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Turning Detroit Into Urban Farms: The Best Solution for Everyone?


Interesting news coming from Detroit: Two official plans are being proposed to City Council to turn swaths of the city-we're talking acres upon acres-into the world's largest urban farms. Seems like a smart idea, but one that, to me, waves a red flag as well.One proposal would bring a commercial farm to the city center, and be among the most ambitious urban farms we've ever heard of. The other would function similarly, but would train and employ former drug addicts, giving them work, earned income, and skills. A social venture of sorts. Great idea if it works, and if it's a goal that's honored. What I've seen, however, is that's not always the case.The other day, a writer proposed the idea that to rehab our cities, we need to think twice before we demolish abandoned buildings. I agree with him, but Detroit has faced pretty swift depopulation, with no signs that people are coming back any time soon. So I say if the buildings aren't going to be used by anyone, sure, tear 'em down and build a farm.But what kind of farm? And who gets to work there?Some community farms get this right. Look at the Red Hook Community Farm, where exceptional produce is harvested in a part of Brooklyn that's hard to get to-or out of-without a lot of patience for the bus. That farm employs and trains locals, many from the large public housing project nearby. From what I understand, the guys at the Red Hook farm have done a spectacular job keeping up with both the farm and their commitment to locals.Then there's this one in Chicago, a stone's throw (literally) from a massive housing project. A farmer had the idea to harvest on unused land, employ project kids, teach them how to grow fancy organic heirloom tomatoes, and then sell those tomatoes to chichi restaurants in the area. Most of that plan came to fruition-except the part where the jobs went to the project kids.For the most part, the Chicago farm stopped training area kids shortly after it started. Why? The kids, I was told in an interview a few years back, were unreliable and hard to work with.This raises an interesting problem: Person has good idea; wants to contribute job and training to communities in need; gets land cheap or free in bad neighborhood; hires kids with no previous work experience. Then, a few things can happen.A) Perhaps well-thought-out training programs are in place to get the kids up to speed, teach necessary job skills, and motivate them to stick around. Some won't work out, sure, but at least workers aren't being set up to fail.B) Another thing that can happen is that an employer quickly (perhaps understandably) gets frustrated with "unreliable" workers, doesn't have the resources or inclination to build a learning curve into his business, and decides to bus in workers from "better" areas to do the work.Here's the thing, though. While purposefully creating jobs for low-income kids is certainly something I personally very much support, it only works if you're legit. And if you just want to run a traditional business and hire the most experienced candidate available, go for it. That's what most of the freaking country does. But don't snatch up land for cheap pretending you're running a social venture and then leave behind the very people you're saying you want to help.The good news is that there are examples Detroit can look to to get this right, whether they take the traditional business or social venture route. Here's hoping they do.
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