Urban Agriculture in the Motor City


By Matthew Kirby, UMass Sustainable Food and Farming student in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture

oldhouseMany symbols of American culture have come out of Detroit, Michigan.  Motown Records and classic American cars are some of the things that come to mind when someone mentions Detroit. However, since the collapse of the American auto industry and the economic decline that followed, the city is also known for its high crime rate, poverty and abandoned buildings. The city filed for nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013. Detroiters however, have not given up on their city and what has now become one of the largest urban agriculture initiatives in the United States is a testament to their determination and the power of local food.

oldbuildingsThe population decline in Detroit has led to 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 abandoned houses and 90,000 vacant lots. Poverty and unemployment has limited Detroiters access to fresh, nutritional food. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative however believes that vacant land, poor diet, nutritional illiteracy, and food insecurity are several problems in Detroit that can be reversed by grassroots urban agriculture. By using abandoned land to produce food, Detroiters have begun to increase their access to real food and create jobs.


Vacant lots mean land is inexpensive

There are several businesses and non profit organizations that have taken the lead in Detroit’s urban farming movement. Food Field, for example, is a business that started in 2011 by turning an abandoned school into a four acre organic farm. With nearly 20 square miles of vacant space and a poor economy, the city is very willing to sell its vacant lots to people interested in urban agriculture. Food Field produces a wide range of vegetables including spinach, tomatoes, garlic, sweet potatoes, radish pods and squash blossoms. They also have apple, pear, cherry, plum, chestnut and paw paw tress as well as over 50 laying hens and ducks, a pond of 500 catfish and blue gill and honeybees. This food is sold through a cooperative called the City Commons CSA, which sells food from several farms in Detroit to local businesses and CSA members.

motorcityThe Greening of Detroit is a non profit organization which plants trees, gardens and farms throughout Detroit. Not only do these grassroots organizations produce food and jobs, but by beautifying the city, they can boost residents’ morale and make the place more desirable for visitors. Furthermore, the Greening of Detroit started an organization called Green Corps, which hires about 200 high school students each summer to tend these gardens. Since the start of Green Corps 45 schools in Detroit have started their own raised bed gardens to supply their cafeterias. Rebecca Witt, who runs the Greening of Detroit says that “We’re teaching [students] how eating the stuff that they’re growing is different than going to the gas station and buying Cheetos. People always talk about the difficulties of getting kids to eat vegetables. When they grow those vegetables, it’s not hard at all.

pumpkinkidAnother element on the forefront of urban agriculture in Detroit is Detroit Grown and Made. The campaign was created in 2014 as a collaboration between the Detroit FoodLab and farms in Detroit. The FoodLab is a network of local restaurant owners and food entrepreneurs. By organizing with local farms, Detroit Grown and Made seeks to have all food based businesses in Detroit source their products from Detroit farms.

Guns and Butter is one such restaurant which sources a lot of their food from Detroit farms and hires Detroiters. In this way, urban agriculture helps create jobs in other sectors of society. General Motors, too, wishes to see their city revitalized and has recently begun to donate old engine shipping containers to be used as raised beds in vacant lots. This way the owner of the lot doesn’t have to tear up the asphalt to produce crops.

detriotDetroit’s motto is “We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes”.  It seems that the city has lived up to the motto and has been able to turn decay and ruin into productive and beautiful spaces. As we have seen in Cuba’s urban farming revolution, economic hardship often causes people to rethink how they use their urban space, and hopefully Detroiters’ determination and ingenuity will help them to continue to recover their vibrant city spirit.


For information on the Sustainable Food and Farming major at the University of Massachusetts see, http://sustfoodfarm.org/.  You may provide feedback on this article to the author at; Matt Kirby.

Ag College Students Contribute to Local Community


studentbannerOne of the most exciting programs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst today is an undergraduate major with a tradition that goes back 150 years and yet still serves the citizens of the local region by growing food, growing community and “growing” new farmers.

