Detroit’s evolving food system has historical roots

Today’s urban agriculture is rooted in Southeast Michigan’s rich history. The Kickapoo Sauk and Fox people of Southeastern Michigan, historically the first well-known cultures to live here, were mainly farmers who grew corn, beans, squash, and tobacco.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, mission pear trees were known as a striking feature of the local landscape as the French had planted them on their “ribbon farms” lining the Detroit River. Farmland dwindled as industry grew in Southeast Michigan, but it seems that every tough economic time hailed a return to growing food. During the depression of 1893, Mayor Hazen S. Pingree encouraged poor residents to grow food on 430 acres of public land – including the city hall lawn, parks, and other vacant areas.

The Depression Gardens of the 1930s represented another effort by people to feed themselves during tough economic times – work-relief gardens supplied work for the unemployed, and food for hospitals and charities. There were also War Gardens during World War I and World War II as part of an effort to get households to grow more of their own food so that produce from farms could be sent overseas. In 1944, victory gardens supplied 42 percent of the nation’s vegetable supply. However, gardening slacked off during the postwar economic boom.

In the 1970s, Mayor Coleman Young started the Farm-A-Lot program as an answer to the many vacant lots in the city. Some citizens took up the challenge and in the 1980s the Gardening Angles was formed. It was steered by Gerald Hairston and other elders with southern roots. In 1992, Detroit Summer, a project initiated at Detroit’s Boggs Center, involved young people with the Gardening Angels in planting community gardens. Farm-A-Lot ended in the early 2000s.

What eventually became the Greening of Detroit’s Detroit Agriculture Network replaced it with gardening development and support programs, garden resources, adult and youth education, market programs and soil testing services underpinning the development of a new organic Detroit food system. It now involves more than 1,350 community gardens tended by an ever-more sophisticated group of growers using better techniques and practices for developing this home-grown industry.

Detroit agriculture is flourishing, from family, community, school gardens, to market plots and mini-farms – thousands of sites that together report tons of fruits and vegetables produced each year. There is also a thriving beekeeping community, and some agriculturalists have gone so far as to raise chickens, rabbits, and even goats.

The capacity for large-scale production is here with 20 square miles (12,800 acres) of vacant space in Detroit. Researchers at Michigan State University have reported that Detroit land has the capacity to fulfill most of the produce needs of Detroit’s population – finding that nearly 76 percent of vegetables and 42 percent of fruits consumed in the city could be supplied from as little as 2,086 acres of land. The food production capacity is here. However, in order for this to become a fully-functioning food system, it needs to be legal to farm in Detroit. That requires state legislation to amend the Right to Farm Act of 1981 city land use policy to equitably regulate the results of a movement that has grown organically throughout our neighborhoods.

In late 2012, the City Planning Commission voted to recommend the adoption of Urban Agriculture ordinances to the Detroit City Council, which is expected to approve them in early 2013.

This article was excerpted from the Council’s Detroit Food System report – Cheryl Simon, Coordinator of the Detroit Food Policy Council, is a member of the Population Health Council.