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The Rise of Urban Farms

Of Mice and Mountain MenTo most readers of Grit Magazine, a farm is not a strange or unusual sight. Many readers live on farms. But to most city dwellers, a farm is as mysterious and distant as a tropical rainforest is to us. Many city kids have never seen how food is grown; they know only that it comes from a supermarket wrapped in plastic. Some cities have started busing school kids out on field trips (literally) to nearby farms so they can get a look at what a field of produce looks like. Many cities have parks, and maybe a horticultural garden, but not farm land. I bet the last place you’d think to look for farm land would be inside a major industrial city, such as… oh, say… Detroit. The Motor City. And you’d be wrong!

The city of Detroit has for years been the poster child for urban blight: having lost 25 percent of its population over the last decade and with roughly 40 of the city’s 139 square miles vacant, according to The Detroit Free Press. But the actions of some residents and organizations may be about to change all that.

In the wake of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Detroit is rebranding itself as the D.I.Y. City, with projects such as urban farms, encouraging small businesses selling locally made products, and residents pitching in to handle municipal upkeep.

Bands of citizen volunteers have been swarming into vacant properties, abandoned and neglected by their owners, to cut grass, clear brush and pick up litter and debris. Many of the derelict homes are being razed by the city, but some feel there is a better way to go.

Abandoned home: _AP-Paul Sancya

Jeremy Haines, who heads Reclaim Detroit, told “We are turning the page here in Detroit. There is a flipside to the blight: there’s a stockpile of materials.”  Reclaim Detroit is an organization that has since 2011 been dedicated to reversing the urban blight through a process they call “deconstruction.”  Rather than bulldozing uninhabitable buildings, they intend to carefully and systematically disassemble them and reclaim the useable materials from nearly 80,000 abandoned homes. Many of these properties sell in foreclosure auctions with opening bids as low as $500. These materials are diverted from the municipal landfill and can be sold to further fund the program.

One business in the Motor City using materials salvaged from Detroit's abandoned homes is repurposing it for made-to-order furniture. Called “Workshop,” the store sells benches, tables, and other home goods in a pop-up location in the city’s Fisher Building. Most items will be made to customer specifications, but the showroom currently houses seven items – four benches and three tables – all made from the wood of an abandoned home located on the far west side of the city. Other craftsmen make cutting boards and small furniture, which is offered through the Reclaim Detroit web site. 

Once the abandoned homes are removed, the vacant lots are sometimes put to use in another unusual way – at least for municipal property: urban farms.

Urban farm

Laura Berman /

Many cities tout their community gardens or regulations that allow folks to sell their garden produce on the open market, but Detroit actually FARMS. The concept of small-scale urban farms has gained traction in Detroit, with dozens sprouting across the city to fill a void of economic activity as other businesses fold up. In June 2011, Michigan State University pledged $1.5 million over three years to help Detroit farmers and hundreds of local organizations that now see urban agriculture as a way to feed a city that has been called a “food desert” with few supermarkets and green grocers.

Earthworks Urban Farm has led this revolution and has been working with the community to develop farms within the city. In 1997, Rick Samyn started a garden at his workplace, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. The response to the fresh produce was overwhelming and positive. That small plot of land grew into their current urban farm project: Earthworks Urban Farm. This project seeks to build a just, beautiful food system through education, inspiration, and community development and to restore the connection between environment and community. It is a working study in social justice and in knowing the origin of the food we eat.

Another project under consideration is the Hantz Woodlands. If approved, this project would sell approximately 140 acres of land on Detroit's east side to financier John Hantz for approximately $3,500 an acre. Hantz proposes to plant the land with 15,000 high-value hardwood trees as a managed forest. Eventually the trees would be harvested for their lumber.

There is considerable opposition to this proposal by the city’s citizenry and some of the City Council members. Comments voiced by citizens at council meetings show concerns over a perceived lack of transparency around the deal and that Hantz was given preferential treatment because of his wealth. This matter is expected to be decided in January.

However, the family farmers and local entrepreneurs selling wares made from deconstructed homes enjoy popular support and offer hope that Detroit can rebuild and stand as a shining example of economic resilience. In so doing, Detroit may also turn the concept of what a major city looks like on its ear!


  2. Fox
  3. Huffington Post
  6. Earthworks Urban Farm
  7. Hantz Woodlands
  8. New International Trade Crossing