A 18th Century Urban Tradition Makes a Comeback

 

Searching for Boll Weevils With the Sugar Man:

Wandering around a small garden, a man named George asked to borrow my pocket knife that was visible on the right side of my Levis. I passed it to him, and watched as he took handfuls of sun-limp zucchini stalks and hacked them from their base. George, who just said to call him George, wanted to show me how boll weevils have been working their way through sections of his plants, and hopefully locate one of the “little buggers.” He poked, prodded and slashed his way through sections of his crop, pointing out various points where the small beetle had entered and exited. Although considered a pest, George said the boll weevils weren’t responsible for the premature end to his zucchinis.

“Not enough rain, too much heat, and I am getting old, man,” George said.

1w7b8112

In his eighties, George has the gait of a man who had long worked with his body, eyes yellowing with age, and the patient nature of someone used to explaining his craft. He called the insects “guests,” and said that it was OK that he was sharing some of his food with them. Like anyone farming in the city, George deals with the vagaries of rain, the occasional vandal, and the inescapable reality of animals. Over the next hour or so, George and I meandered around his property, and the small community garden next door, while we discussed some of the details of the things growing around us.

“People should grow bigger tomatoes, easier to make a meal out of them. I don’t understand, and these apples are prone to worms. If those worms get in ya, you are going to have trouble, especially when a lady is with a baby. You have to grow things the people around you eat, it’s important. Just make sure you understand what people are going to want,” George said.

1w7b8105

Originally from Barbados, George came to Detroit 26 years ago, and like many men who head off to a new home, it was because of the women who had answered the door when I knocked. He grew up in an environment where people grew a great deal of what they ate, and has fed himself as much as possible over the years, at least when time permitted. For many years, he was involved in the sugar industry.

“I am the sugar man. Everything from the fields to production,” George said.

He eventually made enough money to largely retire, and after he met his current wife, he has been maintaining a wide array of food in his space on Detroit’s near east side.

“It’s part of life, my life, I feed us, and I feed some of the people in the neighborhood. I have always farmed. I don’t consider myself an Urban Farmer. I just live in a city, and I will always be out here farming,” George said.

George and I retired to the shade of his porch, and cruised through topics ranging from the importance of gardening, his life, women, the war in Iraq, and some of the failings that he sees in current American Culture. He bounced through ideas, and didn’t seem eager to reach too many punchlines; I think he appreciated talking to someone who was willing to listen, and answer a few questions of their own.

1w7b8098

Any jaunt through Detroit ‒ by car or by bike ‒ will reveal a city that is largely vacant, and in some areas vibrant, but throughout the various neighborhoods one thing is becoming a sort of constant dot on the landscape: Urban Farming. The city has had some form of Urban Agriculture since its founding in the early 18th century, and today, in 2016, there are roughly 1,400 plots, large and small, dedicated to farming and involving some 20,000 people.

Following Detroit’s transition into a post-industrial landscape, and the ensuing depopulation that accompanied it, the city has an overabundance of unused space. At one point, Detroit’s population hovered around 2 million people. Now, around 680,000 people call Detroit home. Estimates place the number of available lots in the city at around 100,000, so that leaves a great deal of space for people to explore options like urban agriculture. The last 10-15 years have seen a rise in the number of urban farms and plots of land used for agriculture. As the city of Detroit tries to redefine itself, urban agriculture will be part of that landscape; it’s just a matter of how much of the available land will be used for food, and how much for other forms of development.

Recently, I have been taking that bike ride, and spoke to a number of people who are involved in Detroit’s agriculture scene. Like George, their story is interesting, and as equally diverse.

 

A MUSHROOM FACTORY:

Deana Wojcik has a kind, enthusiastic voice, and it is clear within a few moments of speaking with her that she is very excited to be here in Detroit. She arrived here by virtue of a random trajectory. Wojick and her boyfriend, Chris Carrier, reached a sort of critical mass while living in the San Francisco Bay Area. They packed up their car and traveled around the country trying out some different places, and alternate versions of life.

“The Bay Area is a real grind. It is so expensive. At the time I was working as a teacher in Oakland, and it was tough to afford living there,” Wojcik said.

1king_oyster_pins_burlap

The couple bounced around the east coast for a while, and discovered that many towns are very similar, so they decided to check out somewhere new. She referenced Detroit’s culture of possibility and its underlying optimism as the drivers of their decision to live here full-time.

“Detroit had a totally different vibe from all of the other places we were going around to. It’s a refreshing pace from California, specifically near Silicon Valley. There was a real friendliness here, and it seemed like we could start something on our own,” Wojcik said.

