Growing our city

In recent years, especially with rising unemployment and more vacant land in the city than ever, people have begun to farm the available soil to provide food for their families. Ashley Atkinson is the Director of Urban Agriculture at the Greening of Detroit, a community-based program that encourages the use of vacant land in the city for growing fruits and vegetables, and educates Detroiters on how to best do it.

METRO TIMES: How did the program get started?

ASHLEY ATKINSON: The Garden Resource program originated in 2003, following the decline of the city of Detroit's Farm-A-Lot program, which provided services like seeds and transplants to individual gardeners in the city. It was a popular program, but when the city's choosing between picking up trash and providing free seeds to people, it's pretty obvious what the city's role is. We had a year in 2001 or 2002 when gardeners who had received city services for years were finding it nearly impossible to have a garden. At that time the Detroit Agriculture Network was kind of the hub of action where the family and community gardeners would meet and connect and share resources. The Detroit Agriculture Network was and is an independent grassroots organization that has no staff, and not a huge budget. Its main function is to use community organizing and policy work around agriculture. There were other partners at the table like the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and the Earthworks Garden Project. At that time there were some resources at Michigan State University Extension in staff time, copies, meeting space. In 2003 the Greening of Detroit wasn't doing any urban agriculture. Through collaborative effort, we started in 2003 with 39 community gardens and 41 family gardens. Today we have over 200 community and school gardens and over 350 family gardens.

MT: Specifically, what does the organization do? What services does it provide?

ATKINSON: Our main action at the beginning was to provide resources like the seed and transplants, also tilling services, and we layered onto that our education classes. We started with five and now do about 45 workshops a year in different locations that help to build the community of the Garden Resource program. The classes range from starting seeds indoors to building solar passive greenhouses to bee-keeping classes. The most important part of the program is the community organizing that we layer into the resources and education. Not only do we encourage networking on a city-wide level, we also encourage decentralization, cluster based gardening hubs where people have local access to the urban agriculture leaders in their neighborhood, the compost and the resources that they need for their garden in their neighborhood.

MT: Is everything organic?

ATKINSON: It's not certified organic, but we grow all of our own transplants, 120,000 in the city of Detroit. We distribute 41 types of fruits and vegetables. We also provide technical assistance to communities both within the state of Michigan and outside. It's sort of like a well-known underground secret in our field that we're doing really good work, so we've had people from all over the United States visit to learn pieces of our model. We teach not only diversity of crops, but also succession planting. We are harvesting earlier in the season and much, much later. So you go to any of our gardens right now and they're still booming, and it's almost November. We've got another three or four weeks for kale, collards, cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts.

MT: Is all of the food that is grown consumed by the folks who grow it or is there an effort to feed needy people?

ATKINSON: The predominance of the food that is grown goes to the families or communities growing the food. Most communities do give some to a food bank or a hunger relief organization. Three years ago we began selling it as a cooperative at neighborhood farmers' markets. All of the profits go back to the gardens that are producing the food. It goes into seeds or water bills, wherever it is needed.

MT: Is there any funding now from the city government?

ATKINSON: No money, but the people who work within the city are much more receptive than they were two years ago. People are beginning to realize that vacant land in most neighborhoods is not going away. We can find something productive across many lines, be it property lines, be it human capital, be it jobs, or we can just let our city be known as vacant and blighted. We expect the city to become more active in making policy changes that will make what we are doing 1) not illegal in some cases and 2) facilitate it. We expect them to become more supportive of our efforts. Most people approach community gardening as a way to bring stability to vacant land or to the neighborhoods around it.

Jeff Broder does this monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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