Building Agricultural Neighborhoods in Detroit

Urban 'agrihood' addresses food insecurity, provides economic opportunity, and builds community in historic Michigan neighborhood.

A decade ago, a resurgence of urban gardens and farms sprouted a new agricultural trend around the country. And while many of them continue to thrive, in the past five years, another trend has entered the urban agricultural scene: agrihoods, short for agricultural neighborhoods.

Photo courtesy of Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.
Agrihoods typically cater to affluent millennials in rural and suburban communities. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (pictured) is different, and calls itself America’s first sustainable urban agrihood. Photo courtesy of Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.

The term, trademarked in 2014 by Southern California-based development company Rancho Mission Viejo, is a real estate brand that — different from urban gardening — centers agriculture in neighborhoods, and is mostly targeted at affluent millennials, who are increasingly considering proximity to fresh and “clean” foods in their homebuying decisions. The Urban Land Institute defines agrihoods as master-planned housing communities with working farms as their focus. Overwhelmingly, they have large swaths of green space, orchards, hoop houses, and greenhouses, and some with barns, outdoor community kitchens, and environmentally sustainable homes decked with solar panels and composting.

Agrihoods, which number about 90 nationwide, are typically in rural and suburban areas — with some near large urban centers such as Phoenix, Colorado, and Atlanta — replacing previous generations’ desire for the lush green acres of golf communities. They’re newer communities with homes that cost $300,000 to $700,000, but can be in the millions such as those in the Walden Monterey community in the Bay Area. At Walden Monterey, luxury amenities are expected where lots start at $5 million each.

Instead of living on or near a golf course, San Francisco’s tech giants can live near a unique farm-to-table agrihood, where they walk out their front doors to pick the fixings for their avocado toast.

But a new type of agrihood has emerged.

Within the city of Detroit, home to nearly 1,400 community gardens and farms, there is one officially designated agrihood, Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. The nonprofit in the North End neighborhood, just north of the recently gentrified Midtown area, calls itself America’s First Sustainable Urban Agrihood.

It was founded in 2012 and gained its development designation in 2016.

Co-founder Tyson Gersh said at the time, “Over the last four years, we’ve grown from an urban garden that provides fresh produce for our residents to a diverse, agricultural campus that has helped sustain the neighborhood, attracted new residents and area investment.” They’ve received corporate support from Target, BASF, and General Motors.

The Michigan initiative is a 3-acre farm focusing on food insecurity in one of Detroit’s historic communities that was once home to a thriving Black middle class. Now the median home value is under $25,000, and about 35 percent of the residents are homeowners.

The Detroit agrihood model plans to provide a Community Resource Center with educational programs and meeting space across from the garden, a café, and two commercial kitchens.

“For us, food insecurity is the biggest issue,” says, Quan Blunt, the Michigan initiative’s farm manager. “The closest [fresh] produce store to this neighborhood is Whole Foods [4 miles away in Midtown], and you know how expensive they can be.”

MUFI grows lots of hot peppers and collard greens, because that is what North Enders like, Blunt says. But they’re also an economic opportunity. At MUFI, one of their sustainability goals is to create hot sauces from their fresh peppers to sell. The farm also has rows and rows of other vegetable varieties all dotted with marigolds, which help keep bugs away, organically.

Blunt, who joined the Peace Corps after college to do food security work in India, was born and raised in Detroit, and is proud of the agricultural heritage passed down through his family.

My grandmother grew up in this neighborhood,” says Blunt, a graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture who majored in Food Science and Environmental Studies. Growing up in Detroit, labeled a “food desert,” was a major motivation for Blunt to enter the agricultural field. “People deserve fresh food,” Blunt says, “I believe good nutrition can help people reach their potential.”

Blunt says MUFI recognizes the importance of being a part of the community, and works closely with the North End Block Club. MUFI has served them in ways such as neighborhood cleanups, he says. With a trip to the farm, one can see that the grass is neatly manicured, even at abandoned property near the area.

“Community members can use our tools, our lawnmower,” Blunt says. “Whenever we get large numbers of volunteers [for the farm], we go first to the block club president to see what she needs done. The goal here is to strengthen the community.”

At MUFI, produce is free to all. The farm is open for harvesting on Saturday mornings.

The free-food concept has been a topic of debate within urban farming communities, particularly those whose focus is food sovereignty, controlling the means of one’s own food production and distribution.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network has spent more than a decade working toward this end. The community-based nonprofit membership organization recently celebrated 13 years of service to the city. The Detroit network operates D-Town Farm, the largest of the Detroit’s gardens and farms, on the city’s west side.

“[At D Town] we are most interested in fostering self-determination,” the network’s executive director Malik Yakini says.

The 7-acre farm grows more than 30 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs, which are sold at local farmers markets and to wholesale customers at the farm. It employs five people part time, and hosts up to 40 to 50 volunteers weekly during the busy summer months.

“Urban agriculture is not a one size fits all venture,” Yakini says. “There are various motivations behind it.”

Some folks are trying to improve food insecurity and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and some do it because they think it is a good community exercise, he says.

“Our purpose is to get Black people working on their own behalf,” Yakini explains. “That is not to say that garden leadership has to be exclusively Black, but in a majority Black city [which Detroit is], we hope that the gardening organizations reflect the population.” For Yakini, building gardens in Detroit is to build economic and environmental justice as well.

Oakland Avenue Urban Farm — also in the North End, and a neighbor of MUFI — sells its produce as well, and products created from that produce, such as their delicious fruit jam, Afro Jam. But Jerry Ann Hebron, the Oakland farm’s executive director, allows bartering for volunteer hours or service to the farm.

At Oakland Avenue, community events are frequent. Farm-to-table dinners, parties, and other opportunities to gather is a priority. “The Oakland Avenue corridor, historically, was important to Detroit,” Hebron explains. The neighborhood was the northern extension of the historic Hastings Street, where Black entrepreneurship prospered. “And because it is where we chose to do this work, it was important to have a space that is for the community and they could feel connected to.”

Detroit’s agricultural neighborhoods, whether or not branded as an “agrihood,” are attractions for newcomers to the city. Gardens, to some, signal safety in a city that has for many years been labeled as “the most dangerous” or “most violent” for many years. And as more transplants make Detroit home, the hundreds of acres of vacant land across the sprawling 139-square-foot city are prime real estate opportunities for new developments.

Real estate entrepreneur and investor Rondre’ “Key” Brooks says as he sells homes to clients he finds that they are not just looking to buy a home, but to buy into a neighborhood and community.

“Agricultural neighborhoods bring a different look and feel to the community,” Brooks says. “While there are the obvious healthy lifestyle benefits, they also create a more appealing environment.”

For MUFI’s Quan Blunt, Detroit’s embrace of agriculture paints an optimistic picture, “Air quality would go up. Nutrition would improve,” he says wistfully, “What a city Detroit could be.”

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