While urban farming has a long history, both in the US and globally, there appears to have been a resurgence, as urban populations become more interested in local food production. Not limited to quaint community farms or small backyard projects, it often comes with lofty dreams of a self-reliant, fully sustainable city. Urban farms have environmental, health, and social benefits, but perhaps the most encouraging of these is the promise of increasing access to healthy food. Detroit is one city in which urban agriculture has a long history. Community gardens have been operating there for a long time, even though they were legalized only recently in 2013 (21). An estimation by Keep Growing Detroit states the city is home to approximately 1,500 gardens and farms of varying scales (4). These farms often work in tandem with each other to provide their neighborhoods with access to local, healthy produce. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) is one of the largest nonprofit farms in the city, promising to fix both food scarcity and blighted or vacant land. MUFI differs from other farms in the area, due to the fact that their central focus is development and neighborhood development, centered around their 3-acre farm.
MUFI was founded in 2011 and is run primarily by Tyson Gersh in order to provide the neighborhood with low-cost produce, and to reduce blight by increasing green space (16). They hope, in doing this, they will be able to decrease vacant land and food insecurity (8). Gersh worked in tandem with community leader Dolores Bennett, the founder of the North End Youth Improvement Council, until her death in early 2017 (10, 20). It is readily apparent why such a project is needed in the city, as Wayne County is “the most food insecure county in Michigan” and is considered by many to be a food desert (4). Urban food deserts are defined by the American Nutrition Association as an area where “at least 33% of the census tract’s population reside[s] more than one mile from a supermarket (7).” The Detroit Food Policy Council recently found that 30,000 people in the Detroit area don’t have access to healthy food, and 48% of households are food insecure. There are “74 full-line grocery stores operating within the city limits” but there are still gaps in accessibility (5).
A large part of this is probably due to the fact that approximately 25% of Detroit households are car-less, making them largely transit-dependent. This is significantly higher than the national average of 8.7% (6). In addition, urban decay is a continual problem in the city of Detroit. One report from the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force states that approximately 40,000 land parcels (of the 380,000 surveyed) meet the definition of blight, with an additional 38,429 labeled as “at risk” of becoming blighted. 98% of these properties are located in residential districts (22). The community as a whole might benefit from a large urban farm, especially a volunteer-run nonprofit that prioritizes low prices. It also has great appeal to new, young homebuyers who, along with being attracted to low housing prices, close proximity to transit, and in-town location of the North Side, are increasingly invested in locally sourced, organic food. Other community gardens in the area, however, might find it difficult to keep up with the competition, especially given that MUFI is largely volunteer-driven and gives away free produce to over 2,000 households (13). It becomes clear that urban farming is a movement that has a far-reaching impact, and that MUFI does not exist in a vacuum.
MUFI’s main purpose is redevelopment centered around agriculture. They address food insecurity by prioritizing a “pay-what-you-can” model, while also providing to local markets, churches, restaurants, and food pantries. Over 50,00 pounds of produce have been produced since its founding in 2011. It is almost entirely volunteer-run, and a large amount of those volunteers are from outside of the community. In addition to production farming taking up 1/3 of the campus, the 3-acre land includes a high-density fruit orchard, a children’s interactive garden, rainwater collection/irrigation system, and a public composting toilet. The rainwater retention pond, in particular, is promising, especially as farming has a heavy water requirement. A vacant building on the lot is being converted into a community resource center, for administrative purposes, production/packaging, and a marketplace space open to the public Perhaps their most ambitious project is shipping container homes. Currently, only one is under construction, which is intended for an on-site, full-time intern, but Gersh aims to scale up the project, providing affordable housing ownership to low-income households within the community (8).
While it is worth noting that many people within the community express enthusiastic support for the organization and its mission, there are still numerous criticisms from people within the North Side community, as well as from other farmers in the city of Detroit. Gersh’s free produce model is frequently criticized, partly because it is enabled by donations from companies like BASF and MiracleGro, which some say is counterproductive to sustainable, organic agriculture. Another source of criticism is that MUFI is able to sustain their free produce model because it is largely driven by corporate volunteers outside of the community, in lieu of creating steady jobs for those in North End. In this way, it can be argued that giving away free produce is merely a band-aid for the problem of food insecurity, while neglecting to address the root causes and support the long-term resiliency of the community. In the words of Shane Bernardo, a long-time resident, social justice activist, and former farmer in Detroit, “food security and poverty have less to do with access and more do with structural and historical disparities around power.” Another frequent criticism is that MUFI focuses on development rather than food scarcity. North End has become one of Detroit’s “up and coming” neighborhoods, with property values rising and younger, whiter homeowners moving in. By definition, an “agrihood” is only sustainable for the immediate surrounding housing developments.
