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Urban farming takes root in Detroit

Cornelius Williams

Cornelius Williams and his partner Leslie Huffman at a Farmers Market at Wayne State University.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: There was some pushing and shoving at the Detroit Convention Center yesterday. The city was handing out applications for cash assistance to help pay housing and utility bills. There were more takers than there is cash, hence the scuffles. Thw whole episode is yet another reminder that Detroit is facing some desperate times.

But a Michigan farmer has teamed up with a Detroit environmentalist to take advantage of that city's shrinking population. From Detroit, Phillip Martin has our story.


PHILLIP MARTIN: To the average eye, Detroit looks like a ruined former automobile capital; dotted by abandoned homes, empty lots and bare factories. But to Cornelius Williams, Detroit is one gigantic farm: And the evidence is right in front of our eyes, he says, pointing to a table in the middle of this farmers market on Detroit's east side.

CORNELIUS WILLIAMS: We're looking at beautiful green tomatoes, red tomatoes, red onions, white onions, yellow onions.

Cornelius Williams comes from a long line of black farmers from southwest Michigan. He now teaches Detroit residents how to grow fruit and vegetables on vacant lots, and to make money from what they grow. The idea came to him during a visit to Detroit a few years ago.

WILLIAMS: I saw a fella going down the street on a tractor. So, being a farmer, I flagged him down and said, "Man, what do you do with a tractor in the city?" And he said, "Well, I make $100,000 mowing weeds on vacant lots." And I got to thinking, "Man, if we take that money and turn it into growing food on vacant lots...."

So Williams got together with a group of local environmentalists who were trying to encourage community gardening. They quickly received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and created what they call the G.R.O.W. Collaborative.

WILLIAMS: Every time there's a vacant house torn down, that's increasing farmland in the city. And so we've got to learn how to farm where we live.

And here's how it works: The G.R.O.W. Collaborative looks for Detroit residents already involved in urban gardening, and helps them buy vacant land. Up to 600 farmers have taken over empty lots. About a third of those are in the collaborative. One of the first challenges is dealing with decades of industrial waste that have left considerable amounts of lead in the ground.

WILLIAMS: That can be a problem, so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we're not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We're growing in soil that we create ourselves.

The next step, says Williams, was to find a place for Detroit farmers to sell what they grow.

Live music is part of the scene of the East Warren Avenue Farmers Market, which operates for 16 weekends until the end of October. It generates about $25,000 per season. One of the dozen or so vendors here is 17-year-old Yvette King. She earns about $100 each weekend. She says she uses that money to help her family, and sets aside a small amount for college. Not surprisingly, she wants to major in agriculture.

YVETTE KING: I want to know where my food came from.

MARTIN: And your food is grown where? Where are these beautiful tomatoes and these pears and apples, squash, where is all of this grown?

KING: We have a fenced-in garden and people come by and they look at it and they tell us what a lovely garden that we have.

And everyone is respectful. She says no one ever plucks tomatoes from her garden, even in a city where one of every three residents is unemployed. Even in a city that doesn't have a single supermarket within its borders. But surprisingly, that absence of supermarkets has not led to a larger turnout at this farmers market.

Ryan Hertz is the project coordinator for the G.R.O.W. Collaborative.

RYAN HERTZ: The unfortunate fact is, after a few decades of not having access there aren't a lot of folks who are used to incorporating it into their diets.

WILLIAMS Is this another way of saying that you have the fresh vegetables and fruits here but a lot of people are used to McDonald's?

HERTZ: Well, yeah. The lifestyle is a reaction to the conditions of the urban environment.

But it's a problem that Ryan Hertz, Cornelius Williams and other urban farmers here say they'll keep working at, as they focus on turning more of Detroit's abandoned fields into money-making plowshares.

At the East Warren Avenue Farmers Market in Detroit, I'm Phillip Martin for Marketplace.

Cornelius Williams and his partner Leslie Huffman at a Farmers Market at Wayne State University.

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