Growing pains: commercial farming in Detroit

There’s been lots of hype surrounding the idea that Detroit’s future lies in urban farming.  A story in today’s Detroit Free Press suggests that’s just what it is — hype.  They interview Gary Wozniak, who is leading the effort to put together a 20-acre farm on the east side:

‘”I think the problem is the city doesn’t want to make a decision, quite honestly,” Wozniak said this month. “Every time we think we’ve reached a certain plateau, we get another excuse.”…
Dan Carmody, president of the nonprofit Eastern Market Corp., supports a more localized food system, but he said some delays are understandable, given the complexities of the issues.
“It’s a new kind of industry, and there are some growing pains associated with it,” Carmody said.
But city officials cite various issues that need to be overcome before they can approve larger-scale commercial farming in the city.
For one thing, there still is no zoning classification for growing food inside the city. Officials also are worried that Michigan’s Right to Farm law, which protects rural farmers against the encroachments of suburban sprawl, might be used by businessmen like Hantz to avoid regulation by the city after initial approval is given.
Then, too, many of Detroit’s nonprofit community gardeners are urging the city to reject Hantz’s proposal, viewing for-profit farming in the city as exploitation and a land grab. Critics worry that ordinary citizens won’t benefit if profits go mainly to wealthy business owners.

The Detroit News has previously reported on Mayor Bing’s skepticism about farming in the city:

One element that may not be a major focus of the (Detroit land use) plan, however, is urban farming.

“We want to be open-minded and look and see where it does make sense,” Bing said. “(But) for it to become a major industry in the city of Detroit , I haven’t bought into that yet.”

(Christine MacDonald.  “Bing briefs City Council on Detroit land use plan, braces for some ‘pushback.'”  The Detroit News, September 9, 2010)

A couple of personal observations:

First, while their city may appear to outsiders to be in desperate straits, Detroiters are just as resistant to change in zoning, and guard city-owned physical assets, just as jealously as residents anywhere else.

Second, although the Free Press story touched only briefly on it, I suspect the major impediment to proceeding with larger-scale farming in Detroit, whether for- or non-profit, is that Right to Farm law.  While I haven’t reviewed the legislation, it was likely designed with rural farming and rural communities in mind.  Needless to say, regulation appropriate for rural places may not work at all in urban ones.  The matter is complicated further by the very patchwork nature of present-day Detroit, where dense neighborhoods often directly adjoin prairie.  I would not be surprised if expansion of farming in Detroit required change in state law — and if that’s the case, Wozniak and John Hantz and their fellow aspiring farmers are going to be waiting a long, long time.


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