Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Urban farming takes root on Detroit's vacant lands, but will bigger necessarily be better?

On an urban farm in Detroit’s Corktown district my daughter, Ashley Lake is growing mushrooms. She intends to sell them to local restaurants, perhaps at Eastern Market, and to anyone else who wants fresh, unprocessed, tasty produce that has never seen a cross-country trip on a semi-truck.

The man lives next door to Ashley, Greg Willerer, told me he made $20,000 last year growing produce on the small parcel of land adjacent to his house. That’s in addition to his other jobs as an educator and for a community nonprofit. The photo above is Greg, from a profile of him in Time Magazine: http://bit.ly/9snZOm

This article from the Detroit Free Press http://bit.ly/dvMUpT illustrates how such small-scale ventures are gaining a foothold on Detroit’s vacant lands. It also predicts that farming is going to ramp up big-time in the city.

Small farms interspersed throughout communities are hard to argue with. They provide fresh, nutritious local food for communities that sorely need it. Many Detroiters live miles from the nearest grocery store.
They also are a terrific use for vacant land and a builder of community spirit and cohesion.

But proposals for farms on thousands of Detroit acres raise the ante and change the dynamics of the “community farm” model. They raise some troubling questions:

--      Will large scale farms be ‘factory farms’ that use massive amounts of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that poison the water and make the soil sterile?
--      Will bigger farms truly serve the needs of Detroiters like today’s community farms? Or will their economy of scale make it more profitable to truck fruits and vegetables to other regions instead?
--      Will massive farms be mostly mechanized, thus reducing jobs for local people and increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions?
--      Are huge farms the best repurposing of vacant land that already has the infrastructure, road access and other tools that are designed for residential, commercial or light industrial enterprises?
--      One of the empowering aspects of today’s burgeoning urban farm model is that it educates residents. Community volunteers who work on farms in exchange for a share of its bounty learn about biology, nutrition, construction, and team building. Will bigger farms have those benefits for workers?

Urban farming must be part of any discussion about creating a new, smaller, more economically dynamic Detroit. If those farms are going to be a significant force for employment, education and health in the city, then they will need to be developed on a larger scale than they are today.

Can they do so and still retain the elements of community and environmental sustainability that Greg’s farm does? That’s the difficult challenge that lies ahead.

No comments:

Post a Comment