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Activist Sows Seeds for Farm Co-Op

Owned by workers, venture could reap profits for Detroit

by John Gallagher

The Mo' Green Town proposal by New York City activist Majora Carter just might hit the sweet spot in Detroit urban agriculture.

Urban activist Majora Carter, second from right, talks about ideas for farming in the city during a recent visit to Detroit. She met with local officials and members of nonprofits at Catherine Ferguson Academy on Dec. 2. (JAMES BURLING CHASE/Majora Carter Group) Carter visited Detroit recently to talk up her plan to create a worker-owned urban agriculture cooperative venture. By pooling the efforts of numerous small growers in Detroit, it would attempt to grow big enough to generate real profits and a return for investors. But it would be run by local community growers themselves.

That seems to fit midway between Detroit's hundreds of tiny, volunteer garden plots and the big, mechanized, for-profit farm that businessman John Hantz proposed earlier this year.

And as a worker-owned co-op, Carter's venture might not ruffle the feathers of the nonprofit community that for the most part opposes Hantz's for-profit proposal.

Carter said commercializing what is now largely a nonprofit volunteer operation is the best way to help poor Detroiters.

"We're trying to create new models for economic empowerment," she said. "It's has to be commercialized and capitalized to the point where you can start showing a profit fairly soon.

"Ultimately, our goal is that these are investable models and that we will be able to find the capital to do this simply because we are going to be able to show that there's money in this, that there is a return on investment if we do it right."

The Troy-based Kresge Foundation is among the local funders that Carter met with to talk about supporting her venture. Kresge already supports a nonprofit greening organization called Sustainable South Bronx that Carter founded in New York.
A lot to offer

Rip Rapson, president of the foundation, said Carter and her staff could bring a lot to Detroit.

"Their track record is spectacular, their ambition is appropriate, and their sensitivity to local dynamics is really quite profound," Rapson said. "They're exactly the kind of person you want to attract to working in Detroit."

Carter also met with other Detroit-area foundations and with activists from Greening of Detroit and other local organizations. She has not yet met with Mayor Dave Bing; she is hoping to develop a full business plan first.

Her proposal is one of several ways in which urban agriculture is advancing in Detroit. Bing has said his staff is working on a plan to boost urban agriculture, while the Greening of Detroit and other organizations continue to train neighborhood growers and provide seedlings and technical assistance.

Worker-owned cooperative arrangements are already common among U.S. farmers, although generally not at the level of urban agriculture in places like Detroit.

Michigan's dairy farmers' cooperative, the Michigan Milk Producers Association, is one example. Another is Ocean Spray, the producer of cranberry juice and other fruit products, which has several hundred member producers.

Some Detroit community gardeners already participate in a small-scale commercial version in which they sell local produce at farmers markets under the Grown in Detroit label. But that effort remains relatively modest at this point.
Waiting for the details

Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of the nonprofit Greening of Detroit organization, said she wanted to see more details of Carter's proposal before committing to the idea.

"She's certainly a charismatic person who seems to be able to get a lot of things done," Witt said. She added, "We're really concerned to make sure that whatever direction urban agriculture takes in the city, it's one that benefits the people who are here."

Witt, meanwhile, said Greening of Detroit will establish a plot in Eastern Market next spring to serve as a training ground for community gardeners who wish to support themselves by growing and selling their fruits and vegetables inside the city.

Carter said she will finish writing a formal business model over the next couple of months and take it to local funders such as the Kresge Foundation for initial support.

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