Several years ago, Andrew Chae moved back to the Detroit area from Chicago where he had gone to college and became involved in the urban farming scene. Part of what brought him back was having space to farm. Friends of his in Chicago weren’t even trying to buy land because it was too expensive, whereas in Detroit it seemed like a real possibility. “We have to work through the government,” he says. “But we have the chance of actually buying farms.”
It also helped that his uncle owned some land next to his dry-cleaning place on Van Dyke, where Chae was able to start his operation in a relatively high profile spot. He was soon selling produce to local restaurants like Craftwork and Rose’s Fine Foods and at farmer’s markets. Yet, as he’s looked to expand, Chae faced continued challenges obtaining land. He tried to get land through the Parks Department and several times through the Detroit Land Bank Authority or DLBA who have presented him with a Kafkaesque assortment of hidden or half-formed policies and plans as well as the sorts of miscommunications that seem to occur in abundance within the program.
Chae’s experience is hardly unique, and he has only been here for a few years. Many growers have been dealing with these issues for far longer. Under the Coleman Young administration, the Farm-A-Lot program pushed for urban agriculture. Since then, urban agriculture efforts have largely been led by citizens and non-profits looking to take advantage of the vacant land, some sixty percent of which is owned by the city itself. Support from the city for any of these programs has been spotty at best. Now various local leaders have begun to talk about urban farming as being part of Detroit’s future. “Agriculture is going to be a part of Detroit’s economy for years to come,” Mayor Mike Duggan recently said. The “2016 Parks and Recreation Improvement Plan” listed agriculture as one of the preferred uses for under-managed parks and open spaces. Whether or not farmers will actually be able to acquire the land they need is still an open question.
Not that much land would really be needed, at least in terms of the massive amounts of open space that are available. Keep Growing Detroit is one of the city’s leading urban agriculture organizations, and has calculated that 5,000 acres would be needed to create a “food-sovereign” Detroit, where over fifty percent of fresh produce comes from within the city limits. This would equal roughly thirty percent of the available vacant land or five percent of the entire city. These numbers were also calculated before the city began its aggressive demolition program of abandoned homes. Much more land is available now.
So, what’s the hold up? The answer to this question is a source of debate in urban agriculture circles, and it likely involves a combination of bureaucratic dysfunction, hidden agendas, wishful thinking, and perhaps more than anything, a failure to appreciate what urban agriculture is all about. “There’s a common perception,” Janell O’Keefe formerly of KGD and now with the Center for Community Progress says, “that urban agriculture is a temporary land use and it’s a great temporary solution for caring for and managing vacant property until something else comes along …” Such thinking led the city to decide to sell the land where Birdtown Community Garden was located in the Cass Corridor to a doggy day-care, perhaps reasoning that the garden could just move. What this fails to account for is both the role that farms and gardens play in communities as catalysts for change and neighborhood stabilization. It also discounts the large investments that farmers and gardeners make in the soil itself. Organic farming and gardening depend on building healthy soil to grow crops, something that is no easy feat in the city’s degraded soils. This often involves buying hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of compost and other soil amendments each year for even relatively small pieces of land.
Growers also run up against the wishful thinking of land speculation by the city and other owners. “The city has perpetually been sitting on land in hopes that one day somebody will want to develop it,” as Janell says. “And in that way, they’ve shoestringed themselves and really cornered themselves in. Even if that’s the case, why not sell it to people that live in the neighborhood and let them reap the benefits of future development.” A study by the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative recently showed the food system poised to become the city’s second largest industry. With restaurants and shoppers looking for locally grown produce, the city has likely slowed its own progress by failing to sell. It’s also kept wealth and resources concentrated in the hands of fewer people.
There have been a few large-scale transfers of land for urban agriculture, including organizations like Recovery Park and Hantz Farms. Hantz notably paid 8 cents a square foot for its land in 2012, a full 12 cents less than the current going rate of 20 cents per square foot that has been given out by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. This has led some to wonder if the city is only interested in dealing with large farms and organizations. As Jon Miller, a retired bus mechanic and union representative who now runs a small farm said, “Given that Andy (Chae) and other folks, me included, have had a hard time getting permission to use city land, and given that Recovery Park and Hantz have been given easy access to huge tracks of land, it says to me that what the city wants is industrial farming and not small-scale vegetable, fruit farming that might involve more of the population.” These would be the kinds of farms that KGD describes as “appropriately-scaled” to neighborhoods, usually a few acres in size or smaller.
Of course, it’s hard to know what the city and especially the Land Bank want. As Janell pointed out to me, unlike other land banks, the DLBA doesn’t have any of its policies posted on its website, and prospective buyers often learn about “policies” and “programs” after months of trying to buy land. It must be said that the DLBA has other problems as well. It’s currently being investigated by the federal government for its use of federal dollars spent on demolitions as well as city employees allegedly using their “employee discounts” to buy and immediately resell properties to real estate companies at a profit.
Part of what Keep Growing Detroit does is to help time-strapped farmers negotiate the maze of acquiring land from the Land Bank and elsewhere. Despite their best efforts, farmers often get lost. Chae told me that he was working for months on acquiring land on the east side, going as far as to submit a plan and an offer, only to be told by a higher-up that the land was part of a larger strategic plan and thus not for sale.
Kieran Neal, who runs Beaverland Farms with his partner Brittany in the Brightmoor Neighborhood, has his own crazy tale of trying to buy land through the DBLA that involves multiple city agencies, hidden policies and planning projects, and a city lawyer sequestered for jury duty. Neal doesn’t believe any of this is nefarious, just a result of disorganization. He makes a larger point about land access and the current problems with the system, “It’s gonna end up being people who have either physical capital, or financial capital, or privilege, so to speak, who have the ability to kind of take off on this endeavor … people who work hard and get shit done but are able to take a big risk.” As he puts it, even having the time to deal with this process is a result of some form of privilege.
Both Neal and Chae discussed various ideas to create more equity in farming, like starting incubator farms or co-ops that would allow people to get into the game without having land, legal advice, or the money for start-up costs. It’s clear that the city will be leading from behind if at all. As a first step, they might remove some of the roadblocks that keep these projects from getting started.