Can urban farming work in the suburbs?

Urban and community farming and gardening have gained considerable attention within the city limits of Detroit over the last decade, as vast tracts of the vacant city land have been converted successfully to school gardens, neighborhood farms, and orchards.

Beets at Hamtown Farms. Photo by Doug Coombe.But the game changes a bit when unoccupied land is more scarce. Suburban organizers of community farms face unique challenges. Negotiating city bureaucracy, gathering community support, and securing land and water for their projects can be daunting.

Nonetheless, many of these suburban community gardeners plow forward.

For Amy Memminger, it started with the realization that her students couldn’t recognize the difference between weeds and food. Memminger is a teacher at Fordson High School in Dearborn. Last year, she sent her students off to Dearborn City Council to petition for land for a school garden. After a brief question and answer period, the council offered the students two acres. Deciding to start small, they chose one.

The process wasn’t so easy for Hamtramck’s Hamtown Farms. Michael Davis, the founder of the farm, faced numerous obstacles. The project had a promising start, with initial enthusiastic support from the community and Mayor Karen Majewski. But soon after its launch Hamtramck was put under emergency management, and months of paperwork and legal wrangling ensued.

Davis jokes, “at times we call the site ‘Hamtown Forms’." But he persevered.

Michael Davis, Fasail Ali and Andrew Rice at Hamtown Farms. Photo by Doug Coombe.

“To us, ownership was key," he says. "When you have hundreds of people volunteering and businesses donating, it’s important to protect their investment—proving that all of their help and support won’t just go ‘poof’ at the drop of a hat.”

Eventually, after a massive donation drive and with the backing of Davis' employer, Leo Burnett Detroit, the group purchased seven of the original nine lots free and clear.

Peggy Dimercurio, a record keeper at Eastpointe Community Garden, agrees that access to land is tough to secure.

Now in its fifth season, the garden had a few false starts before a 2012 change in city council brought the garden the support they needed to move forward. The garden now operates under temporary permission, so all beds are raised and portable. This allows the group to stay flexible.

Peggy Dimercurio at Eastpointe Community Farms. Photo by Doug Coombe.

"If something should come up that we would have to move and find another location, we would be able to do that,” Says Dimercurio.“ It’s a compromise she’s willing to make if it means she can continue to grow and donate food for the community.

Land access and site control prove a challenge for nearly every urban farmer in Michigan, according to Tyson Gersh, co-founder and president of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.

"Having legal ownership of land and control over its future” is imperative for gardens to succeed, but the process is fraught with challenges. “There is no clear path to ownership for urban farmers,” he says, which makes the future a tenuous one for gardeners.

Another major challenge that the farms share is water access, especially with this year’s dry season. The groups are typically all volunteer-run, and water is consistently the toughest asset to access and the most expensive.

Grape tomatoes at Hamtown Farms. Photo by Doug Coombe. “My current challenge is WATER," Memminger exclaims. "All of my gardens are facing a water crisis at the moment. At the community garden, we have water barrels, but with no rain, that means carting in water from other sources. One of the neighbors does water it occasionally, but as we know water is not free.” Even with neighbors helping out, she worries that her crops will suffer.

Dimercurio agrees that water access is the most critical element to her garden’s continued success.

“Our first year we had no water. Having access to water is a huge issue. We had to rely on rain barrels. But you can only get so much water from the rain barrels,” she says.

Soon, though, neighbors donated water and barrels and local contractor Joseph DeFelice donated money along with water lines and a spigot to help out. Still, the shortage concerns Dimercurio.

Neighbors have also stepped in to help at Hamtown Farms. The neighbor directly adjacent to the farm has allowed Hamtown Farms to use his spigot for water, refusing payment. Davis repeats what the generous neighbor said to him: “‘You are my brother, take what you need.”

Despite all of the hardships, the three farms continue to persevere with their passion. They launched their urban gardens because of a strong sense of community obligation and a desire to educate. As Dimercurio says, “we wanted to teach kids about gardening, and we wanted to give back.”

Memminger, as a teacher, wanted her students to learn about the long-term investment and hard work involved in food production. “The point,” she says, “is to educate the youth in the community who have lost contact with nature and teaching sustainability.”
All three community gardeners regularly reach out to neighbors to discuss issues such as water shortages, graffiti, and vandalism, and to hear concerns.

All three also hand out food free of charge. The produce at Hamtown Farms is available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Davis posts signs noting which food is ready to be taken and posts on social media. Eastpointe Community Garden works with senior homes and veterans’ homes to make sure nothing goes to waste. Memminger’s Fordson students trek door to door offering residents the Mediterranean vegetables they grow since most of the neighborhood is comprised of Arab-American families.

As for the future, Fordson Community Garden is ready to expand and take over the second lot the city council had initially offered, two doors down. They’ll grow the same kinds of vegetables and be able to give away more food to families nearby. Davis hopes to secure a stable water source so he can plant more produce at Hamtown Farms. Dimercurio’s Eastpointe Community Garden is ready to launch the second phase of their project, the “Giving Garden,” with more raised beds and donated plants to be harvested for food banks.

Although suburban farming is undoubtedly challenging, both physically and mentally, none of these gardeners see any reason to give up.

All photos by Doug Coombe.