Plot by Plot
Tracie McMillan's look at Detroit's food systems
Published: March 28, 2012
That's already on the agenda for the Grown in Detroit farmers, who have begun remediating a few acres of soil a few blocks over from Eastern Market, planning to use the space as a training facility, producing food for market. They also plan to build a packing house and cooling shed, and with that infrastructure in place, they expect to harvest and prepare even more food for sale. At the same time, they'll be operating as something of a de facto extension office, expanding on established agricultural practices for urban areas and developing new ones; testing different varieties of crops that suit the city's hot, wet summers and can be grown in tight spaces; and using intercropping so that one stretch of land can grow two kinds of food. Although there's little real estate pressure in Detroit, land still costs money, and spreading multiple inputs like water and compost over vast acreage can be tricky.
The question comes up again and again: Could you feed Detroit from farms within its limits? In 2010, researchers at Michigan State University decided to try to answer it, and they found that urban growers might not be able to supply the city with everything it eats — but they could make a significant contribution. Nearly half the nontropical fruit eaten by city residents could be grown here, and three-quarters of their vegetables; a similar study of Cleveland suggested residents could meet all their produce needs by cultivating vacant land and industrial rooftops. In both studies, the most interesting finding of all was how little land these farms would require. Take Detroit, for example. Researchers estimated that if growers practiced conventional industrial agriculture, they'd need 3,600 acres of land to produce that much food — nearly three-fourths of the vacant city-owned land in Detroit. But if they practiced biointensive agriculture — the kind in use at most of the urban farm plots, with compost, intercropping, and diverse crop plans — researchers found they'd need 568 acres, about 12 percent of the city's vacant land. (For comparison, Manhattan's Central Park is 843 acres.) Feeding Detroit most of its fruits and vegetables wouldn't require remaking the city into the endless cornfields of the Heartland, or the massive vegetable monocrops of California's Central Valley. Instead, it'd look more like a giant backyard garden, with lettuces giving way to tomatoes giving way to spinach in the same plot.
Yet urban farming gets pitted against redevelopment constantly — at least in Detroit. In 2011, a successful dog day care in the city's redeveloping Midtown neighborhood ousted a longstanding community garden, buying the city lot on which the garden sat so that it could expand. The two abutted each other on a stretch of Cass Avenue, a one-time thoroughfare now lined with boarded-up storefronts. Officials jumped at the opportunity to turn it into a tax-paying property; the garden was more of a neighborhood effort than a commercial farm plot. "If we all think about where we want Detroit to go . . . we don't want it looking like a farm in Kansas," said Councilmember Ken Cockrel. "We want it looking like Manhattan."
Yet most of the farmers I met in Detroit aren't envisioning Kansan cornfields so much as they're hoping to bring truly good food into their neighborhoods and maybe eke out a living doing it. Over toward City Airport, in one of Detroit's roughest neighborhoods, Mark Covington farms a couple blocks of land down Georgia Street from his house, the same one he grew up in. He moved back home a couple years ago, after losing his job as an environmental technician, cleaning oil tanks and commercial buildings. To keep busy, he started growing food for himself and his neighbors. Covington is something of a local celebrity for his work, but that hasn't made him sanguine about farming's prospects in his hometown. "Urban agriculture won't save Detroit," Covington told me matter-of-factly when I visited. But after seeing the work being done here, it seems possible that the city's farms could go a long way toward meeting the city's demand for fresh produce. They might even begin to help answer the biggest question of all when it comes to everyone's meals: How are we going to grow food for more people with the same amount of land? Either way, it seems a good idea to me.
The American Way of Eating
by Tracie McMillan
Scribner, $25, 338 pp.
Excerpted from The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table. Copyright © 2012 by Tracie McMillan. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Tracie McMillan will appear noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, at U-M Dearborn's College of Arts, Science and Letters, 3035 CASL Building, Dearborn; 313-593-5490.
McMillan will also kick off the new Talk Soup series at Colors, a series of conversations with food system and social justice thinkers, dreamers, and doers open to the community and public. The event takes place from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, April 5, at 311 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-496-1212; colors-detroit.com.
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