Sunday, March 21, 2010

Is Urban Farming Detroit's Cash Cow?

March 21, 2010
2010 may yield profit as efforts reap jobs, tax base


Community gardeners in Detroit harvest a good deal of fruits and vegetables each year, but not much of that other type of green: profit.

This year, though, Detroit's small-scale, volunteer urban farm movement will see the most dramatic steps yet toward making urban farming an economically viable industry.

These steps promise that within the next few years, urban growers in Detroit will produce jobs and a tax base along with their salad greens.

Among those efforts are RecoveryPark and Hantz Farms, two proposals to farm Detroit's vacant spaces at a scale unknown now, up to 2,000 acres or more each -- that's twice the size of Belle Isle.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Greening of Detroit this year plans to open Market Garden, a two-acre site near Eastern Market to train would-be career urban farmers how to operate like a business.

And New York activist Majora Carter continues to map plans in the city for a pilot program for a worker-owned farming cooperative.

Those involved say 2010 will be the critical year to get these efforts in the ground instead of just talked about.

"I think it'll move from a theory to a reality this year," said Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms.

Gary Wozniak, director of the RecoveryPark project, agreed that the coming months will see the first flowering of a new farm economy in Detroit.

"We're talking about creating an entirely brand new industry in the city," he said.
Down on the city farm

Not what most Americans think of as agriculture -- amber waves of grain, rows and rows of corn.

Instead, it will resemble the community gardens that exist now in Detroit, although on a much larger scale.

Each operation is likely to grow several, perhaps dozens, of crops -- from salad greens and tomatoes to Christmas trees.

The plots mostly likely would be scattered throughout the city, interspersed with homes and businesses.

The economic incentive is new. Urban growers have been active in Detroit for years, but almost all the food they produce is either donated to food banks, given away to neighbors or consumed by the growers themselves.

A network of growers sells produce at Eastern Market and other locations under the Grown in Detroit label, but the effort remains relatively small at this point.

To help local farmers create jobs and tax base, City Council action is key, because Detroit -- like many other cities -- does not recognize agriculture as a legal land use in its zoning code.

Kathryn Lynch Underwood, a staffer with the City Planning Commission, an arm of the City Council, heads a task force looking at issues regarding urban agriculture.

She said she expects the council to take up proposed zoning changes within a few months, and that the diversity of farming efforts will be great.

"We're going to end up with a lot of different models of urban agriculture in Detroit. There isn't going to be just one, and there shouldn't be just one," she said.

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER: 313-222-5173

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