A Brief History of Urban Agriculture in Detroit: Looking Back while Moving Ahead

by Tepfirah Rushdan


Detroit has long been a national leader in urban agriculture. According to Keep Growing Detroit, an organization whose mission is to promote a food-sovereign city, nearly 1,600 gardens signed up to receive seeds, plants and support for their spaces through the Garden Resource Program in 2017. With each garden engaging an average of 10+ people, the number of Detroiters exposed to urban agriculture rises to close to 20,000 residents. How did we get here? To understand the present, we are compelled to peek into the past to uncover the roots of this movement and perhaps understand current struggles in a different light.


The native nations of what we now call Detroit were cultivating the land thousands of years ago. The Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, as well as Ojibwe and Potawatomi peoples, all had strong ties to the land and were cultivating crops such as squash, maize, sunflower, melons and beans thousands of years prior to French colonization. After a series of wars, some instigated by the French, between different native tribes and also against French settlers, Detroit was formally established as a city in 1701. Its founder, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, began to issue land grants to French farmers for parcels of land known as ‘ribbon farms.’  As long as French colonists adhered to a certain set of rules, they were granted lands free of charge surrounding the fort.


Most ribbon farms were strips of land 200 feet wide and about 4,000 feet deep, with the narrow end extending from the Detroit River to what is known today as Jefferson Avenue. Property lines were divided by ditches. The tiny strips were designed so that each farmer would have access to the riverfront. You may recognize the names of some of these original grant holders: Elijah Brush, Pierre Riopelle, M. St. Aubin, Robert Chene, Antoine Beaubien, John Moran, Antoine De Quindre and Michael Campau. Although Native Americans far outnumbered Europeans at this time, as a result of wars, disputes among the native tribes, and broken treaties, many lost their lands and farms to the white settlers who began to occupy the region. By the War of 1812, ribbon farm land grants extended all the way to Belle Isle and surrounded Fort Shelby. The colonists were amassing wealth and power through land ownership, displacing indigenous people.


This is a brief description of a long and complicated history of cultures colliding right here on and over Detroit soil. It is a telling story, though. Land equals power, and the slow but sure capture of lands by foreign regimes foreshadowed strategies employed today to dispossess longstanding Detroiters of their land and property through foreclosure, and to shift the power dynamics in our city. What’s worse is that for many urban farmers today, purchasing land has been a struggle as opposed to the land grants freely given in colonial times. Today, those settler land grants seem eerily like the employee incentive packages offered by many large corporations – offering free housing to their “peeps,” while life-long residents can’t even purchase one abandoned, overgrown lot.


Many farmers just want healthy food for their bellies and to share with their neighbors or community — and perhaps have a few extra dollars from produce sales. For much of Detroit’s history, the city actually was in full support of urban agriculture as a way to address poverty and hunger. Public money and policies went to support urban farms. For instance, Detroit’s forty-third mayor, Hazen Pingree, was in office during the depression of 1893. He greatly expanded public welfare programs and gained national attention for what he called  “Pingree’s Potato Patches.” The program converted unused land owned by the city to productive fields that could both feed and employ people. Pingree’s program has been credited as the first urban gardening program in the nation and inspired other cities like New York and Chicago to start similar vacant lot programs to address poverty.


In fact, there may have been a pattern of urban agriculture booming during economic downturns. The next major urban agriculture program in Detroit emerged during the Great Depression of 1931, which left thousands jobless.  The Detroit Thrift Gardens program was formed by the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee, and was an attempt to address hunger and poverty in the city. Unlike the original potato patch program, gardeners in the thrift program took a pledge not to sell any of their produce and had to track how much their families ate. The Detroit Thrift Gardens leased 300 acres of land, and provided seeds to over 2,000 gardens.


