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Farming for Their Lives

Detroit’s urban growers are cultivating the land to pick up where they feel the city has let them down.
Greg Willerer harvests salad greens on his farm in Detroit.
Greg Willerer harvests salad greens on his farm in Detroit.Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab

DETROIT, Mich.—Behind orange aviators and under a floppy khaki hat, Greg Willerer never stops moving. It’s an early morning in June, and the purveyor of Brother Nature Produce is busy harvesting. Willerer stoops to haul water from collection barrels outside of his greenhouse in Detroit’s North Corktown neighborhood. With one hand, he pulls a wagon of French sorrel and lemony, peppery greens he’ll pack into a plastic tub. With the other, he pushes his 2-year-old daughter in a stroller over uneven terrain. A hen and chick teeter along the hay-lined rows of greens; his rat terrier tears off in pursuit of a grackle.

There are six homes on Willerer’s street, and one on the next block. He purchased his house with cash in 2004. Over the years, he’s asked neighbors for permission to expand his farm. It now sprawls across 10 lots.