As local and regional food production in New England grows, so does enrollment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture’s Sustainable Food and Farming program.  UMass graduates are engaged in creating ventures to relocalize the food system, build community, and reduce the carbon cost of shipping food long distances.

140926-global-universities-woman-with-badge-design_1UMass began as the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1863 and recently the former “Mass Aggie” was recognized as having the eighth best global agricultural science program and 3rd best in the U.S.  Levi Stockbridge, Hadley farmer and the first teacher at Mass Aggie, would be proud.

Building on its historic mission of practical research, outreach to the community and hands-on education, today’s Stockbridge School helps educate young women and men in ecological landscape management and sustainable food systems — crucial training in an era threatened by the impact of radical climate change.

50by60Many Stockbridge students and grads believe that global trends and the need for enhanced food security will make the Food Solutions New England vision of producing at least 50% of New England’s food by 2060 a realistic objective.  Students and graduates both contribute to this goal by working toward careers in local food and farming, urban agriculture, permaculture, herbal medicine, community education and advocacy for a more sustainable and just world.  Most “Stockies” choose to complement their classroom work with real world experience, often in the local community, earning academic credit for this work as part of their undergraduate studies.

atl2An example of a local business providing students with valuable real world experience is the All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, started by area people committed to the relocalization vision. Stockbridge students and graduates volunteer at this year-round farmers’ market, some selling products they produced themselves, such as organic eggs, milk, artisan tea, blueberries, fermented kombucha, mushrooms and other vegetables.

gfaOther Stockbridge students volunteer with Grow Food Amherst, a network of neighbors and students uniting town and gown.  The vibrant local food economy of the Pioneer Valley provides a supportive environment for food entrepreneurs, and this project  engages over 450 local residents helping to move the region towards greater food-resiliency through education and action.

Building on Levi Stockbridge’s commitment to experiential learning, students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major are actively engaged in hands-on learning projects that contribute both to their own education as well as the local community. For example:

  • The UMass Student Farm is a year-round class where students manage a small organic farm and sell their produce through food service and retail markets — including a popular on-campus farmers’ market.

  • The UMass Permaculture Initiative has converted underused grass lawns on campus into edible, low-maintenance food gardens, winning the White House Champions of Change competition in 2012.
  • The Student Food Advocacy group and the UMass Chancellor signed the Real Food Commitment, which ensures that by 2020, at least 20 percent of the food purchased for the dining halls will be local, organic, fair trade and/or animal-friendly.
  • The Massachusetts Renaissance Center Garden is a demonstration garden open to the public, featuring the herbs and vegetables grown during Shakespeare’s time.

  • The School Garden Project helps K-6 teachers at nearby elementary schools create vegetable and herb gardens as living classrooms.
  • The Food for All Garden at the new Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center is a student-led project that grows food with the help of Amherst community members, and distributes the food through Not Bread Alone and the Amherst Survival Center.

Stockbridge students and alums are committed to building a more sustainable food system focused on environmental quality, social justice and economic vitality. These young visionaries imagine a world where the bulk of one’s food comes from local and regional farms, and production and marketing costs don’t exploit either people or the land. Stockies and thousands like them around the world need help from consumers who are committed to creating a more vibrant, peaceful and sustainable world.  Americans on average spend less than 10% of our income on food.  Many of us can afford to invest in our children’s future by spending a little more on local and regional food, and by doing so improve our personal heath, community health and the long term health of earth.

SSA Logo -- blue on white with UMASS

Dr. John M. Gerber is a professor in the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture and founding member of Grow Food Amherst.  You may find more essays and commentaries on his regular blog at World.edu.  This article was adapted from the original which appeared in the In Close Proximity column of the Amherst Bulletin and was sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project.

Adapted from the Original: http://www.amherstbulletin.com/commentary/15821972-95/john-gerber-new-life-for-an-old-school-the-stockbridge-school-of-agriculture