Plot by Plot
Tracie McMillan's look at Detroit's food systems
Published: March 28, 2012
Most of Tracie McMillan's book is devoted to her undercover work in America's industrial food system. But this excerpt comes from her time in Detroit, where she spent several months meeting people involved with the city's urban agriculture, and chronicling its history. Though these city gardens may not be Detroit's savior, they offer an inspiring example, and alternative to the corruptible food system, providing health, produce and bringing communities together.
This passage opens with McMillan living in southwest Detroit.
In the balm of springtime evenings, I'd watch my neighbors work in the community garden, crouching low to yank out weeds or ambling up the sidewalk behind a creaking wheelbarrow in the long shadows of twilight. Our garden wasn't that big, maybe half a lot, but there were hundreds of them throughout the city in backyards, vacant lots and parks, most of them growing food not in the city soil but in raised beds atop it — a bid at doing an end-run around any industrial contamination that gets past a standard soil test. Since the early 2000s, Detroit's limited supermarkets and an overabundance of vacant land have inspired city residents to start growing their own food, in gardens ranging from tiny corner lots with collards and tomatoes to a four-acre expanse complete with a mushroom patch. They've churned out such an abundance of greens, herbs and tomatoes that the most prodigious among them have formed a cooperative, Grown in Detroit, to sell their excess at farmers' markets and restaurants around town. In all, Grown in Detroit grossed around $60,000 in produce sales in 2010. One neighborhood gardener, Greg Willerer, was so enthralled by urban farming's potential that he founded a farm in 2010, using his own yard before expanding to a couple vacant lots to grow an array of herbs and salad greens. He started selling to restaurants, got himself a stand at Eastern Market, and in 2011 he launched a community-supported agriculture project catering to city residents. In exchange for greens and vegetables all summer long, locals pay Willerer in a number of ways: in full in March, piecemeal through the season, or even by donating labor. Across town, on the city's east side, Carolyn Leadley and Jacob Vandyke founded Rising Pheasant Farms in 2009, selling produce wholesale through Grown in Detroit. In 2011, they expanded and paid for a retail stand at Eastern Market, where they sell sprouts next to Willerer on Saturdays.
In the Detroit of 2010, even people whose primary concerns were profit and jobs had begun to think pairing the city's vacant land with large-scale agriculture could make sense. In 2009, a local financier, John Hantz, announced plans to establish a 50-acre pilot project to establish large-scale commercial farming in the city, arguing that it would gobble up vacant, blighted land while generating profits. A local drug-treatment organization has begun drafting ambitious plans for Recovery Park, an agriculture, housing, and community development project designed to employ recovering addicts and other residents in living-wage jobs growing and processing food. And Majora Carter, a renowned urban advocate for green space, announced plans to recruit the city's urban farmers for a new produce label, American City Farms, conceiving of the effort primarily as one of economic development and job creation.
All of these larger players will be capitalizing on Detroit's long history of urban agriculture, which has been a part of the city's fabric for more than a century. In the 1890s, poor Detroiters were encouraged to grow food on 430 acres of vacant land by the mayor, Hazen S. Pingree. Precursors to the Victory Gardens of World War I, these early plots were dubbed Pingree Potato Patches, and by their third year, the value of food grown in the patches outstripped the cash aid distributed to the city's poor. Backyard gardening has always been strong in Detroit, a city where 79 percent of all homes are single-family, but local urban agriculture got a boost in the 1970s from a federal program that set aside money to encourage food production in urban settings. A brainchild of a liberal New York City congressman, Fred Richmond, the Urban Gardening Program gained the support of conservative Southern representatives in 1976, when Richmond made them a pitch they couldn't refuse: Help people in cities grow food and they'll start to appreciate how hard it is to grow it — and they'll be more open to the issues that matter to agricultural states. In 1977, the program launched in six cities, including Detroit.
The program revived a link between the nation's agricultural extension offices, the public venue for America's agricultural policies, and urban soil. During World War II, extension offices had helped to set up Victory Gardens in cities, but after their demise, extension's agricultural efforts became strictly rural affairs. A joint program between the country's land-grant universities and the USDA, extension offices can offer advice to anyone who wants to grow food. At the biggest universities, extension offices run massive research and resource programs; the extension at University of California-Davis, for example, helped develop the tomato harvester machine. Extension, as it's called colloquially, is where America's public agriculture gets made and shaped. Typically, it supports and expands on the conventional methods already in practice, further refining the industrial agriculture that has fueled America's food supply for generations. Techniques outside that purview do sometimes trickle up into extension's repertoire, but only when people push for them. That's how sustainable agriculture got a toehold in a handful of offices in the 1970s, a move that amounted to minor but official acceptance of the practice. Even so, extension offices have rarely led the pack on new ways of farming, focusing instead on refining existing ones and responding to farmers' current needs — which are, of course, defined by the way they already farm.
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