Detroit is a surprisingly green landscape during the spring and summer months. The site of many houses that are crumbling, boarded up or missing altogether is tempered by community gardens and even some urban farms.
There are some serious urban gardeners in this country, but few can match the agricultural output of Paul Weertz.
“I farm about 10 acres in the city, and alfalfa’s my thing. I bale about a thousand bales a year,” he says.
That’s alfalfa grown within Detroit city limits. The 58-year-old public school teacher lives alone in a single-family house in the Farnsworth neighborhood.
There are a dozen chickens and 10 beehives on Weertz’s 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 $300. He’s been encouraging young people who want to farm to move into the neighborhood. Weertz’s neighbor, Carolyn Leadley, runs Rising Pheasant Farms when she’s not caring for her 10-month-old son.
“We’re definitely micro-farming, but we’re making a living off a sixth of an acre,” Leadley says. “I’ve been very pleased — pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve been able to pay myself per hour. We took on an employee. I’m like, ‘OK, We’re a real business now. We have to pay taxes and do things right.’ “
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 farmers 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. The 28-year-old urban farmer persists.
“I hope what I’m doing makes the neighborhood more attractive — that people would want to move into the neighborhood — because, at this point, there is no reason why anyone would want to move into this neighborhood,” she says. “There are no stores besides liquor stores in this entire neighborhood.”
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 farms 12 city lots — about an acre of land.
“I take this whole growing food for my neighbors and friends and other people in the city very seriously,” he says, “and I’m going to eat this stuff, too.”
Willerer’s 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 has been trying to buy the lots from the city of Detroit for more than a year.
“The city could, literally, at any time come in and say, ‘We’re going to develop these lots and you’re going to have to move,’ ” he says.
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 day care 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.
“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,” she says.
City Council member Kenneth Cockrel Jr. says he supports urban agriculture and is hopeful that the council will enact regulations by the end of the year. Yet he says that even now the city has not been issuing violations to urban farmers.
Back in the Farnsworth neighborhood, Andrew Kemp tends 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. The Kemps also get all the eggs they need from four hens that wander around their yard.
“It could never happen in another city. I mean, this is ridiculous to think about this much land,” Kemp says. “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.”