What We Can Learn From Urban Farming in Detroit

Urban farming has been growing in various cities within the United States and across the globe. As The University of Texas Micro Farm takes part in this movement, it is important to research other undertakings. By assessing similar projects and the circumstances that lead to their success and failure, we can see how our own farm fits into the picture, motivate the work behind it, and spread word to a larger surrounding community about the operation.

A comprehensive investigation was undergone by Colasanti et al (The City as an “Agricultural Powerhouse? Perspectives on Expanding Urban Agriculture from Detroit, Michigan) to canvass citizens of Detroit, a city whose surplus of abandoned land and largely underserved communities, has made it a “laboratory for urban farming.” Through interviews and focus groups, the authors collected information on the motivation to move farms to an urban setting, as well as its cultural feasibility and effect on the community.

What determines the likelihood of success for a micro farm? To survive, the farm needs customers, and customers need an incentive to forgo larger grocery stores. Detroit citizens cited several reasons that they might take part as customers or farmers, which could be categorized into practical benefit, and psychological benefits.

First, the practical. Urban farms provide convenience for people who are unable to get to a grocery store. By increasing the number of farms and food sources, hour long bus rides and long walks with groceries become unnecessary. Another reason for micro farms is food security. When people are equipped with the skills to provide food for themselves, they are somewhat protected against uncertainties in the agricultural economy.  Along these lines, micro farms allow for sustainable urban living. While people enjoy the benefits of an urban lifestyle, a lack of food sources in the city can make living this way difficult. Lastly, micro farms within city limits would ideally increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables by the community, improving nutrition and overall health of the population.

Perhaps less obvious, but not necessarily less important, are the psychological benefits of a community peppered with micro farms. Many Detroit citizens felt that urban farms allow them to “take back the land,” or claim ownership of space that they felt was otherwise taken over by large, profiting corporations. This improves a sense of civic pride as well as cultural identity among citizens. The self-sufficiency of micro farms increases the confidence and self-esteem of those who run the farms and live off of their fruits. Lastly, many people felt that community empowerment would result from the success of these farms.

Across the board, people agree that there are benefits to micro farms. The debate is whether or not they are sustainable, feasible on a broad scale, and to what degree they should be implemented. An in- depth economic evaluation is required to determine the extent to which micro farms can replace grocery stores, but some initial insight was gathered from the Detroit citizens. Large scale agriculture has embedded itself in our society, and for urban farming to make a dent, the motivation has to be there. Some people see micro farming as a “band aid” to provide food security in difficult economic times, whereas others see it as “a revolution in the way we source our food.” Most agreed that micro farms would not replace grocery stores supplied by large scale farms, but instead must “integrate with other food system sectors” in order to be successful.

So how does this relate to the UT Micro Farm? Grocery stores are convenient and in no short supply, so food security is not an incentive. On the small scale, it will not take over the role of large stores. I see the greatest benefit in the psychological and health aspects. While healthy food is available at grocery stores, these stores are also filled with processed and nutrient empty food that we gravitate to for convenience. By habituating ourselves to whole produce, we establish healthy eating habits.

For a micro farm to succeed, the demand for a farm must be present. This demand can be created by establishing a culture of appreciation for farm grown foods. A study in 2010 by Zoellner et al (Meaningful Messages: Adults in the Lower Mississippi Delta Provide Cultural Insight into Strategies for Promoting the MyPyramid) suggests that “food culture and preference, rather than cost and availability, explain limited response to messages encouraging healthy eating.” When eating from a farm is the norm, healthy living becomes part of the norm.

So what can Detroit tell us?  For a farm to be successful within a small, urban setting, a preference for these foods must be present, which is created by educating the community about its benefits. By spreading the word, especially to a young, social group of students on campus, we can build and grow a culture of healthy eating habits that will spread both geographically and to future generations.

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