An in-town neighborhood close to transit is already conducive to gentrification, and some long-time residents argue that Gersh, who arrived in North End only 7 years ago, is accelerating it. Gersh is transparent about targeting young, comparatively wealthy homebuyers from out of town in order to further develop the neighborhood, and he has reportedly tried to get long-time homeowners to sell their properties (10,13). Another controversy surrounding Gersh is his staunch disapproval of the Vanguard CDC (10), which is constructing a swath of multi-family, mixed-income housing in the North End (37). He has done so without proposing an alternative solution for affordable housing, and this has earned him further disfavor among residents who are proponents of the Vanguard project. A more practical problem is the fact that MUFI only owns about 1.5 acres from private sales or foreclosure auctions. The other 2.5 acres are government-owned, making Gersh a prime example of the homesteading that is rather common in urban farms. This could cause problems in the future, as the city desires denser construction or projects that provide more jobs to the community. If Gersh can no longer find vacant properties to steward, it might be difficult to continue the acreage-intensive project that is farming (10).
In order to find solutions, it might be helpful to see how other urban farms address these problems, and Detroit has no shortage of alternative urban farming models. One of the most prominent voices in the field is Malik Yakini of D-Town. The 7-acre farm was founded in 2006 by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), of which Yakini is a chairman. Perhaps the most notable thing about Yakini and his projects is the focus on social justice. He seeks to “identify and alleviate the impact of racism and white privilege on the food system,” and has drafted food security policy to do just that (17, 23). Another project, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, headed by Jerry Hebron is a community-based farm is a project of the Northend Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC). Along with its food production and hoop houses, it consists of a farm-fresh convenience store and arts venue, as well as a community dining hall/hostel being converted from a vacant building (9).
Oakland Avenue is just one branch of the community-focused entity that is Northend Christian CDC, which also oversees afterschool programs and skill development for youth in the area (29). Other farms put collaboration at the center, with the City Commons Community Supported Agriculture being the prime example in Detroit. The City Commons consists of seven participating farms throughout the city of Detroit. Members of the community support the farm by purchasing “shares,” giving them access to a weekly box of fresh produce throughout the growing season. They also accept EBT, a viable alternative to MUFI’s free produce model (27). Some urban agricultural models veer even further from the traditional idea, however. For instance, Hantz Woodlands, a for-profit organization, is taking a different approach to greenspace by focusing on beautification rather than food production.
Their mission is to reduce blight by planting forestry which they will eventually be able to harvest for timber. CEO John Hantz has invested over $1 million to demolish abandoned buildings, as well as provide entrepreneurship and vocational training (26). The significant thing about Hantz’ beautification plan is that it is centered around improving property values for existing residents, rather than those looking to move into the area, and thus has garnered significant community approval. It is worth noting, however, that the land grab that allowed Hantz to purchase approximately 140 acres of land is looked at rather unfavorably by black farmers in the area who have historically had a difficult time gaining ownership of the land they farm. Hantz and Gersh are sometimes put into the same category, as out-of-touch outsiders who don’t reflect the needs and desires of the city as a whole. A more high-tech approach to food production is found in Green Collar Foods (GCF). GCF operates indoor vertical farms in places such as Detroit, Florida, and Northern England (28).
It might also be helpful to look at the effect other “agrihoods” have had on their respective cities. Most developments are located in rural areas, making comparison difficult, but there are a few located in cities, though certainly none are as large or as ambitious as MUFI. Gateway Heights is one such development located in the southern side of Macon, Georgia. The project’s aim is primarily to remove blighted parcels and increase greenspace, as well as provide fresh produce to locals (34). While Macon might not be the hotspot for gentrification that larger cities are, it is still apparent from walking the streets of its in-town neighborhoods that it has become one of Georgia’s trendy cities. Agritopia is an example of a more fully developed agrihood, located in Gilbert, Arizona, in the southeastern side of the Phoenix metro area. Gilbert was once primarily an agricultural town, and their agrihoods appears to hearken back to these roots. Agritopia is transparently marketed as an upscale living community, with fresh, local produce as the biggest drawing factor. Homes sell for upwards of $300,000, and the website boasts a “connected” community, conjuring up images of Mayberry, a small town feel amongst luxury condominiums (32). The town of Gilbert has a median income nearly double that of Phoenix (31), so it is unlikely that the food produced in the agrihood is going to address real problems of food insecurity. It seems this model of community living might be here to stay, with Forbes even suggesting that agrihoods might be the millennial equivalent of golf course communities (36).