Deana and Chris, who characterizes himself as a “recovering software engineer”, took a semester-long course through Build Institute’s Social Entrepreneurship program, and even though they had a totally different model in mind, by the time the class ended their focus shifted toward urban agriculture.

1tbd-mushroomfactory-011
1harvest_box

“We are both into weird things, and we both love food. Chris had already been experimenting with growing mushrooms in California, and we even hauled his autoclave around with us across the country,” Wojcik continued.

For the unfamiliar (myself included), an autoclave is a very strong, heated container used to induce chemical reactions. In other words, it is one of the integral tools in the rapid creation of something like mushrooms, and where Chris learned how to grow them.

1opensource_sensors
1mushroom_growbag_storage

Wojcik has just left her position as a curriculum writer, and is taking on the mushroom game full time. Chris still works as a consultant in the software industry, and his strong grasp on technology has helped their business grow through the use of sensors and other apparatuses he has created to manage climate. The mushrooms are grown with a sustainable and local approach in mind.

“We use spent brewery grain, sawdust and other discarded packing material for them, and we’re committed to using 100 percent recycled materials to grow on. The guys from Detroit Beer Company have been great. It’s a cool town when you just call people up, explain you’re trying to grow some mushrooms, and people are instantly willing to help, and don’t think you are insane,” Wojcik said.

thefarmershand-erikhillphotography-web-013

Right now they sell their goods to a loyal group of local restaurants. They can’t keep up with demand, and Wojcik was quick to remind me that it isn’t the worst problem to have. They also share the mushrooms with people in the neighborhood, and host small workshops on how to cultivate them.

An actual factory space is next on the horizon for Deana and Chris. They have purchased a building near the Hamtramck border and are in the early phases of building it out. Getting businesses up and running in Detroit can be difficult, and I asked her if she anticipated problems.

thefarmershand-erikhillphotography-web-009
thefarmershand-erikhillphotography-web-017
thefarmershand-erikhillphotography-web-005

“Of course, nothing is easy, and if we want to get the water turned on for example, there is a lot of work to do. We have also been lucky to have so many people available to give us advice. I also have experience dealing with bureaucracy, thanks to teaching in Oakland, and have learned to do my research, knowledge is power. We hope to be producing in the factory by spring of next year. I am also patient,” Wojcik said.

 

LIFESTYLE:

Often a story about one place will begin in another. That is how I found myself tucked into a small plot of land in Pontiac, 35 miles north of Detroit, between a lake and a barbed-wire fence. Andy Chae opened the gate for me, so I could drive my Jeep into his small urban farm. He had purchased the land from a buddy of his who had finished an architecture degree, and used the land to create a small, eccentric, elevated cabin that served as his final project.

Chae’s space in Pontiac is his second effort in the area. He is also the guy behind Fisheye Farms in Detroit’s West Village. The price his buddy offered him was far too good to pass up, so he splits his time between Pontiac and Detroit.

Urban farming isn’t like being strapped to the first rockets headed toward the moon, but I have found extremely intelligent people who have made this their way of life. My first question is usually “how did you decide to do this?” While chatting with Jack, from Rising Pheasant Farms, he was flashing a tattered copy of a 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning Spanish author’s work to a friend as he passed by in Eastern Market. It seems like they could do anything else.1tbd-fisheyefarms-005At first glance, Chae seems young, but once he starts talking it is evident he is passionate, intelligent and someone who is comfortable discussing his role in local urban farming.

“It started with environmental reasons. I took a class at DePaul about Public Policy and Climate Change and it got me really interested in what you could do with urban agriculture, and how it could positively affect neighborhoods. I also just love the work. I love all the problem solving that comes with it,” Chae said.

He has degrees in both Environmental Studies and Political Science. He also makes his living from farming.

1tbd-fisheyefarms-009
1tbd-fisheyefarms-003

 

The immediate problem was getting a solar panel to pump water from the lake at a satisfactory rate to water his crops. There was also the issue of the electric fence. He mentioned that Pontiac has its own issues separate from Detroit, and one of those was more animals trying to get into your stash. Gophers have been a particular nuisance.

“I didn’t come from a farming background. So much of this stuff is new. It’s literally first-name basis with people at the hardware store around here, and non-stop problem solving,” Chae said.

1tbd-fisheyefarms-001I asked Chae what he thought were some Detroit-specific issues that urban farmers face.

