The Man Who is Growing Detroit. Literally.

The Delicious Day

Jeff Klein moved to Detroit 15 years ago. He moved there for music. He quickly found himself immersed in Detroit’s agriculture and landscape scene. A decade and a half later he is a voice and leader within this community. In April, he will be opening Detroit’s first and only farm, garden and landscape supply facility to support the urban agricultural movement and reshaping of Detroit — that the country and world are watching.

Here is a bit of his story.

Why did you move to Detroit?

I was just out of college and I played music. All my friends played music. Detroit was a great place to be for this. My intention was to live in Detroit, play in a band and become a rock star or something. Detroit also excited me because of my suburban upbringing. The suburbs to me were pretty stale. They did not inspire me. The suburbs I was familiar with were predominately white, suburban and predictable. Detroit offered me different experiences and opportunities.

In what ways has Detroit given you a different experience?

For me it started when I first moved here. My route home from work was through some rough neighborhoods. I remember being kind of uneasy in them. These neighborhoods were not my norm. They were not what I was used to. I felt fear but I could not identify the source of this fear.

I felt as a new Detroiter I did not want to passively contribute to an economic and racial divide by heading directly to my ‘safe spots’. I started making a point to stop somewhere along the way and patronize stores, knowing I would be in the minority and interacting with people that were different from me. It was uncomfortable, but I also quickly recognized that no matter how different I seemed to feel from the person I was next to, below the surface we are really not that different.

What do you attribute to the massive swell in the agriculture movement in Detroit in recent years?

I think it is a lot of things. I think people have been disconnected from the earth, from fresh food and from knowing where their food comes from. I think it is a response to a broken food system which is inhibiting people’s access to fresh healthy food. In Detroit if you don’t have a car, good bus access or stable finances, finding healthy, nutritious food on a daily basis can be a burdensome task leaving many with no options but food from the corner store or the gas station — where pop, chips and processed foods are the norm.

What grows in Detroit?

It seems like everything. Add passive solar green houses and other season extension techniques and it is amazing how much variety can be grown in the city.

Jeff Klein, Detroiter, Owner of Detroit Farm & Garden, Owner of Classic Landscape
Jeff Klein in His Garden, Detroiter,
Founder of Detroit Farm & Garden,
Founder of Classic Landscape Ltd.
How does the food in Detroit get into the mouths of people who live there?

Detroiter’s are demonstrating a lot of creativity and determination in addressing this issue. From the Food Policy Council and Eastern Market to so many emerging farm stands, community gardens and programs such as Grown in Detroit and youth farm stands. There is a local neighborhood market almost every day of the week somewhere in Detroit. There is a developing cottage industry in Detroit where many are creating packaged products from the food that is being grown here, like pickles, sauerkraut, chow chow and honey. I’m known for my radish relish.

I have read about people wanting to build huge farms in Detroit.

The type of farming you are reading about is typically called commercial or industrial agriculture. A few of the questions the urban farming community is asking about these types of farms are, ‘How will they interact with existing residents and communities? Will they be farming organically? What are they going to do about pesticides? Will they be using GMO seeds? What kind of return in jobs and training will the city residents get in return for what some view as an intensive land grab?’ There have not been many good answers to these questions.

Isn’t there anything to protect the people regarding the City of Detroit and Industrial Farming?

It is a complicated issue. Currently, there are very few codes and guidelines for this type of land use. The State of Michigan also has a Right to Farm Act that essentially could over ride the city’s power to regulate industrial agriculture. There are great people in city government and community organizations working on resolving these types of agriculture issues in an equitable way. I’m encouraged.

What about toxicity of the soil from prior industry on or around the land? Is there any concern with that?

Yes, there are concerns. Areas of heavy industry in Detroit are going to be worse off than the vast residential areas. However, with the heightened popularity and extended networks in the urban agriculture community people are becoming more and more aware. Programs such as the Garden Resource Program will test the soil at no charge and provide feedback, clarification and alternative options. Generally speaking though, if you find that you have bad soil you can usually build raised beds.

How has gardening helped breakdown social and racial barriers?

The broad example is it brings people together on something we all have in common which is food.

Are these conversations occurring in community gardens or over the fence?

It happens over the fence. It happens in community gardens. It happens in schools, at workshops and on the block. It really happens all over the place as the community continues to grow and connect over issues. I met a lot of my neighbors working in my garden. I named my garden Streetside because it is right up against the street. Our gardens are an important piece of the social fabric and I love the interaction I get with my neighborhood because of its location. I believe gardens should be brought out of the backyard. One day I was working outside and a neighbor came over to tell me, ‘I hope it is ok, but I brought my son over the other day and we picked some of your strawberries. My son had no idea how they grew.’ This was exactly my gardens intent.

How do people get involved in this movement in Detroit?

Currently, it is pretty easy to find yourself in a garden, farming, making food or having meaningful discussions like undoing racism in the food system if you are looking for it in Detroit. There are a lot of opportunities for young idealist and entrepreneur’s looking to create work or volunteer their time. I am opening a retail store Detroit Farm and Garden this spring. The reason I am opening it has a lot to do with what we are talking about. We will provide landscape and agriculture resources to support and assist on-going efforts in food sovereignty and in rebuilding local economies. There are so many people and programs in this movement that essentially I hope Detroit Farm and Garden can serve as a hub helping connect the many different communities of agriculture, land use and learning in the city.

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