Farming Detroit

Farming Detroit

Detroit public school teacher and urban farmer Paul Weertz with his working 50 year-old Ford tractor in the back of his house on Farnsworth Street

I’ve seen terrible urban ghettos in my time, but nothing prepared me for the shock of driving through Detroit neighborhoods where so many houses were crumbling, boarded up or missing altogether. In the midst of that depressing landscape I met Paul Weertz, who lives alone in the Farnsworth neighborhood.

Well, not totally alone. The 58 year-old public school teacher has a dozen chickens and ten beehives that belong to a neighborhood “honey co-op.” He has about an acre of fruit trees and veggies growing on ten vacant lots behind his house. The day I came by, his working 1960 Ford tractor was parked a few paces away from a huge pungent patch of basil. Weertz’s sister was about to go pick peaches. The slim urban farmer walked over to his tractor and looked at a gauge that reported more than 2,000 hours of use since Weertz bought it 20 years ago.

“I farm about ten acres in the city,” Weertz tells me. “Alfalfa’s my thing. I bale about a thousand bales a year.” Some of that alfalfa is used to feed animals at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school for pregnant and parenting young women. Weertz started an agriculture curriculum at the school and worked there for 20 years but now it’s a private charter school and this year he’s going to have to work elsewhere in Detroit’s public school system.

“So many people think you can’t do [farming] in a city,” he says in his Midwest twang. “And you can. It’s the same dirt and the same plants.”

“Detroit is unique because we have all these vacant lots and if we can think it through, we could have high-density housing but save some green space for people who want to get their hands in the dirt. Maybe, as we get a development plan and more people move back to Detroit, it will be greener.”

Weertz has been buying up abandoned homes and vacant parcels of land in his neighborhood for years. You might say that the land and the houses are dirt cheap. A city lot can go for just $300 and some houses are worth a mere $5,000, if anything. But Weertz is no greedy real estate speculator. He encourages young people who want to farm to move into the Farnsworth neighborhood. People like Caroline Leadley, who used to work at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, and her husband Jack Van Dyke.

Jack Van Dyke with son Finn on his back and Caroline Leadley stand near rows of cherry tomatoes

Leadley and Van Dyke live a few doors down the block from Weertz. Standing in front of their rows of lush tomato plants, the couple present a quirky version of American Gothic: Leadley has a pierced nose and Van Dyke wears a cycling cap and has their 10-month old son Finn in a back carrier. The cherubic toddler keeps whacking his mom as I ask the family to pose for a photo. While Van Dyke is at work fixing bicycles at Detroit’s non-profit bike repair shop The Hub, Leadley farms three city lots– about a sixth of an acre. In addition to cherry tomatoes, she grows ornamental flowers, which are a good cash crop. Leadley calls her business Rising Pheasant Farms because, apparently, pheasants are thriving in Detroit’s growing greenery. Rising Pheasant also has an indoor division: sunflower shoots are grown under lights in the attic of the house they’re renting. Their produce is sold at Detroit’s huge farmer’s market and to local restaurants. The couple doesn’t own a motor vehicle and is proud that they do deliveries by bikes that pull six-foot long trailers. As Leadley put it, “Human-powered transportation is part of our business plan.” Van Dyke is in the process of making a suspension system for the trailers using discarded bike inner tubes so tomatoes are cushioned on their way to market. Leadley marvels at the plight of some at the farmer’s market, who get in their trucks at 1:00 a.m. to drive across the state to Eastern Market, one of the largest farmer’s market in the country. Rising Pheasant has a mile and a half bike ride.

“We’re a real business now!” Leadley crows. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve been able to pay myself an hour.” It’s hard to fathom, but apparently one of Leadley’s neighbors considers Rising Pheasant Farms an eyesore. “Culturally, I don’t understand that. There’s flowers!” the 28 year-old mom says in disbelief. “What we’re doing or who we are is just not what she wants in her neighborhood. But thankfully, she seems to be a minority. I hope what I’m doing makes the neighborhood more attractive and people would want to move into it because at this point, there’s no reason why anyone would want to move here. Other than liquor stores, there are no stores in the entire neighborhood.”

