Detroit’s latest crop of farmers reveals the depth of the city’s soil and soul
Farms on abandoned land, gardens in backyards and neighborhoods have made Detroit the nation’s urban agricultural center, creating a sustainable food system, taking folks back to their southern roots and soothing souls.
Fiery red tomatoes, majestic purple eggplant, and sun yellow squash dot plots of land around Detroit. They are the bounty of the fall harvest, fresh produce that provides healthy eating options for many residents who might not otherwise have choices and an answer for a city designated a food desert.
In fact, so many people have begun farming tracts of abandoned land in Detroit, the city is grappling with how to manage issues that crop up when people farm in urban areas. Last month, city officials began holding community hearings on applying Michigan’s Right to Farm Act in Detroit. Additionally, Michigan State University has proposed a $100-acre, $100-million urban-farming research center in the city.
While these urban farmers look like they’re only passionatel
y digging in dirt, they are key players in Detroit’s reinvention. Instead of renovating buildings, though, they are building community, educating about the environment, strengthening the ecosystem and nourishing souls. There’s something healing in connecting with the land, something Detroit’s got plenty of.
So for them, the harvest is far more than the succulent sweet peppers, butternut squash and purple onions they’ve raised, it’s about sowing seeds in the city—growing Detroit, nurturing it, and watching it prosper.
Edith Floyd, Jerry Ann Hebron and Malik Yakini are among dozens of pioneering Detroiters who are forging new ground with their urban farming efforts. B.L.A.C. spotlights their love for their work, sense of community, and the opportunities they create.
Nearly four decades ago, Edith Floyd moved onto a beautiful tree-lined street with 64 houses from corner-to-corner. Back in 1974, when the first set of houses caught on fire, Floyd remembers the houses and garages that burned and, in hindsight, she says, that was the start of the neighborhood’s deterioration. The so-called Devil’s Night always was a scary time on her block, especially after the local plant closed and people started moving away. Houses were stripped, more burned, and all eventually were torn down, but Floyd stayed.
Floyd, 63, who grew up helping her father on a farm, says she’s had farming in her blood since she was a little girl. So, as a grown woman, planting a garden everywhere she lived was natural.
“I had a garden in my backyard when I first got here,” she says. “As houses started to disappear, then I would plant another garden bed.”
Now, Floyd has garden beds up and down the block, where there are four vacant lots for every structure—an enormous task for this farmer who often has her grandchildren in tow as she makes her rounds. Water is her biggest challenge.
“I have 1,000 feet of hose to water,” says Floyd, who also has two beehives for harvesting honey. “I can’t pull it around so I take 50 feet at a time, hook it up, then get another 50 feet and hook it up. I want to set up water catchment systems at the gardens so I don’t have to pull that hose around.”
Jerry Ann Hebron
Nestled deep in Detroit’s North End is an oasis that gives residents and visitors a feeling of belonging to something bigger. The grass roots community project marries agriculture, art, and education, and Jerry Ann Hebron and her husband, Bill, have dedicated their post-professional lives to giving back to a community that has meant so much to them.
“My mother is very concerned about social justice in this community,” Hebron says, referring to the Rev. Bertha Carter, who pastors the St. John Evangelist Temple of Truth on Oakland Avenue. “It became very challenging for her because my mother is 81, and she needed to find a better way—so she asked me to come run the non-profit.”
Hebron’s mission was to engage and connect to the community. As she looked around the community, Hebron noticed poor food quality.
“I looked at what they (grocery stores) had in there and I thought ‘we need to grow some food,’” says Hebron, 62.
Several organizational partners helped with the planning, and tilling for a community garden that features art installations, a 675-gallon water cistern, and several seating areas beautifully intermingled within the gardens.
“This is the fourth year of the garden. Every year that we have been here we’ve seen the growth and the connection to the community increase. Last year, we evolved into a community garden and farmers market,” Hebron says, noting several vendors who sell at the Oakland Avenue Farmers Market. “We’re trying to build a destination place. That’s what this is all about. We’re trying to show businesses that this is a viable destination.”
Ann Carter, who volunteers in the garden, knows first-hand the benefits of Hebron’s work and has seen a noticeable difference in her diet since she first started working in the garden.
“The nutrition of our people is bad,” Carter says. “We don’t eat the right kinds of food. Working in the garden, I actually started eating healthier, and now I help contribute to the health of the people in this community.”
A Saturday visit to D-Town Farms reveals one of Detroit’s best-kept secrets—people like to roll up their sleeves and get involved.
Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, says the farm is a magnet for students, youth and church groups, folks who want to help plant, weed and harvest crops to support the group’s mission to address food justice and security through agriculture, policy and cooperative buying.
The farm is one of the network’s core project, which focuses on community empowerment through farming, education, job training, retail, wholesale and distribution initiatives.
“The frame that guides the work that I do is Black community empowerment,” says Yakini, adding that the crops are sold at farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants, and visitors to the farm.
“I am really interested in African-American communities and that we capture the monies that we spend and circulate throughout our community. Right now, most of the ways that we’re able to buy food in our community is with what I call ‘wealth extracting strategies.’ We’re always concerned with how we build wealth in our community.”
Notably, in recognition of his social justice, food equity and food security work, Yakini will be honored in New York this month as a winner of the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for exemplifying excellence and achievement within the food industry.
“I’m humbled and honored that people are recognizing our work,” he says. “And, I’m hopeful that it will open up additional opportunities.”
DARYL M. PIERSON, SUSTAINABILITY COORDINATOR AT WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY, HAS A BACKYARD GARDEN AND HELPS WITH THE COMMUNITY GARDEN AT THE UNIVERSITY.