American history, agrarian-based skill sets were common to our ancestors but were generationally lost as the industrialization boom manifested. Maybe this needs to be revisited.

  • 13

    Of course folks in urban venues should not be teathered to old industries and obsolete marketing paradigms YET folks in these venues should also not be compelled to buy into the latest hype and fad..

    Urban residents have long legacies of people experimenting on quick fixes just look at the DPS clusterf*ck experiences..

    People do not have to accept downsizing or settling...Our defense department has created and rebuilt entire cities, school districts, armies in other nations yet people are so quick to write off venues where poor and Black folks live..

    I am going to continue to partner and be an advocate with folks in the city who reject fictional dreams and the false industry of the 'green movement"..

    I can buy fresh fruit at Walmart and even gas stations..

    • 13.1

      Indeed, the government, particularly through the defense department, has invested millions if not billions into foreign nations. But the government has also invested millions if not billions in Detroit, be it through Title I, federal transportation dollars, federal housing, etc. Just look at the amount of federal dollars that poured in during the Carter administration or doing the Johnson administration.

      Yes, the federal government has invested heavily elsewhere. And while federal dollars were not as readily available in recent years, Detroit has not been left without federal support. Maybe not as much as you, I or others may have preferred, but federal dollars nonetheless. Regardless of federal investments in the city, things have not changed.

      Maybe it is time to try something new. Truth is cell phones, the Internet, World Wide Web and even pet rocks were fads at one time. But each played a role in our society. Continue your advocacy, but don't be so quick to dismiss ideas outside your agenda or belief system.

    • 13.2

      Yes you can "buy your fruit at Walmart and at a gas station". Good for you. So are you going to come up with a plan for a city that is dying? Because if you can, then there are many cities and towns that would be beating a path to your door. Urban Agriculture is not a fab fad. It is becoming a "next step" during a time when our food sources are becoming more and more fragile as we over indulge instead of acting responsibly. Yes, there is hoax mixed in with sound agriculture practice. And yes, there are some innovative ideas out there that possibly the time is right to put those ideas in motion. I am sure that Mr. Ford had people like you that believed "old bessie" was good enough to trot them to town and felt that the Model T was nothing more than a hoax and a cluster f***k waiting to happen. As for an "us against them" world? Who's the us and who's the them? Hmm? That point of view shifts with every individual or group of individuals. Beside what the good Rev. Jackson seems to forget when he sounds off is that it is not his personal decision or ours. The people that still believe in the city of Detroit are the ones that need to speak up. They are the ones that need to decide what path to take with the future of their city. Oh and by the way, read up on how much you can grow in a small backyard. You also may want to wash that piece of fruit you pick up from WalMart or your local gas never know what pesticides other countries use....

    • 13.3

      ruadhine, the "us" is the sububan white elite with education and white colar jobs....youknow, the middle class that politicians fall all over themselves trying to pander to. The "them" is the undereducated, minority, urban dwellers who make a living actually making something with their know, the "people" that "we" hire to fix our cars, watch our kids, do our yard work, and build the crap that we just have to have and then discard when the next fad comes along.
      The political parties know this and use it to foster dissension and division at every turn for political gain but in reality just see "them" as something else to be used and discarded.
      This Urban Farming hoax is just the latest example of exploiting a desperate situation for monetary gain. It's cynical at best and a cruel hoax at worst.

  • 14


    Remeber the red light bar by Rosetti... Fed Dollars... wiped out Washington Boulevard.

    When they start tearing out the light rail tracks it will be the same thing.

    Stupidity on parade.

    Now what are we going to do with the Brewster housing?

    Surprised that noneyez talked about that eyesore.
    And they recently had it nicely fixed up.

    Politicians CAN screw things up thinking that they are "with it".


    • 14.1

      NO, IA, as a matter of fact no one here does remember Rosetti's light bar or the Ferry Seed Co., WWII,the Packard Merlin,Nils Skrubb, Hizzoner....whoever that is, or Bill Allison. And what do any of those names from years ago have to do with urban farming? And who really cares if a three bladed fan is a good design or not?
      Most people here are looking AHEAD....not to some mythical past when everything was rosy and everybody had the right idea but the pols just didn't get it. To paraphrase Henry Ford, "Revisionist history is bunk!" (and a waste of time)

  • 15

    I love urban "farming" for the community bonding and potential for independence, plus truly fresh, organic food.
    But I hate its application by larger entities attempting to make it larger than it can be, here. The population has declined too much to make agriculture a viable economy here. Slavery -- wow, that's painful and scary. It's not within the intentions of the people I know who have established community gardens and/or food co-ops with the seeds given by Greening of Detroit annually for $10 for the entire season.
    I guess I don't understand this conversation -- I don't think that anyone debates that urban agriculture is never going to be a major economy in Detroit. Was that what we were talking about? We're in limbo, I thought that was a given. I think the new governor will create a tax incentive for permanent businesses that can both promote and salvage our natural resources and provide employment. Hopefully.