By World War I, over a third of Detroit’s population were immigrants, bringing with them significant contributions to the food and culture of our city. From the end of the war till the 1970s, Detroit’s African-American community soared as thousands migrated up north from farmland down South, fleeing oppressive, systemic racism and in search of the consistent wages to be found in the northern factories. Many of the black liberation organizations of the 1960’s and 70’s originated in Detroit and other prominent northern urban cities, and some of these groups called for acquisition of land as an essential objective. The primary goals of the Republic of New Afrika, for example, were reparations for African Americans and the formation of a separate country consisting of five southern states. This vision was first voiced at the Black Government Conference held here in Detroit. In 1969, James Forman, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), convened the Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, where over 100 Detroiters signed a Declaration of Independence. The first tenet of their manifesto called for $2 million to go to African-American farmers and the development of African-American farm lands.


The Black Panther Party ran one of the first food justice programs, offering free breakfasts for youth.  Also during this time, Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, wrote a book on healthy eating entitled How to Eat to Live.  He encouraged Nation of Islam members to farm, and they eventually established two large farms, one in Michigan and another in Georgia. Both of these movement organizations understood the importance of land and food to repairing African-American communities, establishing a national identity, and bolstering self sufficiency.  


In 1974, Detroit saw its first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, whose family migrated to Detroit from Alabama. Mayor Young had a strong appreciation for farm living. Wanting to address vacancy in the city and rising food prices, he instituted the Farm-A-Lot Program, which gave gardeners a lease on property, seeds, and tilling support, as well as classes at neighborhood city halls. Farm-A-Lot director Ann Beser said that an unexpected benefit of the program was the cooperation and unity developed among its participants. Over five-hundred lots were farmed, and in 1975 the City offered 1000 lots.


After the success of the Farm-A-Lot Program, Detroit was one of six cities awarded a USDA grant to establish cooperative extension services. The 4H-Center on Gratiot was created next door to the first certified organic farm in the city, Vandalia Farms.


In the early 90’s, community organizer and gardener Gerald Hairston, who was affiliated with 4H, the Boggs Center, the Detroit Summer program, and Genesis Hope Church, helped form the Gardening Angels and a group of farmers in the city called the Detroit Agriculture Network.


By 1993, many city services were underfunded and cut, including the Farm-a-Lot Program. The Detroit Agriculture Network partnered with a number of other farm organizations in the city to find ways to sustain programming that the city could no longer support, including passing out seeds, tilling gardens and teaching garden classes. The program formed was called the Garden Resource Program, which is presently coordinated by Keep Growing Detroit. Each year to this day, the garden resource program distributes seeds and transplants to its members, teaches over 50 gardening classes, and helps coordinate the Grown in Detroit cooperative of farmers selling at Eastern Market and restaurants specializing in local produce. Urban agriculture was recently recognized by the city and made legal in 2013 with the passage of the Urban Agriculture Ordinance.   


Today gardens and farms dot our city from small backyard plots to one of the largest farms in Detroit, the seven-acre D-Town Farm. The success in Detroit’s gardening community has deep roots in our history. Many folks visit urban gardens to see the possibilities of addressing poverty and food access. Some are social justice-minded, some are nature lovers, environmentalists, and local “foodavores.”  Whatever brings us to urban farming, it’s important to frame what we are doing today by acknowledging those who came before us. Understanding our history gives us a different perspective on today and tomorrow.


Tepfirah Rushdan, aka “Tee”, is a native Detroiter who has combined her love for people and nature through many projects in Detroit including developing conservation skills in youth, vacant land remediation, farmer training programs, wild edible walks, community gardening and climate change/resiliency research. Former Urban Roots graduate, she has also held a seat on The Detroit Food Policy Council and helped guide the work of the Uprooting Racism Planting Justice Initiative. She served as Director of Urban Agriculture at the Greening of Detroit and currently works with Keep Growing Detroit providing resources and technical assistance to hundreds of gardens in the city through the Garden Resource Program. She also helped complete the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey of 2009 mapping acres of vacant land in Detroit.  


3 Replies to “A Brief History of Urban Agriculture in Detroit: Looking Back while Moving Ahead”

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