The First Sustainable 3-Acre ‘Agrihood’ Is Growing in Detroit

The farm-to-table movement has taken hold in upscale eateries and agricultural communities all over the country, but what do you do if there’s no farmland in sight That’s the question the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) hopes to have answered with the country’s first “agrihood” – an agricultural community in the heart of the Motor City.

Detroit’s North End wouldn’t be the first place you’d look for a working, three-acre farm at the center of a mixed-use development, but that’s exactly where you’ll find it – just a few blocks up from East Grand Boulevard, along Brush Street.

“It’s no secret that the North End is facing a lot of development pressure right now, and how we choose to implement that is going to have profound impact on the people here and the people that are moving here,” said Tyson Gersh, president and co-founder of MUFI, at a Nov. 30 press conference, reported The Detroit News.

“We truly think that the way we are approaching this is going to be inclusive. Everybody is going to be able to win together.”

Todd McInturf via the Detroit News
Todd McInturf via the Detroit News

MUFI was founded by Gersh (pictured above) and Darin McLeskey, a duo of University of Michigan students. Their first project, the farm and garden, took root in fall 2011. Soon, two of its three acres were producing more than 300 kinds of vegetables, providing fresh, healthful produce to about 2,000 nearby homes, churches and food pantries free of charge.

More recently, Mercedes Benz Financial Services footed the bill for 200 apple, cherry, pear and plum trees. To date, the farm has provided more than 50,000 pounds of free produce to its community.

At the center of last week’s announcement, though, is the proposed renovation of an abandoned apartment, transforming urban blight into the heart of a growing agricultural community.

Todd McInturf via the Detroit News
Todd McInturf via the Detroit News

When renovations are complete, the three-story, 3,200-square-foot building, which has stood vacant for more than a decade, will be the project’s Community Resource Center. Under its roof, you’ll find educational programs, event and meeting spaces, MUFI office space and two first-floor commercial kitchens. In an adjacent vacant lot, plans are underway for a healthy, for-profit, farm-to-table cafe.

Gersh said they’re hoping the CRC will also be the Motor City’s very first LEED-certified platinum building.

All of this is possible through partnerships forged between MUFI and a number of companies and organizations – several of them Michigan born-and-bred. Among them are Sustainable Brands, BASF, Mercedes Benz, General Motors, environmental firm Green Standards and high-end furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, each providing a key component of the long-term project.

GM and Herman Miller, for example, have teamed on the rePurpose Program, which will repurpose office furniture and surplus items – tens of thousands of pieces – at the auto-maker’s Detroit-based worldwide headquarters, as well as the Warren Technical Center and Milford Proving Ground. Architectural design and construction of the CRC will be done by Integrity Building Group.

While corporate support is integral, nothing has been more important to the debut of the agrihood more than grassroots-level, volunteer support; since 2012, more than 8,000 volunteers gave more than 80,000 hours of their time to see this garden grow.

The rest of the world is taking note.

“We’ve seen an overwhelming demand from people who want to live in view of our farm,” Gersh said in a press release. “This is part of a larger trend occurring across the country in which people are redefining what life in the urban environment looks like. We provide a unique offering and attraction to people who want to live in interesting spaces with a mix of residential, commercial, transit, and agriculture.”

In the coming years, we can expect several more seasons of plenty in Detroit’s agrihood.

A nearby home is slated to be restored and turned into student intern housing; a two-bedroom shipping-container home will be constructed; and, in the nearby remnants of a fire-gutted building, the basement – the only part of the structure still standing – will be converted into a cistern, storing water for irrigation.

For more information, visit the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative online.

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