'The Gift Of Detroit': Tilling Urban Terrain Amid crumbling buildings and empty lots, small farms have sprung up in the city. Some farmers buy up abandoned space for planting, while others have simply repurposed city land. Local produce businesses have blossomed, but a lack of definitive policies has left some in limbo.
NPR logo

'The Gift Of Detroit': Tilling Urban Terrain

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140903516/140988872" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'The Gift Of Detroit': Tilling Urban Terrain

'The Gift Of Detroit': Tilling Urban Terrain

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140903516/140988872" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now, another sign of the resiliency of Detroiters. If you drive around the city, amid the blight of crumbling and boarded-up houses, you can see expanses of green community gardens. Reporter Jon Kalish spoke with some of the people who are making a living on urban farms in the Motor City. He sent us this report.

JON KALISH: There are some serious urban gardeners in this country but few can match the agricultural output of Paul Weertz.

PAUL WEERTZ: I farm about 10 acres in the city. And alfalfa's my thing. I bale like about a thousand bales a year.

KALISH: That's a thousand bales of alfalfa grown within Detroit city limits. The 58-year-old public school teacher lives alone in a single family house in the Farnsworth neighborhood.


KALISH: Well, not totally alone. Weertz has a dozen chickens and there are 10 beehives on his property that belong to a neighborhood honey co-op. An acre of land behind his house used to be occupied by other single family homes but is now covered with fruit trees, vegetables and a pungent patch of basil. Weertz has been buying abandoned homes and vacant parcels in his neighborhood, where lots go for as little as three hundred dollars. He's been encouraging young people who want to farm to move in to the neighborhood.

CAROLINE LEADLEY: We're definitely micro-farming but we're making a living off a sixth of an acre.

KALISH: Weertz's neighbor, Caroline Leadley, runs Rising Pheasant Farms when she's not caring for a 10-month-old son.

LEADLEY: I've been very pleased, pleasantly surprised, at how much I'm able to pay myself per hour. We took on an employee. You know, I'm, like, OK. We're a real business now. We have to pay taxes and do things right.

KALISH: Leadley grows tomatoes and ornamental flowers outdoors on two vacant lots she's trying to buy from the city. She also has trays of sunflower shoots growing in her attic. Leadley's location inside Detroit allows her to deliver her produce to the city's huge farmer's market and local restaurants by bicycle. In a neighborhood where drug dealers are as resilient as weeds, one neighbor finds Leadley's farm an eyesore. But the 28 year-old urban farmer persists.

LEADLEY: I hope what I'm doing makes the neighborhood more attractive that people would want to move into the neighborhood. 'Cause at this point, there is no reason why anyone would want to move into this neighborhood. There are no stores besides liquor stores in this entire neighborhood.

KALISH: Over in the North Corktown section of Detroit, the leaves of an edible Japanese plant called mizuna are harvested with a pair of scissors.

GREG WILLERER: 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.

KALISH: That's Greg Willerer who farms 12 city lots - about an acre of land. His business, Brother Nature Produce, sells about 200 pounds of salad greens a week and there are 27 families in his community-supported agriculture co-op who get produce from him. He's farming abandoned lots that he has adopted but does not own. Willerer says he's been trying to buy the lots from the city of Detroit for more than a year.

WILLERER: The city could, literally, at any time come in and say, you know what, we're going to develop these lots and you're going to have to move.

KALISH: Indeed, a community garden in a section of Detroit known as the Cass Corridor will soon be uprooted because the two city-owned lots it occupies have been sold to a doggy daycare operation. Ashley Atkinson works for a gardening advocacy group called the Greening of Detroit and is a member of the city planning commission's Urban Agriculture Workgroup. Atkinson says that farming in the city is not illegal but it's not totally legal either.

ASHLEY ATKINSON: It's a policy vacuum. So, 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.

KALISH: City councilmember Kenneth Cockerel says he supports urban agriculture and is hopeful that the council will enact regulations by the end of the year. But he says that even now the city has not been issuing violations to urban farmers. Back in the Farnsworth neighborhood, Andrew Kemp tend a lush garden on seven city lots he owns. His wife Kinga Osz-Kemp has a cottage industry making herbal salve with beeswax from the neighborhood hives and herbs from their garden. The family says it never has to buy garlic or honey and they get all the eggs they need from four hens that wander around their yard.

ANDREW KEMP: It could never happen in another city. I mean, this is ridiculous to think about this much land. There are very few houses that have another house next to them. So, everybody can have at least an extra yard, you know. That's really the gift of Detroit.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.


CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.