“Blotting” is what it’s called – creating a farm on a piece of abandoned urban land that’s smaller than a city block, but larger than a single house plot.
With 40 square miles of abandoned land, a chunk the size of Miami, Detroit is prime blotting territory. Over 1,000 urban gardens now dapple the landscape, growing about 15 percent of the city’s food.
This 2.5 acre powerhouse harvests 14,000 lbs of produce each year, and offers farming education to thousands of local residents.
I spoke with Patrick Crouch who heads up the farm.
I used to work as a farmer in a rural Maryland community. But just growing food wasn’t enough – I wanted to make a difference in the community, especially in terms of social justice.
I’ve always been interested in permaculture, and I’ve read extensively about farmers in 17th and 18th century urban Paris.
Their system was very efficient and holistic and all centered around horses – horses plowed fields, drove food to market, and their droppings were used for cooking, heating, or fertilizer.
Cities use nutrients like parasites
“From the perspective of the countryside, the city is a parasite,” Sir Albert Howard, the father of organic farming, once opined.
Cities take resources from the countryside but never replenish them.
Composting is a way to change that relationship. At Earthworks, one of the pillars of our organization is a thriving compost program.
Growing food within cities themselves makes composting much more doable and can simultaneously connect people to the land and to nature.
Scale is everything, especially when you’re recycling soil nutrients.
As recently as the mid-20th century, hundreds of pig farmers fed their pigs on the food in local trash dumps across the US.
When dumps slowly consolidated into massive landfills on the outskirts of cities, two things changed: feeding livestock in this way became impossible, and the uneaten food in trash now rotted into methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
So scaling up for efficiency is not always better.
Nesting farms in communities
If we make urban communities serve all of our needs, we won’t need to escape them.
American cities are changing how they grow food and how they relate to their surrounding hinterland.
But I wouldn’t want to see Detroit become the model, honestly, because each site is unique, and demands a unique approach. Cities can be much more or much less politically friendly to the expansion of urban farming.
As for size, I am more in favor of small-scale projects because they can be nested into communities rather than become replacements for communities.
But large urban farms can work too.
Intervale farm in Burlington VT, is a great example. The property sits on a 100-year flood plain where building structures aren’t allowed. It slowly became an illegal dump site until farmers cleared 350 acres of debris and began growing food there.
Is urban soil safe to farm?
There’s a myth that urban soils are completely toxic.
The thought is – why would anyone want to eat food from a lawless, dirty place like Detroit?
In a largely black city, it’s hard not to see racism in that conceptualization.
But urban areas are not the only spaces with toxicity issues. Suburbs have issues as well, like the heavy pesticide residues that remain in the former orange groves of the aptly named Orange County, California.
In general you should test your soil before starting any garden or farm.
Lead levels are the main suburban issue, since lead paint wasn’t banned until 1972. The EPA suggests that 400 ppm of lead in soil is safe for living in residential areas, but lead safety levels for actually growing food on that soil are much lower.
You should also gather your property’s land-use history.
Sanborn maps are the best way to do this. Sanborn was a fire insurance company that made detailed maps of land-use over time in virtually every US city.
These can tell you if there was ever a conventional farm or an industrial site on your property that may have polluted your soil.
In most cases, soil is generally safe.
Bringing farms into urban settings re-connects us to the many levels of life that urbanism so effectively cuts us off from.
It re-connects us to nature and to a more holistic humanity, which makes it harder to abuse the natural system which we are a part of.
Take Tyler, for example
The most satisfying part of my job is stories like Tyler. I’ve known him since he was seven years old, and he’s been eating our food for many years.
He recently went through the adult training program that we offer for locals who want to learn about farming and farm management.
A position opened up as farm assistant manager here and he got the job. Integrating with the community for mutual uplifting – that’s what this is all about.
Have you thanked a farmer?
Farmers are often viewed as dim witted and not sophisticated, but growing food requires a huge amount of savvy and intelligence.
Some of this stigma is a result of agribusiness’ desire to force farmers from being independent individuals into being replaceable, non-thinking cogs in their large corporate wheel.
And it may be surprising to hear that 72 percent of all farmers have off-farm jobs in order to make ends meet.
They aren’t doing it to make money, they do it because they care about it. Farmers have an amazing amount of knowledge and skill, and they care deeply about what they do.
I’d be quite happy if everyone on Earth would take a moment to be thankful for those who lovingly grew their food, and certainly for animals who have died for their food.
Learn more about what Earthworks is doing to change the food landscape of Detroit, and push urban farming into the future.