by Malik Yakini
When the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) was founded in February 2006, it was, in many ways, the outgrowth of earlier work at Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered school that involved students, staff and parents in gardening and thinking more deeply about how we exert greater control over the system that provides our food. The newly formed DBCFSN established as its mission to build self-reliance, food security and justice in Detroit’s Black community, by influencing public policy, engaging in urban agriculture, promoting healthy eating, encouraging cooperative buying and directing youth towards careers in food-related fields.
Establishing a farm was one of our main goals. In 2006 we spent the year at a location near Gratiot and McClellan, and the following year on Collingwood and Cascade. After two years of negotiations with the City of Detroit came to fruition in June 2008, D-Town Farm began operating at our current location in Rouge Park. Former Councilmember JoAnn Watson championed our work, opening doors to what would eventually become a ten-year license agreement with the City Recreation Department to farm two-acres in Rouge Park. In 2011, our license-agreement was amended to add an additional five acres.
In our nine years at the Rouge Park location, with the visioning and work of dozens of people, we have made tremendous strides. We have installed four hoop houses, a tool shed, deer fencing around the perimeter of the farm, a 40,000 gallon rainwater retention pond, an 8 kilowatt off-grid solar energy station, a large scale composting operation, an apiary, and a children’s area.
In 2017, we grew more than 30 different crops, including snow peas, red onions, scallions, leeks, spinach, two kinds of kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnips, garlic, four kinds of tomatoes, ground cherries, four kinds of peppers, romaine lettuce, spring salad mix, two kinds of corn, two kinds of watermelons, raspberries, blackberries, zucchini, yellow crook-neck squash, beets, carrots, green beans, red and green okra, two kinds of cabbage, parsley, cilantro, basil and lemongrass. We recently planted blueberries that we expect to start bearing fruit next year.
While we are producing tons of high quality, fresh, hyper-local produce, D-Town Farm is more than a production farm. It is also an educational institution and family-friendly outdoor community space. This year we sponsored the following events designed to engage community members.
May – Third Annual BioBlitz
Faculty and graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources, and community scientists, equipped with microscopes, photos, nets and specimen bags and jars led about 75 young people through the farm identifying various flora, fauna and fungi.
June– Wild Herb Walk
Naturopathic Dr. Jesse Brown walked participants though the farm identifying culinary and medicinal herbs.
July – Harvesting Health Bazaar
Participants experienced vendors of health products, yoga, meditation and a food demonstration. Two women farmers from Malawi, accompanied by author/activist Raj Patel, shared their experiences with climate change and with using food to change gender roles.
August – Third Annual Children’s Day
This event included a farm tour, pizza baking in our earth oven, arts and crafts and other fun, food-related activities.
September – 11th Annual Harvest Festival
Our major event of the year attracts hundreds of community members. The festival features learnshops, community discussions, live music, a farmers’ market, food vendors, yoga, meditation, farm tours, horse rides and a children’s area.
Our work at D-Town Farm is significant because it models African American community members working together to grow food, learn and share agricultural knowledge and practices, practice self-governance, practice self and community healing and develop a deeper connection to land.
Each year, we give farm tours to hundreds of people from Detroit, throughout the United States and around the world. We have been invited to share our work at many national and international gatherings. The farm tours and speaking engagements provide us with the platform to not only share our agricultural practices, but to share the ideas that frame and guide our work. Some of those ideas are:
- Community self-determination – Communities have the right and responsibility to determine what their own interests are and to implement plans to meet those interests. We push back strongly against visions, goals or plans being imposed on communities by outside forces or by newly arriving gentrifiers.
- Re-framing of agricultural work in the Black community – Unfortunately, many descendants of enslaved Africans in the western hemisphere view agriculture through the lens of enslavement or share cropping, systems that exploited Black labor and genius to create wealth for already wealthy Whites. Part of our job is to reframe agriculture work as an act of self-determination that has the potential for collective community upliftment.
- Our sharp critique of the systems of oppression – While we are advancing a pro-Black vision for the future that is rooted in justice and equity, we are also acutely aware that our efforts are challenging the existing systems of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy. We take every opportunity to call out those systems and to challenge ourselves and others on ways in which we have internalized ideas about ourselves and the world we live in that are shaped by those systems of oppression. Decolonizing our minds is a fundamental aspect of our work.
