Urban Agriculture’s Healthy Roots in Detroit

By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor

Urban farming may seem like a recent phenomenon, sprouting up in cities across America, but it’s been around much longer than that.

According to the 2014 documentary, “Plant This Movie,” narrated by actress Daryl Hannah, as far back as the 1930s, people were using their own land to grow their own food and raise their own livestock. During World War II, victory gardens produced hundreds of tons of food a year. In 1944, 40 percent of food was grown at home and school gardens, totaling 20 million gardens coast to coast.

After the war, soldiers came home and wanted their own piece of the pie, paving the way for a watershed moment in the late ‘40s. The lawn became a symbol of upward mobility as suburban sprawl took hold. Much like the lawn, grocery stores became a symbol of a high standard of living and made it easy to pick up peas for that night’s dinner instead of waiting for them to come into season.

As Hannah said, “The highway system and advances in refrigeration divorced people from their food. Local food was not a lifestyle choice — it was the only choice available to most people until the 1950s.”

A Green Revolution

American agriculture had advanced more in the space of a single lifetime than world agriculture had in several thousand years. Norman Borlaug paved the way for high-yield crops that spurred modern agriculture on a large scale, earning him the name “Father of the Green Revolution.” But this type of industrial farming has taken its toll, specifically on farmers who have to buy chemical and petroleum products, using 10 times the amount of energy to produce the same amount of food.

On a global scale, food that is thrown away could feed the whole African continent. As the movie states: ironically, the same agriculture revolution that was feeding the developing world has led to overfeeding in developed countries.

Today, in response to these societal issues, more people are reclaiming land to grow their own healthy, fresh food. In Detroit, from the days of Pingree’s potato patches, the city has its own rich history of urban farming that has been revitalized by the recent movement that plays a big role in the local food culture in the Motor City, especially with local chefs and restaurants. Here are just a few organizations that are focused on urban farming and its implications in a just food system.

RecoveryPark Farms

Not only is RecoveryPark Farms working to grow healthy foods in blighted neighborhoods, it also has a social mission: to create jobs and help former convicts and recovering addicts who face barriers to traditional employment.

The farms grow produce and deliver it to restaurants in metro Detroit within 24 hours of harvest. Last year, it sold over 70 varieties of specialty produce to many of Detroit's top chefs and restaurants.

One of RecoveryPark’s biggest fans is local chef James Rigato, who has said, “I love what they're doing for the economy and for urban agriculture and anyone can get behind that! But the real magic is the produce.”

Other restaurant partners include the high-end Italian restaurant Bacco in Southfield and Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails in Detroit’s Midtown.

Fisheye Farms

In West Village, Fisheye Farms has a different model than RecoveryPark but a similar mission: to provide high-quality, organic, locally grown food while also focusing on the community. It began last year, providing produce for local restaurants, such as West Village neighbor Craft Work, and offering community space and education. It also hosts local chefs doing pop-up dinners.

Detroit Dirt

Much has been reported about Detroit’s vast tracts of empty land, and Detroit Dirt is another unique business that epitomizes the robust entrepreneurial spirit in the city. The compost company’s mission is “to become an engine for the urban farming movement by regenerating waste into the resources that will reshape Detroit.” It works to transform abandoned parcels of land into urban farms.

Keep Growing Detroit

Keep Growing Detroit works toward a food sovereign city through various initiatives, such as the Garden Resource Program, in which seeds and transplants are provided to 1,400 family, community, school, and market gardens across the city, and Grown in Detroit, which is made up of more than 70 growers who sell their locally grown fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets.

Understanding that larger production farms are needed to feed 700,000 people, Keep Growing Detroit also maintains Plum Street Market Garden, working with many partners to identify and fill gaps in the local food system and helping to spur demand for Grown in Detroit produce by fostering relationships with restaurants, food entrepreneurs, and wholesale buyers.

Food Field

This four-acre urban farm is a former abandoned school that now grows organic produce and permaculture, chickens and ducks, a fruit orchard, honeybees, aquaponics, and more. 

Food Field’s goal is “a sustainable business that’s economically viable while building the health of our land and community,” according to its website.

One of the restaurants it works with is Corktown’s Brooklyn Street Local, a breakfast and lunch hot spot known for its vision of supporting the local community while implementing as many green practices, from composting to recycling, as possible.

D-Town Farm

Located in Detroit’s Rouge Park and founded by Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, this seven-acre organic farm grows more than 30 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are sold at farmers markets and to wholesale customers. D-Town Farm boasts four hoop houses to extend the growing season, and also does bee-keeping and large-scale composting.

One of its restaurant partners is Detroit Vegan Soul, which offers “soul food from whole food,” specializing in comfort food classics, such as pepper “steak” and “catfish” (tofu). The farm provides organic produce while they give their food waste for composting to fertilize their farm.