Detroit’s Urban Farming Proposal Could Invigorate Soil, Economy Where Food Desert Once Stood, Supporters Say

When Detroit planners, both officials and revolutionaries, began working together for a new plan for Detroit, which included natural open spaces and urban farming, Next City said that Detroit could be the star of “the most significant urban turnaround story the country has ever seen.”

Though the Detroit News said last fall that Detroit is hardly the “food desert” that it was once known to be, thanks to more grocery stores per capita than in recent years, many Detroiters aren’t satisfied with merely heading to the grocery store for their eggs, milk, and produce. They are making their own food, and some are even creating jobs while doing it.

Though in many urban areas across the country like Los Angeles and Minneapolis, residents have been legally allowed to keep backyard chickens, in recent years more municipalities are changing their ordinances to allow them as the local food revolution has become more mainstream, according to Next City.

In Michigan, backyard farming has been at the center of disputes between neighbors, local officials, and regulatory agencies. Specifically in Detroit, there has been both open discussion and open disputes in recent years. In October of 2014, officers from the City of Detroit seized goats and chickens from one couple’s home in a Detroit neighborhood near Brightmoor. A few months earlier, the City of Detroit evicted 18 urban goats that had been living on a community goat farm. That goat farm, Idyll Farms Detroit, was created by Mark Spitznagel to help eliminate tall weeds in the Brightmoor neighborhood and clean up blight.

“The community of Brightmoor has seen a lot of former residents leave the community, and as a result the area has become a dumping point for refuse and other unsavoury things,” Spitznagel told Modern Farming at the time. “Through planting, growing and gardening the residents have put their stake in the ground, literally, and are saying we need to do something to turn this around. Guerilla farming has been a really positive thing in Brightmoor.”

Michigan has a strong statewide Right to Farm Act. The Act “provides an affirmative defense to nuisance lawsuits if farmers are in conformance with the relevant Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practice (GAAMP) standards,” according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development. In 2014 changes were made to GAAMP standards which resulted in many people in certain residential areas no longer being able to turn to the Michigan Right to Farm Act for protection like they used to.

“The Right to Farm Act is a state law created in 1981 to address urban encroachment into rural areas because the folks moving into the country didn’t like the smells, sounds, dirt, etc. that come with agriculture and farming practices,” according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development which explains, in part, the changes that were at the center of debate in 2014.

“The Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development made revisions to the Livestock Site Selection GAAMP adding Category 4 sites, which are locations that are primarily residential, don’t allow agricultural uses by right and are, therefore, not suitable for farm animals for purposes of the Right to Farm Act. Under the Livestock Site Selection GAAMP, primarily residential areas are sites with more than 13 non-farm homes within an eighth of a mile of the livestock facility or one non-farm home within 250 feet of the livestock facility. However, local communities can decide to allow farm animals under these circumstances.”

In the last two years, though, things have begun looking better of urban farming families and businesses in Detroit. The city now is discussing a proposal that would actually allow a high number and wide variety of animals on any lot, provided the lot meets the spatial requirements.

A Detroit resident living in a home will be allowed to keep up to eight chickens and four goats under the latest draft of the proposal, according to Next City. This is significantly more progressive than many other municipalities across the county, and could put Detroit on the urban agriculture map, supporters say.

Mark Covington, an urban farmer in Detroit, says he will likely serve as a guild member once the ordinance passes, because Detroit has even been working to build a network of collaborators to support, teach, and promote urban agriculture. Covington operates Georgia Street Community Collective gardens in northeast Detroit, a non-profit organization. Covington became interested in urban farming by cleaning litter out of empty lots in the city. From there, he started planting produce and a fruit orchard that spans five lots. Currently, he also raises goats, ducks, and chickens, and tends to honey bees. GSCC offers classes to Detroiters interested in becoming urban farmers and has engaged local kids to become more involved in producing food in a sustainable way in their own neighborhood. Covington believes that urban livestock offers less nuisances than people assume, and pointed out that while he can sit right by his goats and ducks, he can hear a neighbor’s dog barking in the distance.

Diane Van Buren, who raises chickens and ducks, says that last fall about a hundred people attended each of the community meetings about the new plans for the city. Van Buren says that urban livestock is a good revitalization strategy for the City of Detroit, because it does have so much vacant land. On some blocks in the city, only a couple of houses remain. She indicated that urban farming can re-purpose what was very recently a wasteland.

Van Buren, who is a Detroit-area urban-redevelopment consultant, says that non-intensive animal farming makes land remediation happen more quickly. She says the animals are part of the regeneration of soil on Detroit’s post-industrial landscape. She says the animals fertilize and aerate the soil that had been left ravaged from Detroit’s industrial past. Poultry droppings have actually been found to improve petroleum polluted soils in the past, suggesting that backyard chickens could expedite soil remediation.

“The results of this research work suggest that the application of poultry dropping and plantain stem will be environmentally friendly since, it helps microbial utilization of hydro carbons content of the soil and degrade it to less toxic condition,” according to a paper in International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research. “The pH of unpolluted soil and polluted soils before remediation were 6.92 and 4.65 respectively. After 2 month of remediation the pH of polluted soil has changed to 6.75.”

Detroit is 139 square miles and one-third of the land is vacant. The potential for Detroit to become a fruitful, productive hero in the story of the urban farming revolution is great, supporters say. The Detroit News even argued in support of the progressive urban agriculture proposal in Detroit.

“Many urban residents also enjoy growing their own food, as well as having access to locally grown food, even if it’s not their own. With Detroit’s limited public transportation infrastructure, local farms make it easier for residents to access healthier food options.

“It also encourages community. Some of these urban farmers are proactively using their space to get area children involved with the farming process, and to teach them how to grow and make their own food.”

Staff writers at the Detroit News wrote in an editorial last fall that promoted urban farming in the city that the plan “can boost the local economy significantly,” citing a 2014 study that found that Detroit food system was already producing, processing, and distributing billions of dollars of food and employing a staggering 36,000 people, but if Detroit shifted from non-local food sources to 30 percent more grown-in-Detroit sources, 52,000 additional jobs would be created and more than another billion dollars would go to Detroiters in the form of earnings.

Until the passage of the 2013 agriculture ordinance, urban farms, even without livestock, had technically been illegal in Detroit. The Detroit Planning Commission will review code amendments within the next few months that would make keeping livestock in the City of Detroit also fully legal, if the animals are kept for agricultural purposes, according to Next City.

[Photo by Ken Lund | Flickr | CC 2.0 |cropped]

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