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Environmental > Stir It Up

Greens and greenbacks

 

Published 2/25/2009

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Gardening was probably the last thing on the minds of most folks around here last Saturday when heavy snow cut fantasies of an early spring as short as the little heat wave that cruised through town a couple of weeks ago.

Any tender green things that may have crept toward the surface surely shrank back deep into the earth.

As the snow slashed through the air, about 30 people who did have gardening on their minds gathered at the Swords into Plowshares gallery for a program titled "Urban Agriculture — Cuba and Detroit." It featured the 2006 video The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil and speakers Malik Yakini from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Lisa Richter from the Earthworks Urban Farm.

So, what's the connection between Cuba and Detroit? (Other than most Detroiters wishing they were on a warm, sunny beach instead of slogging through a blizzard.) I must admit I was a little confused before the program began, but willing to give a listen and see what it was all about.

Here's the premise: Cuba's economy fell apart when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, and Detroit's economy today seems to have taken on Cuba-like features.

With that starting point, Peak Oil explores how Cubans changed their agricultural practices when half of their oil imports disappeared along with 85 percent of international trade — which included the majority of their food. Where does the oil come in? Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery, food transportation and packaging all use fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. That's pretty much the case everywhere. In the United States, according to a 2008 CNN report, 20 percent of our fossil fuel consumption goes into the food chain.

When Cubans faced starvation in the early 1990s (they averaged a 10-pound weight loss during those years) they turned to urban organic agriculture to survive, and, with government help, developed it into a thriving system that delivers. In Havana, urban agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the fresh fruit and vegetables eaten. Cubans learned to rehabilitate the soil and grow food without fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Organic agriculture is a more labor-intensive process, so the need for more manual laborers translated into jobs. And dig this: Farming is one of the best-paying jobs in Cuba!

So how does that apply to Detroit? The peak oil scenario says that in the coming years oil production will begin a permanent decline and there will be a worldwide shortage of fossil fuels. The food production model will have to change, and folks at the nonprofit Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, producers of Peak Oil, see the Cuban model as a solution.

Richter visited Cuba a few years ago and reports that the feeling of emergency in Detroit is not the same as there. That could change here when people start losing weight on that trendy new starvation diet. In the meantime, Richter and Yakini are part of a not-so-insignificant wave of food activists who connect the dearth of supermarkets where fresh, nutritional food is available with the abundance of vacant land in the city and, as the Violent Femmes once screamed, "Add it up!"

Earthworks, a project of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, was just named one of the Top 10 urban farms by Natural Home magazine. Richter, outreach coordinator for the farm, says that 80 percent of the vegetables, fruit it produces are used by the Soup Kitchen. The farm also supplies Gleaners Food Bank and sells produce at local markets. "Urban farming can provide meaningful employment," she says.

Yakini has worked on food issues at various levels, including the D-Town Farm in River Rouge Park and the Detroit Food Policy Council. Just last week the City Council endorsed DFPC recommendations that included support for urban farming. He's motivated to feed people, but he also talks about using the work to empower people. "They can see that we're not just victims," says Yakini. "People will see that we can grow food and we're not dependent on others."

During a discussion on WDET-FM's Detroit Today show last Thursday, he said, "There are lots and lots of benefits to urban agriculture. It's a very healing work. It heals individuals; it builds community as people work together to do the work and it helps to heal the ecosystem."

The folks at Earthworks are cultivating the human spirit too, including with two youth programs: Growing Healthy Kids for 5- to 10-year-olds and Youth Farm Stand for 11- to 16-year-olds. Children must live within two miles of the Soup Kitchen to participate, although Earthworks will help develop youth programs for community gardens in other neighborhoods.

Richter reports that there are more than 150 community gardens in Detroit. On the Detroit Today program, Ashley Atkinson of the Garden Resource Product Collective said there are some 600 family, community and school gardens (in addition to the countless individual backyard gardens) in the city, with 8,000 adults and children working them. "They're improving every neighborhood in the city," she said. "If you look at a map, they are in every neighborhood. They're having an impact at all levels."

It's real development that doesn't happen overnight. Where necessary, soil reclamation takes three to five years. It involves clearing out bricks and debris, composting and growing something like clover and plowing it back into the ground. There are skills to be learned, such as composting and cultivation, marketing and sales, even processing the food into products such as tomato sauce, pickles, jams and jellies. City government needs to create policies that encourage and support urban farming. (The city could legalize beekeeping, for instance.) And it wouldn't hurt if federal subsidies to giant agribusiness either stopped or were more equitably dispersed to smaller farmers. In Cuba, the government got behind the issue and supported training and even land reforms that helped small cooperative farms flourish.

So far, locals have had more success in growing than marketing. Sales need to move beyond small produce stands to restaurants and other institutions. And there is the issue of learning to deal with pests. D-Town's cash crops of collard greens, kale and tomatoes took a hit last year, their first season at Rouge Park, when gardeners discovered that deer there love tomatoes.

So do the squirrels in my backyard garden. They like to take a few bites and move on to another juicy red fruit. Yakini says that he grows enough in his yard so that the squirrels can get their share and he can get his. The trade-off is more than worth it when you can go out in the yard and get something fresh for dinner. You live and you learn.

But you can grow from just feeding yourself, and beyond that there's money to be made. Atkinson reported that, using techniques taught by the Resource Collective, one acre of land, about 10 to 15 lots, can produce $15,000 worth of produce. Yakini says that producing even 10 percent of the fresh foods consumed in Detroit would represent millions of dollars and numerous jobs.

That's something we could learn to live with.

Larry Gabriel is a Detroit writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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