Urban farms flourish, but neighbors feel growing pains

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — If Matthew Wollack has his way, a desolate section of the city’s east side will get new life in the form of an 11-acre apple orchard.

Above: The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative received funding from Mercedes Benz Financial Services, which volunteer Mary Hughes is from, to help plant 200 fruit— apple, pear, plum and cherry — trees on vacant land.

The senior director of development and marketing for Wolverine Human Services said the social service agency has served the neighborhood for 30 years, endured its decline and is motivated to reverse it.

Its Core Orchards concept, complete with a farm-to-table restaurant, educational hub and grocery store, also envisions an urban agriculture education partnership with universities and school associations for bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

“The entire project is based around a new centerpiece for the community that provides food resources, foot traffic, jobs, educational opportunities and brings attention to a community that may otherwise not receive those things,” Wollack said.

The proposal is among the latest in the growing number of urban farming initiatives sprouting up in Detroit. But as farm projects continue to flourish in Detroit, so does controversy over their land use.

Left: Core Orchards, to include food options and education hubs, is being pushed for the east side.

The city has long been home to hundreds of community and school fruit and vegetable gardens and markets, operations that have grown from fewer than 100 in 2004 to about 1,400 today, based on figures cited by Keep Growing Detroit, a group that promotes locally grown foods.

In Wolverine’s case, the nonprofit already has more than $400,000 in funding commitments for its U-pick orchard proposal on land between Charlevoix and Vernor, next to the Wolverine Center Campus on Lenox. But moving the project ahead won’t be simple.

So far, it’s not welcomed by some neighbors in the Riverbend Community. And it will require the acquisition of more than nine acres that contain a mix of vacant homes and lots, as well as the defunct Carstens Elementary School.

Jay Henderson, president of the Riverbend Community Association, said most community members “turned it thumbs down” during a presentation hosted by the nonprofit a few weeks ago.

“It’s not something we want to deal with in the neighborhood,” he said. “We’re looking for activity in this community that can maybe employ some people. An apple orchard really does not employ anyone.”

Greg Hoffman, a spokesman for Wolverine, said organizers expect the orchard will generate a few full-time and about 20 seasonal jobs. Some community members have been resistant, he admits, but contends after learning more about the plan, some are coming around.

“Engaging the community in this project is our top priority in all of this,” he said.

The continued growth of urban farming prompted the city to adopt a zoning ordinance in 2013 to legalize the practice. A proposed urban livestock ordinance for residents who’ve been keeping farm animals — addressing zoning allowances, animal care and oversight — also has been crafted. The livestock ordinance, as well as proposed amendments to the urban agriculture law, are under review by the city’s law department.

Detroit is still lacking direction on where it does and doesn’t want urban farms, according to city officials.

“The city has not yet specifically designated areas where they do or do not want agriculture to happen,” City Planner Kathryn Lynch Underwood said. “That’s still — with all the vacant land — a challenge that the city has.”

Erin Kelly, a landscape architect in the city’s Planning and Development Department, said the industry has an important role in Detroit’s future for land use and the business sector. But in some spots, she said, officials are reluctant to allow it.

“In some areas until the highest and best use of land can be determined, we’re hesitant to proceed with that because of the need for that strategic work,” she said.

Strategy staff in January will begin holding community conversations on development in several city neighborhoods. They expect citywide discussions on land use, including urban farming, next year, Kelly said.

“We are aware of the real need for urban farmers in Detroit to have land security,” Kelly said. “We do understand this type of citywide land strategy can provide land security for existing farmers and for new ones. That’s one of the many benefits that a citywide plan would deliver.”

In Detroit’s north end, one nonprofit has been battling the city over ownership of some of the land it farms.

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative got its start under an adopt-a-lot program five years ago. Since then, it’s transformed a tiny community garden to an operation that’s supplied more than 50,000 pounds of food to more than 2,000 households within two square miles, said co-founder and president Tyson Gersh.

The group has about a dozen projects going on a 1.5-acre site off Brush between Horton and Custer in Detroit’s District 5, one of the city’s seven district locations. Earlier this month, Mercedes Benz Financial Services funded the planting of 200 cherry, plum, pear and apple trees on a previously vacant parcel of its agricultural campus.

The farming initiative works on about 20 parcels and has acquired some from private owners and county foreclosure auction. But Gersh said the group was unable to obtain the deed for one of its properties or buy several others from the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

“We know that the work we are doing is good,” he said. “There is no way to justify the strategy that the city has been employing onto its residents. We’re not going anywhere.”

Most city-owned parcels are in the inventory of the land bank. Buyers can acquire them through the auction, community partnerships, side lot sales and other programs. An individual offerer looking to obtain 10 or more parcels must get City Council approval and larger scale projects must undergo review by the city’s Jobs and Economy Team.

Vince Keenan, neighborhood manager for District 5, said officials have nothing against the agriculture efforts there.

The farming group, however, is operating in a zone close to the last stop of the QLine light rail system in an area prioritized for affordable housing.

“It’s one of the few places we would be able to target affordable housing that would have easy access to the train and that’s our priority,” he said. “We feel it’s our obligation to try to make sure people of all income levels have an opportunity to live near an amenity like that.”

Within the last 30 days, the farming initiative collected more than 1,500 petition signatures from area residents who support its efforts to obtain the remaining deeds for the land. Neighbors have also helped by circulating copies at churches and community meetings, Gersh said.

Earlier this month, District 5 Councilwoman Mary Sheffield submitted a letter of support for the group to the land bank, calling it "a steadfast leader in urban farming."

In the City Airport neighborhood in northeast Detroit, the Georgia Street Community Collective is having a similar challenge.

The neighborhood garden and vegetable farm, initiated by Mark Covington, spans 13 vacant formerly blighted lots. It’s been home to chickens, ducks, honey bees and goats since 2010.

Covington said he’s been trying to purchase the city-owned lots, not far from the Interstate 94 Industrial Park, since 2008. Last year, the farm worked out a three-year lease agreement. But Covington remains frustrated and wants to negotiate a deal to buy.

“It depends on what neighborhood you are in,” he said. “It’s not equitable.”