Detroiters Question “World’s Largest Urban Farm”
Patrick Crouch practices the kind of gardening that Detroit has recently become famous for. The typical plot at Earthworks Urban Farm, where he serves as program manager, is cultivated on borrowed land and in close proximity to houses and apartment buildings. These plots provide local food to neighbors through CSAs, and help neighborhood kids get acquainted with agriculture.
“We’re growing people’s relationship to the land and to themselves,” Crouch says, adding that Earthworks tries to strengthen communities by encouraging neighbors to garden together. Originally inspired by community gardeners in the Bronx, urban farmers like Crouch now draw on ideas such as permaculture, community food security, and biodiversity.
Today, a different model of urban agriculture has made an appearance in Detroit, and many community gardeners there are opposing it. For the past four years, local businessman John Hantz has been taking steps to create what he calls “the world’s largest urban farm.” His company, Hantz Farms, asked the city for permission to buy up about 1,500 parcels of city-owned land. That’s about 140 acres—the largest sale of land by area in the city’s history.
Because Detroit lacks an agricultural ordinance, planting trees is one of the few agricultural activities currently permitted. So Hantz Farms started out by doing just that, planting young oaks, maples, and poplars and mowing the grass around them on the acres it already owns. So the land deal seems to promise more of an urban forest than an urban farm. It won't supply much in the way of food or jobs. It won't provide the city much money, either, as Hantz will pay about $300 on average per plot.
Nevertheless, that deal was approved today by a 5-4 vote in the City Council, after a raucous hearing that at one point had to be called into recess because activists refused to give up the floor.
Those activists include not just local urban gardeners but also real estate agents concerned about property values and local residents. They question what the deal will mean for the city’s income, urban character, and food security.
“Trees are not going to increase taxable revenue,” Crouch explained. What they will do instead, he said, is “create scarcity” in the city’s real estate market, raising the value of nearby houses and eventually raising the value of the land on which the trees are growing.
That means Hantz Farms might eventually make a great deal of money selling off the land it’s now buying cheaply—a prospect that angers many community members.
A different vision of urban agriculture
Size is not the only difference between Hantz’s project and what came before. Hantz Farms is considering a type of agriculture very different from the one practiced by Detroit’s established gardeners.
This is partly because the city doesn’t currently have an agriculture ordinance, explains Hantz Farms president Mike Score. That means that the company isn’t allowed to grow crops and harvest them.As the company’s website puts it, “Picture oaks, maples, and other high-value trees, planted in straight, evenly spaced rows.” No vegetables or other food crops will be grown.
But the idea was never to be the kind of farm that grows food. Instead, the plan was to stanch the flow of people out of the city of Detroit, which lost one-quarter of its population between 2002 and 2012.
“The primary purpose from the beginning has been to invest in blighted communities to make them more livable,” Hantz told me. “Part of that concept for us was to use agriculture to recover blighted areas.”
Projects out of sync
Using agriculture to fight urban decay is one of the oldest ideas in the community gardening tradition, says Karen Washington, who has been growing her own food in the Bronx since 1985. A physical therapist by trade, Washington says her true passion has always been farming.
“When I grew my first tomato and I bit inside it,” Washington says, “I was hooked.”
But as she began organizing others to farm the Bronx, issues of beautification took first priority. Urban gardening helped unify neighbors, making it easier for them to fight for affordable housing and for streets free of dealers selling crack cocaine. That doesn’t sound so different from Score’s hope that Hantz Farms will help abate Detroit’s problems with unmowed grass and garbage-strewn lots.
But the urban gardening movement has moved on from its initial focus on beautification. And that’s where the relationship between Hantz Farms and traditional urban gardeners gets rocky.
“Community gardens went from beautification to the realm of healthy food,” Washington says, pointing to an increasing desire for locally grown vegetables among residents of poor urban neighborhoods.
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It’s not just about tomatoes and peppers. It’s also about who’s in control. For Washington, it’s imperative that traditional community gardeners are involved in the development of all urban farms. These farmers know how best to grow things, she said, and would make sure that any urban farms provide good jobs and practice only organic agriculture.
“What you saw in the past is that cities have these policies, food policies, and find out that they fail because they never ask the community what they want,” she says. “That old way of doing things is passé.”
A farm without food or workers
Score explained that the team at Hantz Farms had gone out of their way not to compete with the city’s gardeners, specifically avoiding the purchase of plots where agriculture is happening now. But Hantz’s model of agriculture was so different, Score said, that there was little those farmers could contribute to the company’s plans, anyway.
That difference stems in part from the fact that Hantz Farms, as Score currently sees it, will produce no vegetables of any kind, even if the city changes its agricultural ordinance. That is because vegetable farming would require the use of pesticides—even organic pesticides—that neighboring residents are concerned about, according to Hantz. Neighbors also expressed concern that vegetable crops would attract rodents. Patrick Crouch counters that organic farmers on farms operated by Earthworks usually rely on preventative cultivation methods and raise their crops without any pesticides at all
Instead of growing and selling vegetables, Score said that Hantz Farms would generate income by growing ferns and other shade plants under its trees and selling them for landscaping. He also mentioned tourism, partnership with land trusts willing to pay for the conservation of urban forests, and, sixty years down the line, the possibility of selling lumber.
The project would create just a handful of jobs, according to Score. But he says that’s not what the project is ultimately about.
“What we're really trying to do is stabilize this area so that people stop leaving,” he said.
Who controls the land?
Underlying all of these issues is the question of land ownership. Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, wrote in an op-ed for The Michigan Citizen, that John Hantz had an earlier vision for the development of Detroit’s vacant land that would have involved homesteading. That is, land would have been sold off to Detroit residents with the intention of encouraging many small farms.
That part of the plan, however, has dropped out of John Hantz’s proposal altogether, and the deal approved by the City Council today will further centralize land ownership in the city.
Yakini encourages Detroit residents interested in growing and eating local food to resist the plan. “Increasing numbers of us,” he wrote, “will struggle relentlessly for self-determination and to establish food, land and social justice.”
For Patrick Crouch, the situation recalled Malcolm X’s insight that “the source of all wealth and power is land,” which comes from a speech called “Message to the Grassroots,” delivered in Detroit in 1963.
“If land is the source of power and wealth,” Crouch said, “do we want it in the hands of many or in the hands of one?”
James Trimarco wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. James is web editor at YES!.
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