Kwamena Mensah, farm manager of D-Town Farms, discusses the farm during a Michigan Senate-sponsored tour Friday in Detroit. (Photo by Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Detroit — A Michigan Senate-sponsored visit Friday showed that urban farms here are more like small gardens that have yet to grow into large-scale businesses.
The tour, organized by state Sen. State Sen. Virgil Smith, D-Detroit, also found a patchwork of roughhewn areas that are helping to renew some neighborhoods and serve as a platform for community development. Some farmers said they are generating income and looking forward to becoming growing businesses.
But a Michigan Farm Bureau representative said Detroit's nascent agricultural industry has a long way to go before it generates a bounty of food.
There were 1,351 vegetable gardens in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck in 2011, according to the Garden Resource Program Collaborative. That includes 800 family gardens, 300 community gardens, 60 school gardens and 40 market gardens.
When Smith and Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, visited the Brightmoor neighborhood on the city's northwest side, they found residents establishing vegetable gardens that visually renewed what once were blighted home sites and offering possibilities for entrepreneurial income from sale of the produce to the Eastern Market and other customers in Detroit.
"There used to be a lot of trash and junk trees and high weeds, and dumps of old concrete and shingles" on many of the sites, said Scott Ungar, a Brightmoor resident who's helping lead the urban-gardening push.
Ungar stood near one of 37 gardens in the area, where garlic and asparagus already are maturing and where a "catchment" system captures rainwater to feed the vegetables.
A philanthropy-funded children's program this year will grow to about 45 participants for several months.
"And a lot of us want to make money," Ungar said. "We're market gardeners."
In fact, Ungar said, some Brightmoor residents already garner income of $10,000 a year from their gardens. In a city where the mean household income is $34,000 a year, that's significant, said Smith, who represents the State Fairgrounds area.
Smith's vision is for a "reinvention of land in the city of Detroit." He sees redevelopment of idle land into gardens as "the first positive impact because 15 years ago" the area of Brightmoor was "crack heaven."
Working commercial gardens also could become a trade for local kids who can't or don't want to attend college, Smith said.
"I was part of the push for movie-production subsidies," Smith said, adding that he believes urban farming has a better chance to succeed "because there are no real subsidies required here."
D-Town Farms is starting to cash in on its seven acres of virgin land on the west side of the city inside Rouge Park. In four years, D-Town has begun tending garlic in an outdoor field. It also started raising lettuce, spinach and other vegetables in "hoop houses" on the site, installed an irrigation system, set up bee colonies, began a composting area and created an area for children to tend their own little plots.
"Now we've got contracts for organic salad greens with some restaurants and a Foodland market in Detroit," said Kwamena Mensah, D-Town farm manager.
While hopes are sprouting this spring for urban farming in Detroit, there are skeptics.
"Their intentions are good," said Frank Rochowiak, a Milan-area farmer who joined the tour as a representative of the Michigan Farm Bureau. "And there's a place for organically grown things, for sure. But you aren't going to be able to feed many people from these chunks of ground."