Trip to Detroit | Urban Farming

I recently wrote about the urban farm that Sam (Kathy’s son) and his fiancĂ©e are putting together in Hamtramck, Michigan (pronounced Ham-TRAM-ick). I’ve been interested Detroit’s urban farm scene for a while now; it’s fascinating to see the great ideas and unexpected conflicts that come up when a city is forced to re-imagine itself. What’s the plan when you are down to 900,000 people living in a city built for 2,000,000? That’s what Detroit is trying to figure out, and the 1,000 or so urban farmers in the area seem to have some of the best ideas.

Last Friday, Martin (another of Kathy’s sons) and I went to Hamtramck with a door for a tool shed that Sam’s building. Since my previous trip to Detroit happened was when I was six, I was excited for the opportunity to see things as they are now and where they might be heading.

Sam and Katelyn purchased four abandoned lots for about $1,000. In a typical practice for modern-day Detroit, they’ve also claimed two adjacent empty lots as their own. The owners of those lots haven’t responded to any attempts to contact them, and they’re years behind in property taxes. As such, the plan is just to use the land until they hear otherwise.

For the most part, it seems like Detroit’s residents are happy for anything positive to be done with abandoned land. We went with Sam and his intern, Michael, to a nearby lot to pick up a few tree stumps to serve as a base for the water cachement tanks. As we were trying to lift the stumps into the pickup truck, a man drove up and asked what we were doing. Once he learned that we were trying to remove something from the lot instead of dumping there, he told us to help ourselves to whatever we wanted.

shed and gardens

Scavenging is a common occurrence for urban farmers in Detroit. There are so many abandoned homes, factories, lots, and neighborhoods that you can find nearly anything but scrap metal (which is quickly snatched up to be sold). Sam and Katelyn are building their shed out of shipping pallets and cinder blocks, have placed the aforementioned tree trunks for a water tank foundation, and are sodding their growing beds with used grass and sprout squares that a local company donates. Even the wood chips for the walkways come from folks looking to offload them. One person’s waste is a farmer’s treasure.

You can read a more about how Sam and Katelyn reuse Detroit’s waste on their blog, Grace and Peas.

One of the challenges in building an urban farm in Detroit is trying to stay below the government’s radar. As many people trying to improve the environment can attest, the government can often be more of a hassle than a help. The leaders in those positions simply are not able to keep pace with the rapid changes in culture that are happening. Urban farming is as foreign to them as it is to most people, but they are in a position to make laws that can directly affect how successful it can be.

The city recently sent a letter to Sam stating that he needed a permit to build his pallet shed. This would require bringing in a property assessor to determine the value of their land. An earlier assessment already increased the value of their property well beyond what they paid for it, causing their yearly property tax bill to be half of what they initially paid for the land.

There are conflicting laws about urban farming on the state and local level. The state of Michigan passed a right-to-farm act that allows for urban farming, but Hamtramck will occasionally try to pass ordinances limiting those same rights to farm. All in all, it can seem like there are frequent efforts to stymie the attempts of these farmers to improve their own city.

grass mats and compost bins

Still, there’s ultimately a lot of hope and excitement in Detroit about the future. The urban farming movement is growing at such a rate that it’s only a matter of time before things fall into place. Sam and Katelyn showed us a documentary called Urban Roots that provides a fantastic mix of perspectives on what’s happening in the city right now.

Before to long I’ll be off to Hamtramck again to deliver some kale and tomato plants to the farm. I can’t wait. Many thanks to Katelyn and Sam for their great hospitality. The homemade pizzas and growlers of Atwater beer were perfect.