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Urban Agriculture as Job Creators

Something Amazing is Happening in Detroit

Something strange is going on in downtown Detroit. People are growing things again.

In fact, the burgeoning urban farm movement in the Motor City has attracted the attention of Bloomberg News, when correspondent Alan Bjerga traveled to profile Greg Willerer of Brother Nature Farms:

“For all intents and purposes, there is no government here,” said Willerer, 43, checking the greens and other crops he is growing on an acre off Rosa Parks Boulevard, across from an abandoned house with broken windows. “If something were to happen we have to handle that ourselves.”
Of course the story of young idealists growing veggies on abandoned lots has been around a while, and MNN has explored the Detroit urban farming scene too. But what is becoming abundantly clear, and is touched on in Bjerga’s interviews with community leaders, economic development specialists and academics, is that this isn’t simply a few hipsters indulging a utopianist fantasy:

Converting some of that land to farming could clean up blight and grow jobs, regional officials say. With sufficient consumer demand and the emergence of a local food-processing industry, 4,700 jobs and $20 million in business taxes could be generated, according to a 2009 study.“It will help,” said Mike DiBernardo, an economic development specialist with Michigan’s agriculture department. “We have so much blighted land that we can create opportunities for entrepreneurs, and we can give people in the community something to be excited about.”

Urban farmers are busy growing solutions to deep seated urban problems. And planners and policy makers are beginning to take note.

Hotbed of ingenuity

This is a story that’s playing out in fits and starts, and in various different guises, around the world. The New York Times recently ran an article on how Jamaica is combating food insecurity through backyard farming and school gardens. Meanwhile high-tech rooftop farms and former warehouses turned aquaponic farms are springing up in cities across America. Only yesterday I was talking to a representative of Raleigh City Farm here in North Carolina, who noted how businesses were coming back to the shop fronts around their once abandoned lot. (The farm is cooperating closely with property owners and businesses in the area, with an aim to maximizing potential synergies.)

These ventures are creating real jobs, and making fresh food available, in neighborhoods that have often been neglected by planners. True, it’s unlikely that urban agriculture will ever compete with its rural counterpart in terms of sheer volume of food grown or conomies of scale — but it doesn’t have to.

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Successful urban farmers are nimble, resourceful and thrifty as heck — utilizing waste resources from the urban environment, and taking advantage of their small scale to reduce the need for mechanization and/or expensive chemical inputs — replacing them instead with human labor and ingenuity, both in ready supply in the city.

Here’s a video from 2011 on the aforementioned Brother Nature Farms, made by the inimitable Perennial Plate. Note how Greg Willerer is collecting “donations” of soil (and future soil!) from zoos, hotels and coffee shops around him. That’s not corporate philanthropy at work — it’s businesses investing in the community around them because they expect to see a return.

If the Bloomberg article is anything to go by, they already have.

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