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Business > Stir It Up

Beyond bubbles

Growing Detroit from the soil up

 

Published 1/6/2010

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The last two decades have been economically characterized by bubbles. The 1990s brought us the tech bubble. You remember that don't you? That's when all your computer-savvy friends were walking around with smug grins making all sorts of pronouncements about the dawn of a new era and claiming to be millionaires — on paper. They're still kind of smug but not so many of them are talking that millionaire trash anymore.

The 2000s brought us the housing bubble or the mortgage bubble or the credit bubble. Whatever it was called, it seemed like the champagne was flowing until someone realized that, while the credit was easy, paying it back wasn't. That's when the whole house of cards tumbled down and we got into this recession thing in earnest.

Things are even worse in Michigan, where we are reeling from the auto industry meltdown and worst-in-the-nation unemployment. I guess you might say the auto bubble burst, but after a century you can only say that their time has passed. This leads me to the conclusion that, in the next decade, Michigan's, and Detroit's, economy should skip the bubbles and seek basic growth through agriculture.

In Detroit, no matter how you parse it, 40 square miles or 70,000 lots, we have a lot of vacant land. We also have a lack of fresh, nutritious food. A good number of people have put two and two together and started urban farming to help fill in the food gap. I'm suggesting that we pump it up. Not only should we grow food, but we need to take the next steps of developing infrastructures for reclaiming polluted land, and food processing and distribution. We need to educate people in agriculture, cooking and nutrition. That means jobs.

Speaking of education, we could use a couple of agricultural academies with schools tied to farms. Get students out there learning about all phases of the agricultural system. Among other things, growing food will develop self-esteem and help heal the psychologically injured.

And there's also a cash crop that could provide big dividends to the city and the state almost immediately — hemp. I'm not talking marijuana here, although I will later. Hemp, the marijuana relative that will not get you high, is a fast-growing, marketable product. The United States is the only country in the world where it is illegal to grow industrial hemp, yet we import 60 percent of the hemp grown in Canada, in addition to an uncounted quantity of hemp oil and seed. We also import hemp from China and other countries. If there's anything in this international economy we could easily get on board with, it's growing hemp.

According to several reports, Canadian hemp farmers make $200 to $250 profit per acre. That means a one square mile (640 acres) could, conservatively speaking, pull in a $128,000 profit. It's not inconceivable that a good portion of our vacant land in Detroit could be used for small hemp farms and generate a couple million dollars in profit a year. Statewide, it could be huge. A farmers' group in Montmorency County approached the county about legislation to allow industrial hemp cultivation. The possibility is worth pursuing. Who knows? Maybe we'd grow enough to make hemp processing and manufacturing feasible here. Hemp is used in some 2,500 products, from automotive door panels, rope and fabrics (the original Levi's jeans were made with hemp) to paper, soap (Dr. Bronner's) and building materials. Hemp seed is a source of nutritious oils and protein. And the plant can produce biofuels such as ethanol.

There is tremendous potential in hemp and, little by little, states are beginning to seriously look at the economics of its production. Maine and Oregon legalized it in 2009. North Dakota has been selling growing licenses since 2007, and 16 states have some form of legislative activity around the issue. Detroit and Michigan were once at the cutting edge of the American economy, but we fell so in love with big industry we couldn't see the end coming. Becoming a hemp producer would move us forward in economic development. Or will we sit and wait until the rest of the country is merrily rolling in hemp while we look down our noses at it?

I'm not saying Michigan should be living a pipe dream. The real pipe dream came years ago, when we chose not to diversify our economy, when our schools blithely looked the other way in preparing students for a world not dominated by auto production. We need to radically change how we look at what we have and how we're going to utilize our resources.

You might say that becoming an agricultural area is a step backward. But when you have vacant land to the level that we do, and such a lack of access to fresh, nutritious food that a 2007 study characterized Detroit (and other cities) as a "food desert," then that's got to be a step forward.

Not that we shouldn't be moving forward with the technology and production capacity for wind, solar and battery power. We should continue nurturing the film industry — and developing a theater scene to grow the talent to feed the film world. There are so many fronts that we need to work on, especially in creating entrepreneurial desire in young people. But I believe developing our agricultural base does so many things for us, and feeds into the technological needs of the future; it can't be ignored.


Good government: Looking back over the past decade, it seems that it was characterized by bad government at practically all levels. President George Bush was spectacularly bad at the national level. So bad that the economic ditch he drove the country into probably couldn't have been overcome by local governments. However, in Detroit we had the distinction of a criminal mayor (Kwame Kilpatrick) and a governor (Jennifer Granholm) who couldn't straighten out the mess John Engler left her. Ultimately Granholm's legacy will be that, regardless of how bad things were, she didn't rise above it all and make a difference.

Some would say this is evidence that government is bad and we should keep it small and weak. I don't. What it means is that we should stand up and demand good government. Many of the problems of the past decade stemmed from Bush policies rooted in the anti-government canon. Deregulation and laissez-faire policies led us to such disasters as caved-in coal mines, lack of response to Hurricane Katrina, and a banking industry that had to be bailed out by taxpayers.

Hopefully, with President Obama in office, we've moved into an era of good governance. In Detroit, we've at least got criminal pols on the run. I'm waiting for Mayor Bing's state of the city speech to see which direction he plans. As for the governor, we'll be sorting that out over the next year. Hopefully we can get past partisan politics and address the needs of Michiganians — like getting rid of the term limits that makes the legislature so dysfunctional.

Unfortunately the cleanup downtown isn't finished. Let's not forget that the federal investigation into local corruption has not concluded. We've yet to see, for example, what the plea bargain of Kandia Milton and the upcoming trial of Sam Riddle will lead to. More casualties are likely. I suspect we'll still be talking about this a year from now.

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

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