Jerry Hebron, executive director of Oakland Avenue Urban Farms in Detroit’s North End neighborhood, said during a news conference Thursday, August 31, 2023, that the position will improve efforts to support city farming projects. (City of Detroit)

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan plans to hire a director of urban agriculture to support farming initiatives in the city. 

Duggan announced his intentions during a Thursday press conference focused on his land value tax proposal, which included a carve-out to ensure taxes aren’t raised on urban farms and community gardens. 

Jerry Hebron, executive director of Oakland Avenue Urban Farms in Detroit’s North End neighborhood, said the position will improve efforts to support city farming projects. 

“There is going to be representation from our community working with the mayor’s office and the city of Detroit to continue to raise the awareness of how important urban agriculture is,” Hebron said. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last year that it would open an office in Detroit dedicated to supporting local farmers. A USDA spokesperson said the office – the first USDA service center of any kind in the city of Detroit – will improve access to technical assistance, cost sharing programs and low-interest financing for farms and ranches. The closest USDA service centers are located in Ann Arbor and East Lansing.

Mario Cambardella became the urban agriculture director for the city of Atlanta in 2018, the first position of its kind in the country. Cambardella said people typically believe the federal government should be the first to invest in urban farming initiatives, but he said it should start at the local level. 

Following the creation of his position, several other cities created similar urban agriculture positions, including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston. 

“I see that as a groundswell of local governance coming to the table and saying ‘this is important,’” Cambardela said. 

Detroit is renowned as a fertile place for urban agriculture, but a University of Michigan analysis of land use on the city’s lower east side near the Detroit River found community and private gardens occupy less than 1% of the vacant land. The 2022 study recommended scattering future gardens across the landscape, rather than clustering them in a few places.

U-M researchers studied 38,541 parcels of land in neighborhoods representing 10% of the city’s total land area. Increasing agricultural development could improve access to healthy food in  under-resourced communities and bring other benefits like reducing stormwater runoff and neighborhood blight, the study said. 

However, small-scale urban gardening is vibrant across the city, which hosted 2,029 gardens in 2022, according to the nonprofit group Keep Growing Detroit. Those included 1,433 family, 383 community, 120 school, and 93 market gardens. That’s up from just a few hundred in 2006 when the organization began tracking urban agriculture activity in the city. 

Recent efforts within the urban agriculture community have sought to increase access to farming for Detroiters of color. The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, launched in 2020 by The Detroit Black Food Security Network, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, and Keep Growing Detroit, has raised funds to help Black Detroiters buy land to farm in the city. To date, 53 recipients have purchased a combined 15.5 acres.

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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