Urban farmers see opportunity in Detroit

Homegrown produce from a MyFarm

by Sarah Cwiek

Detroit city officials, entrepreneurs, and grassroots activists want to turn the vacant one-third of the city's 140 square miles into the world's foremost laboratory for urban agriculture. But the idea of turning a major part of Detroit's landscape into farmland is getting a lukewarm reception.

One area where idea is starting to take shape is in the shadow of a former General Motors world headquarters, in neighborhood that's dotted by vacant land. One corner lot is getting a makeover, with help from a few gardening enthusiasts, including singer-songwriter Taja Sevelle, who heads a nonprofit group called Urban Farming. The group wants to put gardens like this in hundreds of other spots around the city.

But it's not just grassroots groups that want in on the urban agriculture movement. Entrepreneurs also see fresh food as a potential growth sector in a city with few decent grocery stores. One company wants to build the world's largest urban farm here. Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms, says Detroit started as a farming community and there's no reason the cash-strapped city shouldn't make agriculture part of its economy again. He says Hantz Farms has visions of turning up to 10,000 city acres into farmland. "We have to get enough land put together for our farm to be financially viable."

But Score says they'll have to start small, with as little as 50 acres. He says getting a hold of land is difficult because the city lacks a master land use plan. "The city's in a difficult position because they don't want to give away or sell land that might be strategically important to them down the road. On the other hand they don't want to hold onto foreclosed properties forever."

Detroit must also revamp its zoning laws to accommodate commercial farms. City planning director Al Fields, who was at the Urban Farming groundbreaking, says that will take time. "The city planning commission and our team is working together to craft the best rules and guidelines for that."

But the city appears to be moving cautiously to welcome big agriculture. For many, the idea of turning large swaths of the Motor City into farmland isn't easy to swallow.

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