Taking these examples into account makes it easier to see what MUFI can do to better assist its community. Perhaps the first thing that needs addressing is the way Gersh presents himself to the public. Certainly, the words, “I want to be Elon Musk when I grow up” don’t exactly inspire confidence in a city with a 34.5% poverty rate, 22.2% higher than the national average (10, 30, 31). Being located in Detroit means having an in-depth knowledge of the social and racial dynamics is essential to responding to the needs of the community and being a white outsider from Ann Arbor means treading carefully. A quick Google search of farming in Detroit shows MUFI being covered as at the forefront of the city’s agricultural scene, but a look at the history of “guerilla gardening” shows a vastly different picture. Local residents have been farming on vacant city properties since before it was legal, says Jerry Hebron of the Oakland Avenue Farm (10). Even now, local black farmers have a significantly more difficult time owning land and keeping their farms afloat than newcomers like Gersh.
A prime example is Marc Peeples, a local gardener who tends to vegetables such as kale and radishes in the near-abandoned Hunt Playground in Detroit. Peeples was arrested after numerous police calls were made from white neighbors, accusing him of crimes ranging from vandalism to sexual assault. While it was eventually tossed out by the judge, his case stands testament to the racial inequity that remains in urban agriculture (33). While part of the reason that MUFI has been covered as particularly groundbreaking falls on the press coverage it has received, Gersh tends to not acknowledge the great work being done by long-time residents to address the existing community’s needs. Additionally, asking residents to sell their properties gave him a less-than-favorable reputation in the North End. Citizens there might be looking for a change, but blatant displacement likely isn’t the change they’re looking for. It is also clear that simply giving away produce is not enough to fix the problem of food insecurity that is largely a product of intentional disinvestment in the city of Detroit. Selling their food would be a small step but might enable MUFI to hire a small group of employees. Urban agriculture is rarely a large job creator, but it is surely better to do something on a small scale than to do nothing. Even without job creation, revenue from produce could enable them to provide resources to the community such as vocational training or after school programs.
Their shipping container home is promising, but without the revenue to back it up, it seems their plan for development and revitalization lacks an affordable housing solution. A public timeline might be helpful in inspiring confidence within the community. Collaboration is another area in which it would benefit MUFI to improve. Many local farms, including the Oakland Avenue Farm, are working together to achieve a final goal of growing “two percent of the produce that’s consumed in the city (10).” MUFI has a massive production farming campus with the potential to do a significant amount of good if they turned their efforts to the city as a whole, rather than to the immediate surrounding housing development. The logistical issues of not owning the land, however, might not be as easily fixed as a bad reputation. Informal homesteading has played a large role in the history of urban farming, as local gardeners have been tending to plots of vacant land since before the legality of it became clear. However, the possibility always exists that the city of Detroit might want to use that land for different kinds of development, and this could leave the future of MUFI uncertain. As the home values in the North End rise, it is possible that the city might prefer the higher revenues and greater number of jobs brought by retail establishments. This scenario has played out with other local farms before, and the result nearly always favors the larger, more profitable development.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this project, however, comes to light when we compare it to other agrihoods, such as Gilbert’s Agritopia. The very model itself, of building a community around agriculture, seems like a breeding ground for gentrification. Where other farms and community gardens seek to provide food to the existing population, MUFI appears to be attracting out-of-towners to a trendy, up-and-coming neighborhood where they can get locally grown, organic produce. Such development might work for wealthier towns and suburbs, but it is unlikely to do much for the North End other than displacement. The success of the redevelopment model is dependent on its ability to bring in new people. Other areas which have seen agriculture-centered development differ greatly from North End. Often, they are more rural, or at least suburban, than North End. They also tend not to have the same existing history of community farms, nor the same racial dynamics as Detroit. Whether the area will become one of upscale houses and condominiums is yet to be seen, but property values continue to rise. It would be unfair to blame it entirely on Gersh’s enterprise, as the natural cycle of a neighborhood often includes some level of gentrification. It is possible for MUFI to remain a net positive force in the community, in my opinion, if they can revise their mission to put existing residents at the center of their redevelopment, and if they cease being active opposition to Vanguard and other organizations who seek to secure affordable or mixed income housing in the area.
To sum up, focusing on neighborhood “revitalization” is unlikely to solve the problem of food insecurity. While attracting young homebuyers to the area might bring a Whole Foods or trendy fresh-produce eateries to the area, it is unlikely to bring affordably priced fresh foods into the city on a large scale. Fresh, healthy food is a great need in the North End, and the nonprofit has great potential to do good. However, as it stands now, the food produced might not continue to benefit existing residents. In order to do this, MUFI will have to shift its focus to collaboration with established, locally-owned farms, rather than property development wrapped in a shiny agricultural package.
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