Urban agriculture learning from CR Drew farm in Detroit: Part 1

MSU Extension educators joined with Detroit Public Schools, Office of School Nutrition and Eastern Market Corporation, to establish an urban farm focused on providing healthy food for students and developing an agricultural production workforce.

In the past ten years Detroit has experienced an increasing interest in vegetable gardening, as a way to address issues of health and nutrition, community development, food justice and equity, as well as other issues. Detroit Public School’s (DPS) Office of Food Nutrition has been an important participant in the Detroit urban agriculture since Director Betti Wiggins established school gardens several years ago, at over 40 DPS locations. The gardens serve as a practical example, where classroom lessons can be enhanced and experienced. 

In 2012, Director Wiggins expressed a desire to innovate Detroit urban agriculture and to enhance the school district’s garden program by development of a production oriented vegetable farm. Director Wiggins established a team lead by Zaundra Wimberly of Eastern Market Corporation, who later would be appointed Farm and Garden Director at Detroit Public Schools, and me, Frank Gublo, from Michigan State University Extension provided thought leadership for the development of the farm. Wimberley has since assembled and lead an effective work team to execute CR Drew farm plans. At the end of the third full season, the farm is beginning to deliver on Director Wiggin’s vision for a fruit and vegetable production oriented, urban farm, with a farm to school business model. 

In the initial farm planning meetings, the criteria for the new farm were discussed and established in a way that would distinguish CR Drew farm. Detroit’s emerging urban agriculture has a community development feel, with a strong personal development emphasis. Urban ag leadership has been provided by the non-profit community and foundations, which have done a good job promoting the personal growth of individuals who are interested in gardening. The CR Drew farm seeks to apply the gardening skills and personal growth gained in the community in an actual farm production environment. With this in mind the foundation of the farm philosophy has been production oriented, focused on efficiency and good financial performance, and use sustainable agriculture practices. It is understood that urban agriculture is a low return, high-risk business, so closing the financial sustainability gap is important to the success of the farm. Also, it was decided that the farm had to attractive and visually stunning.

Given the interest in Detroit and it’s emerging agriculture, interest in the reuse of underutilized assets, and that DPS students would be effected, it was assumed that farm would be accessible to the community, and that the farm would have national and international interest. After leaving, farm visitors should be pleasantly surprised at the look, feel and performance of the operation. Any less than optimal preconceived opinions held by visitors should be dispelled. The criterion has been important in the development of the farm, and is used as a guideline for the farm team to focus when both internal and external distractions occur. 

CR Drew farm was a vacant school 4.35-acre schoolyard in 2012, with the exception of a 30 by 96 high tunnel hoop house style greenhouse, located at the back door of the school. Since then, the farm has grown has expanded to six high tunnel greenhouses. Director Wiggins has achieved one of the goals of the Michigan Good Food Charter through purchases of local foods, but would like to enhance performance by producing about up to eight percent of fresh produce used in school food service from the CR Drew School campus. The farm now consists of approximately two acres of field production, and new ground has been opened up at Mackenzie Junior High, across the road from the original location. Mackenzie allows for additional expansion of up to five acres of field production. 

Key Learning 

The launch of any venture results in the development of new knowledge, mostly from the challenges of implementing the farm plans, and from dealing with the day to day to operations of the farm. In three years at CR Drew, several issues have arisen that have a strong general interest to people interested in urban agriculture and those who consume food from urban farms. 

The basis of the key learning comes from the need to optimize operations. Without optimization, a sustainable agriculture operation would be difficult to achieve. Learning has come from all the functional areas of the operation and include: 

  • Community engagement is essential to the success of the urban far
  • Site selection, soil quality and safety are important factors
  • Farming multiple, non-adjacent tracts of land is difficult in urban areas, and not efficient
  • Talent for a production oriented farm is hard to find, and difficult to develop
  • A price premium is paid for supplies and equipment, from local suppliers and vendors

In part 2, each of the key learning will be discussed in detail. With this information, the beginning farmer in the urban area will be able to make better decisions that will lead to financial sustainability. 

If you are interested in pursuing an urban agriculture venture, educators at Michigan State University Extension and Innovation Counselors at the Michigan State University Product Center can assist potential businesses in the establishment of good practices to improve business effectiveness. For further information and assistance with employee communications please contact your local Michigan State University Extension office. 

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