At Brother Nature Produce in Corktown, Greg Willerer and Olivia Hubert have farmed much of the land surrounding their home for nearly two decades. But they actually own very little of it.
Willerer and Hubert built farming infrastructure on the land, planted fruit trees knowing it would take at least a few years before they would bear fruit, and the couple cleared nearby lots and alleys of blocks of concrete, fallen trees and illegally dumped trash.
The urban farmers, who primarily grow and sell salad mixes to city-based restaurants like Chartreuse and FOLK, have improved safety in the community, as acknowledged by the North Corktown Neighborhood Association. As regular Saturday vendors at Eastern Market for more than 15 years, they’re committed community members, helping other Detroit farms get started and beautifying vacant lots in Corktown. But despite Brother Nature’s long-term commitment to the neighborhood and the land, the family was repeatedly denied in its attempts to purchase abandoned lots next to their home. The struggle mirrors the experience other urban farmers across the city have long faced.
After more than a decade, the Detroit Land Bank Authority now has agreed to sell Brother Nature 10 lots for $71,000. But because the deal is for so many lots, the sale needs the approval of the Detroit City Council. The proposal is first expected to be reviewed by a city council subcommittee.
“This is a family initiative. They are a for-profit business raising a family in this neighborhood, supporting a family off of the goods that they grow and sell,” said Jerry Hebron, co-founder of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit, noting the couple’s lengthy commitment to Corktown.
The risk is if they’re not able to secure the land, then they could potentially become displaced,” Hebron said.
Willerer told BridgeDetroit that “everything would be a lot more productive” if the urban farm is able to gain ownership of the additional parcels of land.
Although they have a robust farm now, Willerer said ownership of the land will enable Brother Nature to really promote local food in Detroit by producing larger quantities and more varieties of food and reducing the amount of produce Detroit has to import. Another big plus of owning the land is that it makes the farm eligible for various U.S. Department of Agriculture services and grants.
With the land under the farm’s ownership, Willerer and Hubert would be able to extend their growing season several months by building more hoop houses and greenhouses that create warmer temperatures. They would plant black locust trees along the perimeter of some of the lots for “coppicing,” a forestry technique where wood is harvested from live trees. And the now 20-tree fruit orchard would be expanded throughout the farm, with a fruit tree planted every 15 feet along the sidewalk. Through all the expansion goals, they said they hope to employ even more Detroiters with good-paying jobs, while creating a self-sustaining farm and community.
Brother Nature has been trying to buy land surrounding the farm since before Detroit’s land bank formed in 2010, when vacant lots were sold through the city’s real estate department. For years, Willerer said, he and other farmers would go to the real estate office and fill out applications to buy land, but were unsuccessful.
“The city didn’t really want to sell to farmers,” he said.
Like Brother Nature, other farmers in Detroit have expressed trouble at purchasing land over the years, including Mark Covington at Georgia Street Community Collective, Hebron at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, and Erin Cole of Nurturing Our Seeds. Farmers say that the process has been confusing at times and opaque, and in some cases farmers argue that they were denied because their farms didn’t fit in with the city’s development vision.
“Many of our farmers have experienced any number of issues with the City of Detroit, the Detroit land bank, in terms of land acquisition,” said Hebron, who also co-leads the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, an organization created to help Black farmers overcome barriers to purchasing land. Hebron said many Detroit farmers have struggled to buy land, especially prior to 2013, before urban farming was legalized through the city’s urban agriculture ordinance.
After the land bank formed, Brother Nature bought several side lots. The farm requested to buy more lots in 2013, but Willerer said the land bank offered them random lots that the farm wasn’t growing on, including one that had been used as a gravel parking lot, and wasn’t suitable for farming.
Then, about two years ago, Willerer said the land bank made him another offer to purchase nine surrounding lots for $90,000, but with a clause that, if purchased, the urban farm couldn’t sell the lots for 100 years.
“It was just weird,” he said.
Brother Nature sent a letter to the land bank with the help of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund stating that the land bank didn’t have the legal basis to make such a clause. Afterward, the land bank agreed to reduce the clause from 100 years to five years, and prorated the sale of the land for what it would have cost when Brother Nature first tried to buy it a decade ago. The land bank and Brother Nature agreed on 10 lots on Elm, Vermont and Temple for $71,000, he said.
Antonisha Smith, a spokesperson for the land bank, told BridgeDetroit that it isn’t uncommon for land banks to have similar stipulations in their purchase agreements. Smith could not confirm whether the land bank has any other contracts with ownership stipulations as long as 100 years.
Smith was unable to provide further context because much of the land bank staff that coordinated with Willerer in the past has left, she said.
“It is always our goal to be transparent and to be a good neighbor in the community,” Smith said. “We’re all in this knowing that perhaps everyone who’s encountered the land bank did not necessarily have a good experience in the past. We are certainly trying to work toward improving our relationship with the community partners and citizens to ensure that we are being a good steward.”
Willerer attributes the success to a shift within the land bank, due in part to Detroit’s farming stalwarts. In Detroit, more than 2,000 urban farmers and growers have provided local and healthy food for decades to fill access gaps left by limited grocery stores and transportation. The farmers have stewarded formerly blighted, vacant lots, transforming them into abundant sources of food. They’ve promoted food sovereignty and sustainable farming in the city, despite institutional barriers. Nationally, the city has been recognized for its ever growing local food system, which will soon include a cooperatively owned grocery store that will source from local farmers and the USDA’s first office of urban agriculture.
“The fact that we’ve been doing all of this heavy lifting for so long in the city, they couldn’t ignore us anymore,” Willerer said.
Mark Covington, founder of Georgia Street Community Collective, said he was pleased to hear the news about Brother Nature’s expansion. Covington’s origins are similar: he started farming on vacant, blighted lots years ago and formed the Georgia Street Community Collective. But he struggled to buy the land, until just a few years ago. To avoid going through the city council approval process, Covington said he limited his purchase to nine lots; anything over that, he noted, requires council approval.
Covington said he first met the Brother Nature team in the early days of their farming operation, when Brother Nature had just one greenhouse. Covington said Brother Nature’s expansion is exciting for the future of urban farming in the city and increasing economic growth in the arena.
“I hope they get it,” Covington said of the land, “I don’t see why they wouldn’t.”
Hebron said it’s “staggering” that it’s now up to the city council to dissect the proposal to sell Brother Nature the land after the family’s lengthy investment in the property and community.
“Are they (the council) going to approve it? If they don’t approve it, what next?,” asked Hebron. “I think that it’s going to answer the question for us here in the urban ag[riculture] community as to how valuable the city views the work that we contribute.”