  • 16

    Title 1 funding in the city is pennies compared to the expenditures in wars overseas right now..My belief system is not the issue here...

    Urban Farming and related hyped paradigms deserved to be evaluated and vetted..

    Poor people unlike the ruling class only dent our natural resources.....This chat is about the merits of urban farming on a grand scale and clearly it does not have that breath and depth..

  • 17

    What I don't get is why Jesse Jackson's opinion even matters?

    Does he live in Detroit?

    Does he live in Michigan?

    I respect the mans work in and around the civil rights movement but I don't see how he is relevant here.

    Detroit, Michigan's and the country's economy need diversification. Urban farming can be part of it. Besides, I don't see any industry clambering to move to Detroit.

  • 18

    Jesse is as relevant as Cosby plus I have no problem with Black folks having an opinion on anything....I have a problem with people always tying to dismiss Jesse especially white folks lecturing to me who is relevant in the Black community..

    On this issue Jesse's comments were right on the money Urban Farming is not the savior of Detroit and since or nation can build and create entire civilizations in country's overseas of course Detroit should be rebuilt as well..

    What is interesting is how some people create dead ends for entire communities and get offended when people don't feel blessed this same issue is present in reducing the size of the city...This arrogant audacity is not new of course white privledge has always contaminated our nation...

  • 19

    Detroit is huge! There is room for both farming and industry. Just today the NYT pointed out that manufacturing is down from over 30 % of the economy in '52 to 11% today;so the idea that all or most of Motown's 138 sq miles will return to industry is puffery; pure and simple.

    Meantime, organic food and farmer's markets are soaring -- everywhere. 40 years ago there were less than 500 FMs in the country; today over 5,000 ... Read Bill McKibben's "Deep Economy" -- it's idealistic but it's real and can happen in Detroit too. Why not?

  • 20

    The idea that the organic food market will be a threshold industry is puffery but I do agree with exploring all options..

  • 21

    Is soil contamination a serious issue? If so, the costs of remediation could greatly outweigh any benefits.

  • 22

    why are people against urban farming? in new york city, there are CSA's and whole/organic food movements and many restaurants pride themselves on sourcing their veggies locally.

    Same thing goes for San Francisco and Los Angeles.

    The very fact that people are opposed to urban farming in Detroit illustrates how backwards the city can be about the very nature of "being" a city!!!!!

    there are plenty of rooftop farms in brooklyn, all over LA, in queens and manhattan, and all over the bay area.

    Not only does it bring jobs---when done properly and kept small (so don't even think about assuming that all farms hire illegals and pay them below minimum wage), but it brings a revenue to the city via taxes/cert costs, etc. that it otherwise would have never had due to importing.

    I am frankly shocked that Detroit wants to remain a manufacturing city----manufacturing is exactly what brought it to it's knees in the first place. it's time to evolve, invest in public transportation (the true sign of a city's urban worth), and not continue down the same path.

    btw, public transportation not only appeals to young professionals who are looking for a true urban atmosphere, but it also brings jobs, and keeps them local (bc you can't outsource a busdriver or a maintenance guy).

    Farming isn't the cure-all for Detroit, but it could be a step in rebuilding it as a cultural destination. I mean, how much press does the restaurant scene in Detroit receive? Zilch.

    Now if all of a sudden there's widespread movement to improve the scene with more fresh, organic fruits and veggies? Major press.

    I really want Detroit to do well and rebuild, but it's like Einstein says, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results . . . Manufacturing is not the answer.

  • 23

    After reading this post and the comments, I have a few things to add. First off, I do not live in Detroit, nor am I an African American. However, I consider myself an urban farmer (I live in St. Paul, MN) and I am completely behind these visionaries willing to do something positive for themselves. We all need good, real food, and from my understanding, there are neighborhoods in Detroit that have no real food markets available to the citizens of those neighborhoods. Two, one of the leading examples of urban farming is Will Allen and his group Growing Power. He is based out of Milwaukee and he is African American. He has been a pioneer for many reasons when it comes to urban farming, and we are all better off with people like him. The last point I would like to make is the changing world we live in. Not once in the article or the comments did I hear anyone talk of Peak Oil and enegy decline. This is not just fringe science anymore, Peak Oil is real and it has everything to do with food. The more we can grow as city dwellers, the better. When energy prices go up, so do food prices, and most of us are already tapped out due to this recession that is supposedly over. I say grow as much as you can in your backyard, the vacant lot next door, in community and roof top gardens, get chickens and honey bees, and start changing the current paradigm.

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