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Urban Agriculture as a Career Path

DETROIT — “I want to be an urban farmer,” said Tom Howe, 19, a freshman at Wayne State University. “I want to start a community garden in some kind of ecovillage with farmers and chefs.”

This may seem an unusual career goal for a young man of the twenty-first century, let alone one from Birmingham, an upscale middle class suburb of Detroit. It’s also counter-intuitive that a major university located in the middle of the cultural center could offer Howe a means to his aspirations.

But Howe is a member of WSU’s Sustainable Food Systems Education and Engagement in Detroit or “SEED Wayne” for short, a program that was instituted last May.

SEED Wayne calls for a critical assessment of the conventional food system and its relationship to the health of local communities, economies, environments, and cultures, said Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor of geography and urban planning at WSU and the founder of the largest inner-city campus with a comprehensive food systems program that is not run by an agriculture school.

“SEED Wayne also challenges students and others to examine the broader implications of their food choices,” she said.

For example, Pothukuchi teaches how a “community-based food system” revolves around local farmers, processors and distributors who produce fresh and value-added products.

Pothukuchi, who is among a handful of professional urban planners who see local agriculture and urban farming as a valuable tool for regional economic development, said that community-based agriculture has the potential for creating jobs, developing small business entrepreneurships and keeping precious dollars in the community.

“Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture in the United States [with 150 crops],” she said. “We could add another $2.58 billion to the state’s economy if we increased production of local food by another 10 percent.”

Consequently, SEED Wayne is dedicated to contributing to building a sustainable food system on campus and in the Detroit area, said Pothukuchi. It works with a number of community partners to promote food security, urban agriculture, farm-to-institution programs, and food planning and policy development.

Among its partners are the Ford Mother Company Fund, which contributed $100,000, The Henry Ford, AVI Foodsystems, Inc. (WSU dining service), Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, City Connect Detroit (funding opportunities service). Other partners include members of the Detroit Agricultural Network, a collection of organizations that promotes the city’s urban gardens such as Greening of Detroit, Forgotten Harvest (food rescue service), the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Earthworks.

Howe’s first exposure to the city’s urban gardens occurred at Earthworks when he volunteered to work in its 1,300-square-foot greenhouse as part of his high school service requirement while he was a student at the University of Detroit-Jesuit. The greenhouse produces and distributes more than 100,000 vegetable seedlings for the city’s 355 backyard, community, and school gardens.

Earthworks was started in 1997 by Brother Rick Samyn after he noticed that the poor were buying their food at gas stations, and kids were calling Coke and chips a meal. He began a small garden on a vacant lot and two years later developed six other lots by removing debris and regenerating the soil with compost.

Today the gardens supply fresh, organic produce for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which prepares 2,000 meals per day. They also provide 25 million pounds of food a year, equivalent to 65,000 meals per day to the Gleaners Community Food Bank, another Capuchin spin-off.

As a student at WSU, Howe still volunteers at Earthworks once a month, but he also helps to grow and sell vegetables at the WSU farmers market which operates on the fourth Wednesday during the summer months.

“I love seeing people and vendors talking together [at the farmers market],” said Howe.

Senior Kristina Stonehill, 22, an English and anthropology major, decided to participate in SEED Wayne’s garden program because a friend recruited her. As a commuter school, WSU students need to find a reason to stay on campus after they finish their classes, she said, and learning how to grow herbs and vegetables is a good reason.

The Warrior Demo Garden (named after the university’s mascot) provides fresh produce for the campus cafeterias as well as the city’s food assistance programs.

Students volunteer to maintain the garden on Wednesdays (5 to 6 p.m.) and Saturday mornings (10 to 11 a.m.). They use the garden as a means of informing and recruiting curious passersby about SEED Wayne’s programs and principles.

“SEED Wayne is really accepting of anyone who wants it,” said Stonehill. “It’s not an exclusive club.”

Moreover, gardening for Stonehill has become a way of getting dirty, being outside and watching vegetables grow—quite a satisfying combination of activities to complement a busy academic and work schedule.

“It’s also a nice problem solving exercise where I learn not to be frustrated that the tomatoes are not as big as I want them or that I find bugs on the squash plants,” she said.
“And knowing how to eat and learning how to grow your own food allows you to cut your food costs.”

Will Ahee, 20, also began gardening at Earthworks when he was a student at U of D-Jesuit. He is now a junior in environmental science and Pothukuchi’s assistant in charge of SEED Wayne.

“Urban students who feel cut off from nature are finding that food has become a vehicle to re-connect with it,” he said. “Gardens allow people to serve but they also help people share their knowledge and connect with others.”

One of the unique aspects of SEED Wayne, especially pertinent to a city like Detroit, is its social justice mission. Detroit has the distinction of being the nation’s poorest big city where nearly 33 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2004).

“Healthy food needs to be available to all people, said Ahee. “It is a fundamental right,”

Ahee said he could have gone to Michigan State University to learn sustainable agriculture practices, but he was attracted to Detroit where there is so much economic struggle and not much access to healthy food.

“I knew I wanted to give service,” said Ahee, “but I also wanted something that would have lasting change. Helping someone learn how to grow food does it for me.”

WSU students are emblematic of today’s growing national trend where young people are looking for ways to make a difference in their world. While their parents were more interested in political movements, this generation is more interested in personal action where individuals can get involved in doing something.

The future of the environment is college students’ particular concern and SEED Wayne is helping to provide its students with opportunities to learn about and experiment with sustainable food production.

Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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