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Detroit leads the way in urban farming

Detroit is ideal for urban farming, with the city beginning to provide a model for the world.

By David RunkAssociated Press writer / April 28, 2010

This is the Lots O' Greens neighborhood garden in Detroit, The city, which revolutionized manufacturing with its auto assembly lines, could once again be a model for the world as residents transform vacant, often-blighted land into a source of fresh food.

Carlos Osorio/AP

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DETROIT

Detroit, which revolutionized manufacturing with its auto assembly lines, could once again be a model for the world as residents transform vacant, often-blighted land into a source of fresh food.

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With growing interest in locally raised food, cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle are looking at ways to foster and manage urban agriculture. San Francisco's mayor has proposed creating community gardens on vacant public land citywide.

But no city seems to have as much potential for urban farming as Detroit, where land is cheap, empty lots are plentiful, and residents are desperate for jobs. The number of community gardens has been growing each year, and bigger, commercial agriculture could be coming as city planners draw up land use rules for farming.

Vacant land to be put to good use

"Most other cities aren't quite ready to think about large-scale agriculture," said Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms, which has plans to create the world's largest urban farm in the city. "We have vacant land and that used to be something that we were ashamed of."

Decades of population decline left Detroit with an estimated 40 square miles — more than 25,000 acres — of vacant property, and gardens have sprung up on empty lots in many neighborhoods. Often, they are just a few rows of greens and tomatoes. Others are more akin to small farms and include lots next to homes where pigs or goats roam behind fences and honeybees buzz.

The vacant property in Detroit covers nearly the same space as the entire city of San Francisco. New York, which has more than twice as much land as Detroit, has only an estimated 11,000 vacant acres, according to its planning department.

Farming was a big part of Detroit from the 1700s until the early 20th century, when a building boom pushed most agriculture outside the city limits.

Is bigger better?

This year, Detroit could again see commercial crops. Hantz Farms is in talks with the state to use 40 acres of the state fairgrounds for a demonstration farm before expanding to other parts of the city. It plans tightly packed rows and greenhouses, where it will raise fruit and vegetables as well as plants for landscaping. Less lucrative commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat aren't part of the plan.

John Hantz, a Detroit resident who runs a network of financial services businesses, has promised to invest $30 million in the project aimed at creating jobs, providing fresh food to residents, and making the city a leader in urban farming.

The plan has sparked some skepticism among the community growers who have been the driving force behind agriculture in Detroit. Hantz Farms says there's room in the 139-square-mile city to coexist, but community activists worry that a bigger, for-profit venture might not benefit Detroit residents.