Leadley and Van Dyke are slowly fixing up a house next to two of their lots. Eventually they’ll live in the fixer-upper, which was purchased for a little over $5,000 in back taxes. The house’s primary use at the moment is as a storage facility. A tiny room was built and insulated with Styrofoam to be used as a DIY walk-in cooler. It’s cooled by a modest air conditioner. This was accomplished with a CoolBot, a small box of circuitry with sensors and a micro-controller that allows the air conditioner to operate at temperatures below 60 degrees without freezing up its compressor.

Rising Pheasant has applications in to purchase two of the lots it farms on. Leadley says it’s an eight-month process that “apparently has to be approved by everyone in Detroit.”

Advocates of urban agriculture in Detroit were dismayed by a recent decision to sell two city-owned lots to a doggy daycare operation known as Canine to Five so it can expand. The lots have been used as a community garden in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. The Birdtown garden is slated to be uprooted in September, having decided against relocating.

There are 60,000 vacant city-owned lots and a relatively small percentage of them have farms or gardens, some of which are in a precarious legal state. “The city could, literally, at any time come in and say, ‘We’re going to develop these lots and you’re going to have to move,'” says Greg Willerer, a 42 year-old former English teacher who grows exotic salad greens on 12 city lots — about an acre — in the North Corktown section of Detroit. Willerer’s business is known as Brother Nature Produce. He told me city law allows gardeners/farmers to adopt lots for agricultural use but they’re not supposed to sell the produce. But it hasn’t stopped him from doing so.

Ashley Atkinson, director of urban agriculture for a group called the Greening of Detroit and a member of the Detroit City Planning Commission’s Urban Agriculture Workgroup, says gardens that are operating as a principal use on a property are not illegal but they’re not really legal. “It’s a policy vacuum,” she says. “There’s no policy to protect them but there’s lots of policy that could result in tickets and fines for an activity like high vegetation in a residential neighborhood or having a compost bin in a residential neighborhood.” Atkinson says there are between 70 and 80 growers in the Greening of Detroit’s co-op selling their produce, with some making more more than $10,000 a year. Only a handful, she says, are making a living at it.

Interns work on removing debris from compost at Brother Nature Produce

In addition to Brother Nature Produce, Willerer helped start a composting business called Detroit Dirt, which he says generated 300 cubic yards of compost last year from restaurant, brewery and landscaper waste. Detroit Dirt also gets manure from a horse farm in Rouge River Park.

The author’s wife (in striped T-shirt) gets corralled into helping with mizuna harvest

The day I checked out Willerer’s farming operation on Rosa Parks Boulevard, a couple of volunteers were pushing piles of compost through a screen. An employee was harvesting lettuce by clipping leaves with a pair of scissors. Willerer repeatedly requested that I help with the harvest, a task my wife Pamela rescued me from so I could record background sounds for a radio story.

Greg Willerer may be one of the most commercially viable of Detroit’s market gardeners. He checked email on his iPhone at a nearby gourmet coffee joint that had descriptions of that morning’s brews that read like wine summaries. Willerer has been at it for six years and until recently doubled the amount of growing space every year. He sells about 200 pounds of exotic salad greens a week, much of it mizuna, and there are 27 families in his CSA– community supported agriculture– who get produce from him on a regular basis.

“I take this whole growing food for my neighbors and friends and other people in the city very seriously. And I’m going to eat this stuff, too,” he says when asked if he has his soil tested for lead, arsenic and other contaminants. The EPA has a limit of 400 parts per million of lead in soil but the Greening of Detroit group suggests a 200 parts per million limit. Willerer says he’s looking into buying five acres outside the city to expand his farming operation but he vows on his Facebook page that he won’t have anything to do with Whole Foods because the grocery chain is “part of the rich getting richer trend.”

Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood has been part of the trend of neighborhoods having fewer and fewer occupied homes. Its vacancy rate is above 60%, but still, there was an explosion of gardening in the area last year. A winding wood chip path connects 20 gardens in what has come to be known as the Brightmoor Farmway, encompassing an area of more than 14 blocks. It includes the Brightmoor Youth Garden, which was started by community activist Riet Schumack. The Youth Garden yielded 1600 lbs. of basil, tomatoes, New Zeland spinach, beets, Swiss chard, green beans and other veggies last year, according to Schumack. Teenagers who toiled in the garden shared close to $3,000 in profits.