- Ecological stewardship – Perhaps the greatest crisis facing humanity, the earth and the plants and animals with whom we co-inhabit the earth, is climate chaos. We advocate for and use agricultural practices that are regenerative. We model water conservation and sustainable energy usage.
While we engage in this work, we are confronted with many challenges, tensions and contradictions. Here are some lessons that I have learned from doing this work.
- Healing and personal transformation have to be a central part of our work. We bring ourselves with us wherever we go. Often, our organizational efforts are impeded by egos, insecurity, jealousy, greed, distrust and individualism more so than by the external forces that oppose us. While we work to build a new society, we must transform ourselves.
- Our efforts to develop an efficient people’s democracy in governing the farm are important but imperfect. We are striving to create an environment where all voices of those doing the work are heard and valued. We are challenged because true democracy takes time. Issues have to be discussed and debated. Farming is time sensitive. Too much discussion and debate can cause us to miss planting windows. We have to do more work on balancing those two considerations.
- If our movement is going to be a microcosm of the just and equitable society that we wish to bring into being, disability justice must be a critical part of our work. Farms and gardens must begin to think about and act on how to become accessible to and inclusive of all community members.
- Zero carbon-footprint, manual approaches to farming are better for the soil health and the environment. However, as the scale of farming increases, we have to weigh the time it takes to complete jobs manually versus the time it takes using appropriate level technology. For example, preparing growing beds with a manual broadfork does less damage to soil structure than a tiller, but a tiller can do the job in 1/10th the time. We are often forced to weigh and balance the competing considerations of environmental health and sustainability, number of hours and cost of labor, and planting deadlines.
- The concept of private land ownership is very much a part of the western colonial concept and is a pillar of capitalism that continues to concentrate wealth in the hands of already wealthy white men. As we move towards creating more just and equitable societies, this practice should be reconsidered. However, within the context of the existing society, “owning” the land is usually the only way that farmers can have any long-term security— one of many contradictions that we must face as we move from where we are, to the idealized society that we envision. We should advocate for City policies that put land in the hands of residents instead of favoring John Hantz, Dan Gilbert, the Illitches and other wealthy developers.
- The chief dilemma facing the food movement is how to provide access to healthy, high-quality food for all, regardless of income, while at the same time paying workers within the food system a fair and livable wage. The current industrial food system is able to sell food at prices that do not reflect the true cost of its production. Migrant farm workers are often exploited, many large-scale farmers receive huge government subsidies, the industrial farming model uses huge amounts of water and does significant damage to the environment (externalized costs). While it seems almost counter intuitive, cheap food is not the answer. There is a cost associated with paying workers fairly and farming sustainably. The movement for food sovereignty must be wedded to the movement to eradicate poverty so that everyone has the income to buy good food. Of course, home and community gardens that decommodify produce should be encouraged.
- While there are more are more than 1,600 gardens and farms in Detroit, we have not sufficiently developed the infrastructure necessary to allow local growers to participate, in a more robust way, in the local food economy. The middle layers of the community-based food system need development. Specifically, we need more wash, pack, and cool stations, refrigerated trucks and aggregation centers. Currently Detroit growers are producing less than 5% of the produce consumed in Detroit. We have tremendous room for growth. That growth has the possibility of serving as a major community-based economic driver.
D-Town Farm and other participants in Detroit urban agriculture have great potential to advance the movement by:
o Fostering collective visioning, planning and work
o Redefining how urban land is used
o Modeling anti-racist practice
o Serving as the foundation for a locally-controlled economy that meets our own needs and circulates wealth in our community
o Fostering healing through deeper relationships with the earth
The movement for food sovereignty, if it is to spur a fundamental change, must be intentionally linked to the struggles for racial justice and equity, livable wages, gender equality, land justice, community-control of schools, self-rule and against police murder and abuse. Simply growing good produce will not, in and of itself, end our oppression. As my friend, activist/scholar Raj Patel, said, “Local food, tastes great! Won’t end white supremacy!”
Malik Yakini serves as executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He is a longtime community activist, institution builder and musician.