detroit ag

posted April 16, 2010

Community voices  and togetherness matter. Ahee makes it clear in this essay on the meeting of food justice and urban ag in Detroit, in the form of the Hantz project.

In Honor of Self-Determination, by Will Ahee.

            John Hantz envisions farming 10,000 acres in Detroit using the most modern, mechanized methods of farming available.  With the help of Mike Score, an agricultural innovation counselor from MSU, and the tentative support of many within city and state government, not to mention the generally positive press that Hantz has received, this vision might come to be. 

Unlike the RecoveryPark Project, which plans to provide thousands of jobs on 2,000 acres, Hantz’s model is planned to provide a few hundred jobs on 10,000 acres.  However, this is not the main problem with Hantz’s vision.  Nor is the main problem one of dialogue with the community, as Hantz now actually welcomes opportunities to speak in the community.  The problem isn’t that the model is a for-profit model either, as this is actually needed more.  The main problem with Hantz Farms is that it is Hantz’s dream for the city of Detroit, not the multitude of dreams of the many residents of Detroit.

            While his dream may offer some benefits to the city, it is questionable how many benefits it will offer to the city’s residents.  Hantz often speaks about how much benefit will come to the city if he uses 10,000 acres of the city’s more than 30,000 vacant acres.  He doesn’t, however, talk about the benefit that this will offer to Detroiters.  While it may seem like any benefit to the city also benefits the residents, this is actually not always true.  Gentrification is often seen as a benefit to the city, but displaces the residents rather than empowering them.  This brings me to the main problem with Hantz’s vision, it is a problem of power.  Hantz has all of the power.  In the events where he speaks with the public, he is able to dismiss any community concerns, glibly saying, “Reasonable minds can disagree.”  Regardless of how many times he speaks in public and how many concerns are raised, he still holds all the power and he seems unwilling to share that.  It is only through sharing that power that Detroiters can truly benefit.  He could do this in a more long-term vision which helps fund the training of a new generation of urban farmers and provides micro-loans to help them starting up their own small farms in the city.  Instead, he wishes to move quickly and pursue his dream for Detroit. 

            Hantz’s dream may provide certain benefits to the city and even to its residents.  It does, however, fall short of the holistic approach that urban agriculture has been moving towards.  Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, for example, has been addressing racial injustice through its work in urban agriculture, calling into question the racial dynamics of even the non-profits focusing on hunger in the city.  Earthworks Urban Farm, a program of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, has questioned the reason why people are hungry and works towards a situation where there is no longer a need for soup kitchens.  These organizations recognize that urban agriculture needs to address some of the underlying injustices in the food system; that it needs to empower those that have been disempowered over and over again by the conventional food system.  Even more important in this work are those that have started community gardens or those that have started small businesses growing food.  They are the backbone of urban agriculture.  They are the ones that can make a difference in Detroit because they have worked the soil, feeding themselves and others.  They understand the difference between becoming dependent upon one man’s vision for Detroit’s urban farming and becoming self-sufficient and self-determined. 

            Detroit has attempted to achieve self-determination before with very little success, but urban agriculture offers an avenue to achieve it at least a little more.  Detroit is an amazingly inspirational place not because of the beauty in urban decay (as many photographers now attempt to capture) and not even because of the arduous work of non-profits in the city (which reporters continually praise), but because Detroiters are survivors.  Detroiters have made it through a lot and continue on with very little.  In my mind that is the idea of sustainable agriculture right there, doing a lot with a little.  The question we continually ask is how do we provide for the needs of a growing world population with less and less resources.  Instead of giving away 10,000 acres to Hantz for free and with tax incentives, why not experiment by seeing what resourceful Detroit residents can do with that land? 

            In the end, Hantz may be given his 10,000 acres and Detroiters will continue on in the way that they have.  Maybe his project will gentrify areas and Detroiters will be forced to move out of their communities, but they will carry on.   There is strength in Detroit’s survival that cannot be accurately described.  Hantz may not understand this and, if he does, he may not see the connection between this strength and urban agriculture.  However, urban agriculture offers a possibility to harness this strength into something empowering.  If the strength in Detroit meets up with power in even just this one historically disempowering system, then the change will be amazing.  If the best that is done is merely to grow food in the city primarily through one powerful man, then we will have exchanged food for much of the great potential in Detroit.  Hantz may never see this, but those of us who have worked for a greater distribution of power in the food system should support such a sharing of power in Detroit.