Plot by Plot
Tracie McMillan's look at Detroit's food systems
Published: March 28, 2012
Truthfully, it's left to the outlying innovators — the organic pioneers, the urban farmers — to come up with a meaningful agricultural practice outside the industrial model. Big, industrial growers have to persuade extension services to help them, too — but they're often the ones funding research, which gives researchers a strong incentive to meet big growers' needs. (Most big agribusiness companies have their own research departments as well.) Accordingly, extension has had little incentive to suggest radical changes like leaving behind pesticides, adopting new labor practices, or making smallscale growing profitable. For seventeen years, the Urban Gardening Program, small as it was, bucked that trend and put money toward figuring out how to use city land to grow food instead of flowers and shrubs.
In 1994, the Urban Gardening Program ended, a victim of a funding reorganization that made it an optional part of another agency, instead of having its own specified place in the budget. Some cities continued to promote urban agriculture for food production, rather than beautification; in New York City, the local cooperative extension figured out how to keep its urban agriculture agent, John Ameroso. Now retired, Ameroso proved to be a relentless advocate for food production over recreation in garden spaces, pointing out that gazebos, after all, take away growing space. In the federal program's final year, the gardens grew $16 million-worth of food, the last year official records were kept. It was considered a nice, but ineffective, effort; all well and good, but not worth its own place in a budget. Productive agriculture was big; you could never make money doing it any other way.
I first meet Malik Yakini on a warm morning in May, at D-Town Farm, two acres tucked within a massive city park on the city's northwest side. (By 2011, they had expanded to four acres.) Yakini, the founder and principal of an Afrocentric charter school, founded D-Town Farm in 2007 as chair of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. The idea was to provide access to fresh, healthy food grown without chemicals while putting vacant land to good use, as well as to encourage the city's black community to "do for self" by providing jobs and income. Giving people the means to feed themselves, went the thinking, was one way to help mitigate the city's sometimes sparse options for fresh food. At first D-Town was more an idea than a place, with Yakini and fellow activists farming one plot of land one year, a different one the next. In 2008, after two years of negotiations with city officials, Yakini and his colleagues managed to strike a deal for two acres tucked into a park on the city's northwest side.
The day I visit is perfect spring: blue skies, breeze rustling through glossy poplar leaves, sun pouring down. Yakini meets me at the farm's gate, near a little wooden signpost with a placard explaining the city's food access problems — and the hope that D-Town's fields can provide a partial solution to them. Other signs dot the property, stopping points for the volunteer tour guides who take visitors like me around. He gestures at the tall wire fence encircling the growing area, adjusting the knit cap keeping his dreadlocks in place as he looks up at it. "We had a pretty severe problem last year with inventory shrinkage," he says wryly, explaining that both humans and wildlife helped themselves. We pad around on tilled earth inside, his shell-top Adidas sinking into furrowed ground between adolescent greens. When a half-dozen urban gardeners from New York show up, in town for a conference, I tag along on their tour of the mushroom patch and beehives, where our guide, Aba, informs us that they are "raising some strong Detroit bees that'll make it through the winter."
Much of what has kept urban agriculture from generating money has been its small scale; it's hard to make up the cost of growing food, which requires daily work no matter how little you grow, if you're harvesting just two tomato plants. Commercial production requires balancing larger-scale production (which means more food to sell) against the cost of the inputs required to grow it (compost or fertilizer, tractors or pitchforks). The conventional wisdom about selling food just the way it comes out of the ground is that to do so profitably requires either massive, Walmartian scale or very high prices. Trimming back the vast network between farm and plate — the marketing system — is one way to get around that equation; that's why growers like Willerer, who sell directly to the customers eating their produce, can charge affordable prices. Another way to boost profits is by making food more appealing to customers — or, to use food-business lingo, to add value to it. "Once you wash something, cut it, put it in a bag, it gains a lot of value," says Yakini.
Currently, very little of the produce grown in Detroit has much done to it at all. For the Grown in Detroit label, produce has to follow basic industry standards; you don't wash raspberries, because the delicate fruits will disintegrate, but you do wash lettuce — a step that in turn requires facilities in which to do the washing. Then it's taken to market as quickly as possible, because the only cooling facilities available tend to be people's home refrigerators. "Growing produce is our thing, we've gotten fairly good at that," says Yakini. "But you have to be able to move it, move it quickly, and clean and pack it, and that side is kind of underdeveloped. We need to work much more on the infrastructure."
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