“It adds a whole dimension to kids’ work,” Schumack says after dousing me with mosquito repellant and leading me on a long tour of Brightmoor’s gardens and pocket parks. “They kids soon realize that the amount of hours they work is directly related to how much money they get. So when they start, they’re kind of lackadaisical about it but then they see experienced kids get these big checks. And then, little by little, you see it clicking in their heads, ‘Now wait a minute, if I show up and I put in my hours, I get money. And I get increasingly more money.'”

Schumack keeps rabbits, chickens, and bees. Goats will soon join the menagerie. She and her husband are in Brightmoor out of religious conviction. They’re affiliated with the Christian Community Development Association, which was founded by Mississippi clergyman John Perkins who preaches “reconciliation, redistribution and relocation.” The Schumacks certainly took the relocation thing seriously. They left a stable Detroit neighborhood two miles away named Rosedale Park in 2006 and put down roots in Brightmoor.

A children’s playground/garden in Brightmoor with Gwen Shivers standing by its sign

As Detroit mosquitoes bit me unrelentingly, Riet Schumack walked me around and introduced me to Gwen Shivers, a resident of Brightmoor for close to 30 years who works as a daycare provider. We stopped to admire “Ms. Gwen’s Edible Playscape Garden,” which is obviously intended for kids. But Shivers admits to sitting and having her morning coffee on a hay bale inside a semi-circle of corn stalks and sunflowers. A few blocks from the Edible Playscape I got to check out a greenhouse on aluminum skids that can slide over different parts of a large community garden next to the home of Bill and Billie Hickey, who, like Schumack, came to Brightmoor from a more stable section of the city as an act of religious faith. Then it was on to the garden of Jessica Kenward and her husband, who built a two-foot high permaculture berm around the four lots they have under cultivation. The Kenwards, who have “a covenant to refrain from using heavy equipment against the land,” hope to start a CSA in which some of the neighborhood gardeners will contribute crops that the Kenwards don’t want to grow. Schumack also showed me some fruit trees that had been planted in a vacant lot next door to the home of Myra Jesse, a lady truck driver.

“Some of the most beautiful birds that I’ve ever seen, some that I’ve never seen, come in my yard, sing in my window,” she tells me. “And butterflies, too. It opened up paradise for the birds and butterflies, is what it did.” It’s a welcome bit of cheer in a section of Detroit where good houses get stripped by metal scavengers if left unattended for three days.

Back in the Farnsworth neighborhood, where drug dealers and gangs are as resilient as weeds, an urban homestead stands as a testament to what can happen when copious amounts of sweat equity are combined with cheap land. The home of Andrew Kemp, his wife and two teenage daughters has rainbow stripes painted on the side. Before I get a chance to walk around the seven city lots that comprise their garden, two of Kemp’s four hens greet me on the sidewalk. These city chickens are free to roam around a property with no fences. Kemp, a tall, lanky 41 year-old public school teacher, explains that one of the chickens had discovered a raspberry patch and taught her compatriots how to get to it.

“We have raspberry-fed free range chickens,” he joked. When his wife Kinga Osz-Kemp, a native of Hungary, isn’t silk-screening T-shirts for her Ink In Bloom web site, she makes an herbal salve out of beeswax from the Farnsworth co-operative bee hives and herbs, mostly comfrey and calendula, from her lush garden.

“I try to use as much of what’s here as I can,” she says. “I honor the things around me that are feeding me: the bees and the herbs. It’s important to me to do something good with them and to know that people benefit from them.”

I walk into a shack made out of discarded shipping pallets, where a ton of garlic is drying. Sometimes the garlic is traded for pizza. Kinga boasts the family never has to buy garlic, honey, or eggs. How many city dwellers can say that?

Andrew Kemp surveys his urban oasis and declares: “It could never happen in another city. It’s ridiculous to think of this much land. And, really, everyone in Detroit could have this much land. It’s kinda crazy, you know. There are very few houses that have another house next to them. So everyone can have at least an extra yard. That’s really the gift of Detroit.”

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Bio: Jon Kalish is a contributor to MAKE magazine and a special contributor to He also covers the DIY beat for National Public Radio.

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Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter, podcast producer and newspaper writer. He's reported for NPR for more than 30 years.

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