INTRO: A republican state senator from Fowlerville and a democratic senator from Detroit organized a tour of farms inside the city. They want to pass legislation to help urban farming. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus looks at why some Detroiters are turning to farming.
The tour bus arrived at The D-Town farm. Its two acres were carved out of River Rouge Park. Kadiri Sennefer digs, plants and prunes. He says that should be natural for African-Americans. But it’s not.
“Slavery has dealt us a deadly blow in the psychology of our minds and how we view the land. The reason that we’re detached from the land is that younger generations associate working the land with slavery and not realizing that we have roots in agriculture. That’s one of our great legacies coming out of Africa.”
Slavery and the civil war ended in 1865. But share cropping continued for 70 years after that. Farming meant poverty. Kadiri Sennefer says:
“I think people (African-Americans) were tired of the treatment that we got in the south.”
In 2009, according to the Pew Research Center, the median net wealth of white households was $113,000. Black households had just $6,000.
Detroit’s farms are meant to make people richer, more fulfilled and healthy by rejecting…
“The pesticides that major corporations use like Monsanto with the GMO’s (genetically modified organisms)… the scientific lab food that we have that’s highly processed. It is killing us. It’s hazardous.”
Chemicals have helped kill bugs and disease and increase the amount of food produced. But organic farmers say they’re not worth it.
“Composting was a way of fertilizing our crops. So that’s one of the models that we’re trying to get back to at D-Town: land stewardship, taking care of the land properly, creating healthy soil. If you don’t have good soil you won’t have good plants.”
Sennefer uses the language of the decolonization movement after World War 2…when Africans began the struggle to govern their own countries.
“It’s a self-determination project. We’re not looking for anyone to do it for us. We come out here and do the work for ourselves. We dig for ourselves and we do for ourselves.”
Detroit’s got 40 square miles of vacant land. D-Town is the largest farm in Detroit. Still just 2 acres. Brightmoor is another neighborhood where people are farming. Gwen Shivers is holding a garden hose. 5 little tots have watering cans.
“I live about 6 houses down. I run a day care. I’ve been over here about 30 years. I’ve been doing this garden for about 3 years. I decided to turn it into an edible plays scape so my kids can have something that they could learn and work on and watch things grow all summer long.”
“More. More,” say the children and Shivers repeats what they say.
“Once you get them started,” she says, “they don’t want to stop.”
I ask a boy why he likes gardening.
“Cuz it’s fun. It’s so much fun.”
Gwen Shivers asks the boy why he’s watering?
The boy says he wants the lettuce and blueberries to grow.
Shivers asks what the kids will do when the crops grow.
“Eat them,” the boy shouts.
“Eat them. That’s right,” says Shivers.
Frank Rochowiak farms in Washtenaw County. He’s been bringing his produce to sell at the Eastern Market for 50 years. So he knows Detroit. But he says:
“These are great projects. But they’re not feeding enough people.”
That’s true. But urban farms serve other purposes. Kathryn Underwood works for the Detroit City Council. She’s writing agriculture policy: setting the rules. Underwood says the people that have been mowing and hoeing empty lots for years should get the first chance to buy them.
“We need to find ways to honor the work that has been done already by these small scale growers and not let the work that they’ve been doing get lost as we look at bigger and sexier projects.”
State Senators Joe Hune and Virgil Smith organized the tour. They’ve asked Michigan’s Attorney General if it’s acceptable for cities bigger than 100,000 to make their own agriculture ordinances. Senator Hune has crops and animals on his farm in rural Livingston County. He says cities should encourage agriculture too.
“The ingenuity, the creativity that these folks had particularly in the Brightmoor neighborhood was exciting to see. Folks are so interested in community development, so interested in seeing some blighted areas turn back into useful areas.”
Senator Smith says urban farmers are good role models for at risk youth:
“There’s an old saying that we have. The streets take you under. The hood takes you under. And so you’re lost for good. So they end up being recruited into a lifestyle that has no positive outcome. So it’s my goal for folks to go in the opposite direction.”
Senator Smith says urban farmers could influence tiny tots and teenagers to get off the streets and onto the farms. Both senators plan to introduce legislation later this year.
Click here for more on the philosophy driving some of Detroit’s farmers.