Great Potential for Urban Agriculture in Detroit

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Mike Hamm (view larger image)

The Detroit of the 1950s is not the Detroit of today. As a thriving city of 2 million people, Detroit’s 139,000 square miles of land worked in 1950. Flash forward 60 years and Detroit still has an infrastructure designed for 2 million people with a population just under 1 million. What should be done with all the extra space?
Kirk Heinze, former MAES scientist and host of Greening of the Great Lakes on WJR, sat down with MAES researcher Mike Hamm on Jan. 22 to answer this question. Hamm holds the C.S. Mott Chair for Sustainable Agriculture and leads the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU. He’s been working on a way to use that land to develop an urban agriculture system in Detroit.

Hamm is working with Kathryn Colasanti, a graduate student who analyzed Detroit’s publically-owned space. She discovered about 9 square miles of empty available land within city limits. If her study included land with abandoned buildings, that space would be doubled or tripled, Hamm said. Hamm and Colasanti determined that with 2,000 acres Detroit could produce up to 75 percent of the vegetables and about 50 percent of the fruit needed for 900,000 people.

Michigan State University Extension has teamed up with the Greening of Detroit and the Detroit Agriculture Network to create the Garden Resource Collaborative. The program works with community gardeners and is currently working on ways to seed 1- to 3-acre farms in the city.

But Hamm knows turning Detroit into an agricultural hub isn’t going to be easy.

“If you think of 2,000 acres and you think of 3 acres, it would take 700 new farmers—and my personal opinion is in the next 10 years it’d be difficult, if not impossible to generate that many farmers inside Detroit,” Hamm said.

Hamm suggested different scales of agriculture will be needed to reach the 2,000-acre goal. Two companies are looking at creating 30- 40-acre farms. These larger scale farms would complement medium- and small-scale farms to realistically reach 2,000 acres, Hamm said.

But adding large scale farms to a city environment presents other issues, including soil quality and conservation.

“That’s where I think the research of the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station becomes so important,” Hamm said. “How would we check for that? How would we monitor that? How would we reduce the contamination, where it’s possible on a scale where you can’t just dig and replace? So research becomes important in terms of bioremediation techniques and large-scale testing techniques where you can use statistical sampling and ensure the safety of the food for the public down the road.”

Click on the arrow below to hear part one of Hamm’s Jan. 22, 2010 Greening of the Great Lakes conversation.

Click on the arrow below to hear part two of Hamm’s Jan. 22, 2010 Greening of the Great Lakes conversation.

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