For Greg Willerer, Detroit’s new urban frontier is a lot like the Wild West: Grow enough food to support your family, make do with what you have and rely on your neighbors when you need help.
“For all intents and purposes, there is no government here,” said Willerer, 43, checking the greens and other crops he is growing on an acre off Rosa Parks Boulevard, across from an abandoned house with broken windows. “If something were to happen we have to handle that ourselves.”
Willerer has had to handle everything from vegetable thieves and lead-poisoned soil to zoning codes as an agricultural pioneer in Detroit, which last month became the biggest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy protection. With automobile jobs gone for good and thousands of abandoned lots blighting the landscape, some in the region are promoting urban farming -- small-scale and largely geared toward booming local-and organic-foods markets -- as a way toward growing a healthier economy.
Urban agriculture has been embraced by city planners from coast to coast. In New York, the city has invested $600,000 in expanding Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farming business that’s planning to open a business incubator. Seattle is breaking ground on a “food forest,” planting seven acres of fresh produce open to the public.
Detroit, which filed an $18 billion bankruptcy July 18, is reeling from the loss of more than 435,000 jobs in its metro area from 2000 to 2010, according to federal data. Michigan ranked last among U.S. states in employment growth in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States from the first quarter of 1995 through the first quarter of this year.
This has left it with an abundance of underused property. The city is spread over 139 square miles (360 square kilometers), and has an estimated 150,000 vacant and abandoned parcels -- an amount of land roughly the size of Manhattan, according to a report this year by Detroit Future City, a planning project created by community leaders.
Converting some of that land to farming could clean up blight and grow jobs, regional officials say. With sufficient consumer demand and the emergence of a local food-processing industry, 4,700 jobs and $20 million in business taxes could be generated, according to a 2009 study.
“It will help,” said Mike DiBernardo, an economic development specialist with Michigan’s agriculture department. “We have so much blighted land that we can create opportunities for entrepreneurs, and we can give people in the community something to be excited about.”
So-called retail agriculture, which includes direct-to-consumer, organic and local-foods sales, had revenue of $8 billion in the U.S. farm census in 2007, compared with $7 billion combined for cotton and rice, according to a 2010 study done by Local Food Strategies LLC for the Farm Credit Council, the trade group representing small-town credit unions and other rural banks.
The Detroit Future City vision calls for repurposing vacant land, in part with urban farms, to create village-like neighborhoods clustered within a half-mile of schools. Farming would become part of the 29 percent of the city allocated to landscape by 2050.
The vision is drawing attention from landowners ranging from Willerer, who is making enough money from farming to give up a teaching job and is snapping up vacant lots, to John Hantz, a financial services professional and entrepreneur who has pledged to buy blighted properties to create the world’s biggest urban tree farm.
By selling at farmers markets, local restaurants and a community-supported agriculture project that sells his goods directly to consumers, Willerer said he can make $20,000 to $30,000 per acre in a year. In addition to the acre he farms on vacant lots, Willerer cultivates another three acres outside the city and is preparing to start a fourth.
Lead helps determine where he plants -- he passed on one parcel because of high levels -- and he focuses on arugula and other greens as well as thorny raspberry bushes in the city to deter thieves who might walk off with the cantaloupes he grows outside Detroit. Still, if a neighbor stops by curious about his greens, he’ll give some away: “They’re my first line of defense,” he said.
On Saturdays he sells at Detroit’s Eastern Market, one of two farmers markets he visits. As many as 40,000 people seek out fresh foods on a busy day at the market, which opened in 1891. Vendors range from larger farms and food-processors from rural Michigan to Love’s Custard Pies, whose owners, Alan and Donnie Love, specialize in Southern-style pies, including sweet potato and red velvet.
Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corp. and former head of the downtown improvement district in Fort Wayne, Indiana, drinks a “Bailout Blend” brew from Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. at 5 a.m. recently after meeting with wholesalers trucking in regional fresh products. He says local and regional food systems are in a discovery phase.
“There’s a lot of Kool-Aid drinkers, there’s a lot of passion, and there’s just no way of knowing what we need to know,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, geared toward rural farms, is trying to figure out how to serve the sector, said Anne Alonzo, the administrator of its agricultural marketing service. It has underway pilot projects that encourage food-stamp recipients to buy fresh produce and programs to encourage “food hubs” that gather goods and create larger scale for purchasers, Alonzo said in an interview.
Michigan has the fourth-biggest number of farmers markets, trailing California, New York and Illinois, according to a USDA report this week. Among its attempts to nurture small-scale agriculture and the businesses that arise from it, the state is home to 140 craft breweries, sixth-most in the nation. Grand Rapids, the state’s second-largest city, was named Beer City USA 2013 by Examiner.com.
The high-quality, locally driven model of craft beer is being emulated at McClure’s Pickles LLC, where brothers Joe and Bob McClure started a business based on their grandmother’s recipe in 2006. Using word-of-mouth, the brothers, now in their 30s, are shipping products to Williams-Sonoma Inc., Macy’s Inc. and Whole Foods Market Inc., which in June opened its first Detroit grocery.
McClure’s has 25 full-time workers packaging pickles, potato chips and Bloody Mary mix in a manufacturing plant once occupied by American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. Their raw materials come from four farms, two in Michigan.
Detroit, which changed its zoning rules in March to expand farming, is smart to pursue new land-use opportunities through agriculture, said Bruce Bugbee, as professor in the plants, soils and climate department in Utah State University in Logan. The dreams of enthusiasts may be dashed by the realities of cost, he said.
Farming in an urban setting may cut the cost of transporting goods to market, though higher energy costs, especially when greenhouses are needed for some plants in the shorter northern growing season, can make urban food production at a significant scale unfeasible and unsustainable, he said. Land is usually more expensive in urban than rural areas.
“U.S. agriculture is incredibly big and efficient,” he said. “Eating local is a good thing. It’s not how we’re going to save the planet.”
Willerer said his focus is on helping to save his city, through food.
“We can do so much better as an ecosystem of small businesses supporting each other,” he says, sampling mizuna greens while chickens peck at insects. “The best way for us to change a small part of the world is to start a transformative business.”