“I think the city plays it up a bit. They want it to seem like Detroit is leading the way in all of this, and it makes the city look good. But in reality they see it as a risky business model, and ultimately not a way to bring up the tax base. This is certainly an option, to urban farm, someone can learn how, and make a living doing it, but it will be different when land becomes more desirable,” Chae said.

We discussed how political action can lead to passionate work, and Andy agreed that he has now entered the extremely passionate phase. After working in urban agriculture in Chicago, he decided he would come to Detroit because of the abundance of land. His Uncle also owned the small piece of land where Fisheye Farm sits, which Chae bought.

1tbd-fisheyefarms-007
1tbd-fisheyefarms-002

“None of this is permanent. The land where Fisheye is will eventually get sold to a higher bidder. We are looking for the next place to set up,” Chae said.

While Chae picked a bag’s worth of Japanese roasting peppers for me to take up north, he mentioned he was the son of a Korean immigrant father, who worked his way into the medical profession. His father thought he was nuts for taking this track, but as time has gone on, and Chae continues to keep his head above water, his father is realizing it’s a good lifestyle choice.

1tbd-fisheyefarms-006
1tbd-fisheyefarms-010
1tbd-fisheyefarms-004

“It’s great. If I want to go skateboard for a bit in the afternoon I can. Skateboarding is also where I got the name Fisheye. I can also work until nine if I want. If the sun was up more, I would literally work more. I also love being my own boss, I wouldn’t trade that,” Chae said.

I pulled out of the gate, and Andy Chae went back to the problem solving.

 

FOOD SOVEREIGNTY:

On a hot afternoon recently, I was wrestling a box full of food into my apartment, when I received a phone call from Malik Yakini.

Yakini is the Executive Director and co-founder of the nonprofit Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and it seemed that any discussion of Detroit urban agriculture would be incomplete without his input. Within seconds it would be easy to say that he is confident, a gifted speaker, and extremely on top of his subject.

Before our conversation began, he wanted to clear up one thing. He wanted to make sure I understood the difference between food security and food sovereignty.

“Food security is the simple act of getting enough to eat. Food sovereignty is about taking back control of the food system, and particularly how it affects the African-American community,” he said.

What he is driving at is that corporations are reaping the benefits created during food production, and there is tremendous economic potential. Local economies are not participating in the middle levels of food production like they could be, and this is Detroit, so over 80 percent of the local economy is African-American. Instead of just rushing off to the grocery store for every little thing, a local economy more rooted in the various steps of production allows money to circulate within itself. This in turn could create jobs, a more sustainable environment, and eventually, some sort of equity in the food space.

“We are trying to build an alternative food system. One that allows for self-determination, and helps break the stigma that comes along with slavery, and sharecropping. One that creates optimal health, wealth and unity,” Yakini said.

tbd-malikyakini-001_cropMalik Yakini isn’t pushing toward some misguided utopia; he is working tirelessly toward self-reliance and keeping the food economy local so that profits benefit the people who live here, not the people who already have the biggest slice of cake. D-Town Farm, which Yakini runs, is right next to Rouge Park, and is what he considers a place to start “the model.”

They will also be expanding to a spot on Woodward, in Detroit’s North End. It will be an indoor ordeal replete with offices, space for people to start working in those middle levels of the food economy, packaging, processing, labeling, and shipping. There will also be incubators to help people learn how to be part of the local food economy.

The challenge he sees for Detroit moving forward is the sheer scale of the land available and owned by the city and The Land Bank. He would like to see a policy that pushes toward equitable access, and removes most of the plots from the city’s “things to worry about list.”

Lastly, we explored the notion that we all participate in institutionalized racism. This led to the conclusion that education and participation are the only things that generate enough awareness to spur work toward changing it. He also recommended some workshops where I could work on my own understanding, and ways I could learn how to be a better operator in my community. A lifelong educator, his calm assuredness made me confident that I could do so.

One thing is certain: Mr. Yakini made me rethink the collapsing box of 10 lb. bags from the big box store.

Urban farming will not cure the panacea of Detroit’s current issues; nor will it create the sort of jobs and security for a middle class that the auto industry did. For a long time, the Big Three were the only game in town, and urban agriculture cannot replace them. What it can do is begin to answer some of the questions about what do about all this empty, unused space. 100,000 vacant lots leave a lot of room to grow, and urban farming, and the potential expansion of a greater participation in the local food system will not be bad for a city looking to reinvent itself. The people I spoke with are a minute portion of the people using Detroit’s landscape as a vehicle to grow food, but they represent the sort of people who can positively carry Detroit’s agriculture into its next evolution.

 

Retail images taken at The Farmer’s Hand, 1701 Trumbull Avenue, Detroit.