What I saw and heard from panelists at The Business of Urban Agriculture Summit, the April 7 forum sponsored by the University of Michigan, Dearborn, has changed the way I think about Detroit’s healthy food crisis.   

Dan Carmody, manager of Detroit’s renowned Eastern Market, offered a history of agriculture in Detroit, exposing the loss of locally available food as a result of the emergence of the current oligarchy.  At the same time, the current crisis -- a vast amount of available land and under-utilized people -- provides unique opportunities to invest in healthy food education, initiatives, and job opportunities.

Detroit has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. In January, it hovered  above 15 percent.   SNAP sales here have reached $450 million, providing an opportunity to promote healthy food to a new, larger audience.  Michigan is agriculturally diverse --more than 150 crops can be grown here. In addition, Carmody noted, we have the unique ability to produce food using three calories of energy for every one calorie of food.

Carmody looks at this picture and sees an opportunity to educate people and create a new food distribution method.  He believes those new models and job opportunities can be sprouted from community gardens. Eastern Market has already worked with the Greening of Detroit to help establish  80 new community gardens, now bringing Detroit’s community gardens to 1300.  Each is a source of healthy food, education, and opportunity.  Carmody proposed an Eastern Market Experiment using 2 ½ acres of available land for a gardening farm that can help others learn the skills of farming.

Al Fields, a Detroit city official, spoke about Detroit’s plans to examine city resources,  available land, and land policies to determine the city’s ability for future growth.  He’s interested in urban agriculture as a growth opportunity because it also offers fresh and affordable food to citizens.

Fields stressed job creation as an “economic development engine”.  High-end urban agriculture and community farming could play an important role while assuring Detroit citizens have access to a high-quality of life.  Fields said the Planning Commission is working to establish guidance and rules that support agri-use and land-use policy for Detroit. The guidelines should be completed this year.

Finally, businessman John Hantz, a 20-year resident of Detroit’s upscale Indian Village, offered ideas for profit-making opportunities in Detroit.  He readily acknowledged opposition to his ideas, but reminded the audience that “minds can differ”.   Hantz pointed out the tax burden of leaving land vacant.  If the city spends $12K on each vacant lot over five years and Detroit has  approximately 200,000 vacant lots, the city will spend approximately $3 billion over five years on maintenance of these vacant lots.

This is the first time I’ve heard the city’s vacant land dilemma discussed this way.  We’ve had many articles about the safety issue of vacant lots and dumping problems. But never have I heard the burden to taxpayers issue discussed this way.

Hantz pointed out the absence of incentives for “keeping up” the city. If I clean up the lot next to me, for example, the city doesn’t give me any financial credit. It makes my street look better, but that may not be adequate incentive for ongoing sustainability efforts. Hantz’s solution?  Large-scale farming of fruits, vegetables, and timber to remove the vacant lots from circulation.

Detroit would need a regulatory framework to support land use of this type, Hantz said, something like the Homestead Act (1862-1934) which put 10% of U.S. land back into circulation. As far as putting people back to work, Hantz believes in letting all local citizens be part of the solution, even if it involves a for-profit answer

The panel, which included other speakers like Patty Cantrell, a class VI Food and Society Fellow and expert on sustainable agriculture, and a man speaking for released ex-offenders, suggested other opportunities including:

  • Recognizing that Detroit is becoming a Mecca for those interested in working on urban agriculture.
  • Establishing a federal National Food Systems Research Park in Detroit using a 2.5 acre Market Garden started by Eastern Market to demonstrate “growing power”.  This experiment could create 5,000 jobs for the  unemployed to work city-owned land to grow fruits and vegetables. It uses the current trend to purchase local food, while also addressing several existing Detroit needs. 
  • Remembering to use a long-term view;  i.e., that nature creates solutions for soil clean up.  We can help change waste streams into compost streams.
  • Creating a 12-month opportunity by reclaiming available buildings for metro agriculture; supporting agriculture through processing and services; and, considering land trust, leases, and incentive ideas.
  • Homestead Act Model – Make an investment that leads to ownership.
  • Utilizing available human resources.  There are 30,000 ex-offenders in this area who need jobs.
  • A Detroit Land Bank, a Wayne County Land Bank, and a State of Michigan Land Bank have been started. The next steps are to work with entrepreneurs for business creation. 

The Summit ended with questions to the panelists.  John Hantz was asked whether his proposal was a land grab.  His answer confirmed it was.  Entrepreneurs won’t come to Detroit unless they can profit, he said, and a sign of good business practice is a profitable plan.  

You can hear all the questions and answers here.

Minds can differ.  Minds can change.  When asked what I think about the Hantz Farm proposal for Detroit, I no longer say it’s a bad idea, or one that takes advantage of the city.  I say it’s one idea from a business perspective that taps into current opportunity.  I also say that Detroiters must get busy and create more ideas that include a business perspective.  Generating profits for investors and the city while improving the quality of life for our families – those are ideas worth exploring.

***

Detroit is one of the oldest cities of any size west of the seaboard colonies. It was founded by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701. In 2009 its population was just over 950,000, based on 2000 census, and the population is 12 percent white and 8 percent black--the inverse of most metropolitan cities. In 2008 it was the 11th largest city in the country. It is 143 square miles, with 139 square miles of land and 4.2 square miles of water. It shares the Detroit River with Windsor, Ontario. Alethia Carr is a lifelong resident of Detroit, working to identify solutions for the limited access to healthy food in her city.