Economically unviable: No Grants, No Urban Agriculture

By Atieno Nyar Kasagam

According to USDA data from 2012, intermediate-size farms like mine, which gross more than $10,000 but less than $250,000, obtain only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, and 90 percent from an off-farm source. Smaller farms actually lost money farming and earned 109 percent of their household income from off-farm sources. Only the largest farms, which represent just 10 percent of farming households in the country and most of which received large government subsidies, earned the majority of their income from farm sources. So, 90 percent of farmers in this country rely on an outside job, or a spouse’s outside job, or some independent form of wealth, for their primary income. – Jacyln Moyer, “What Nobody Told Me about Small Farming: I can’t make a living“.

Nationally, farming is no longer an economically sustainable venture. Medium sized and small farmers can’t compete favorably with big plantations producing government subsidized produce and local urban farmers barely brake even.

In Detroit, local farmers produce an abundance of produce, but not nearly enough to even begin to meet the needs of the approximately 700, 000 residents. Farmers who sell through big markets like the Eastern Market experience harsh competition from wholesalers who repackage their goods and put up right next to farmers, and offer lower prices for similar produce,  without disclosing that their produce comes from big distributors, some as far as Washington and California.

While some smaller markets, such as the Corktown and  Wayne State Farmers Markets may be more profitable to more farmers, they only attract a very small margin of the population, who live or work in the already more affluent Midtown Corktown districts. Most of the market sales still don’t deliver sufficient revenues to support farmers and their families.
And even while direct sales to restaurants have been explored by some farmers, many of the restaurants can’t depend entirely on the farmers because (those who are interested) haven’t organized well enough to produce whatever is on demand by the selected restaurants (or the restaurants aren’t willing to prepare whatever is abundant among farmers), and at the quantities required.

Minehaha’s candid essay about her struggle making a living while farming for one of Detroit’s largest CSA’s, City Commons stirred so many of us, and expresses bitter truths about farming that need to be engaged thoroughly by the community of farmers and the municipal authorities.

I scraped by with writing work, mostly corporate puff pieces, and selling goods grown on vacant lots in the city of Detroit.

In fact, I threw all my energy into a one-acre (about 14 city lots) urban farm operation for three years only to realize that unless you’re prepared to live in poverty, work for a nonprofit, live off of grants and/or are privileged enough to get periodical cash lump sums from your parents, then small-scale urban farming is not a realistic, sustainable source of income.

The reality is that the global food system is simply not set up in a way that allows for anyone to survive above the poverty line by working off of anything less than ten acres of land. It’s just not. One or two acres can feed a whole lot of people, but when it comes to income, rent, utilities, etc. that incredible value of fresh food doesn’t transfer into cash. Over the years I started looking at it like an overtime job with less than part-time pay. Not only do you gotta love it, you gotta be obsessed.

I am saying this because I put three years into trying to make it work; I mean, all in. By any standard I lived in poverty, making less than $12,000 USD a year and that’s without subtracting taxes. But I grew up in poverty so I found a strange comfort in it and was able to make it work (or not work) for so long. I wrote some grants; that helped. But I don’t have any financial support system. If I fail, I fail. No parental subsidies.

This matters because farming work ought to be a legitimate and massively beneficial economic and social activity especially in a city with over 100, 000 parcels of vacant land, making up approximately 20 square miles by this estimate . The work can create meaningful employment opportunities for multiple farmers and farm hands, and would be much more accessible to folks in the community with lower levels of academic attainment and for bredren who may have been previously incarcerated. Increasing access to food within communities, and encouraging a culture of subsistence farming will not only help mediate the struggles associated with inaccessible grocery stores across the city, but the struggles with obtaining affordable, ecologically sound, nutrient dense, healthful and culturally appropriate food .

It begs the question, in light of all the above, why is small and intermediate scale farming work not economically viable, in the context of Detroit, and in the global context of contemporary agriculture?

The first consideration would be the accessibility of Detroit’s infamous bounty of vacant land, because this is a major determinant of the amount of food that can be produced over the growing season. Is there a transparent, straightforward and accessible strategy in place, to support acquisition of land for farming work, as a follow-up to the affirmative urban Agriculture ordinance of 2013?  Do the farmers have legal title to the land that they are growing the produce on or are they squatting on land owned by speculative buyers and “developers”, the city of Detroit or Landbank Authority? How does owning or not owning land on which farming is done affect the capacity of local growers to produce enough food to cover operational costs and profit?

Another consideration would be the source of the start up capital to finance inputs like topsoil, compost and manure, straw and mulches, seeds, tools, season extending hoop houses and other miscellaneous decorative and functional gadgets. Are farmers dependent on their private savings/financial support from parents, spouses and wealthy backers or are they beneficiaries of grant money? To what extent do farming operations in Detroit benefit and even rely on grant money for startup and even survival?

What about the price levels set for the produce offered by local growers directly off farms, at markets and through other sales strategies such as direct to food service-providers and CSAs? What informs these price levels? Are farmers undercut by wholesalers or are they able to compete with them ? Are farmers’ prices accessible to lower income communities in Detroit? Are there government subsidies available to smaller-scale farmers that can level the playing field with regard to (what is already received by) larger commercial producers? Are farmers overall, even able to break even off of their produce sales throughout the season?

Has the US govt, by subsidizing unsustainable commercial agricultural practices , and allowing them to woefully externalize their costs of operation effectively jeopardized agriculture (as a viable economic activity)?

How many farmers are even (attempting to) or producing food for a living? How many of the farmers/farming organizations even need to cover operational costs and profit off of their produce? Is there a need to distinguish the kind of farming operations in the city of Detroit, and to explore the ways in which they may sabotage one another’s capacities to create economically viable operations?

Is farming, done well, sustainably and ecologically, even supposed to garner profit?
Are we trying to milk a stone?

Isn’t it likely that, the concerns that we need to meet, such as utilities bills, healthcare, transportation costs and other extraneous expenses are a function of a disfunctional economic and political model that has privatized costs that ought to be publicly borne, or eliminated through better, more ecologically sound and socially just practises?

Is farming, only one part of the culture that supported ‘farming’ in its traditional more rural context? Perhaps we can’t  just expect to ‘farm’ and stay afloat. Perhaps we must change the entire way we live, and the infrastructure that we use to meet our needs.

Perhaps, under the prevailing circumstances,
even with the best of support from the powers that be,
which in Detroit, we are still a long ways from…
Urban farming must evolve into much more than urban farming…
It might mean that we must re-adjust our entire lifestyles.
It might mean that we do some things a little old school, and others a little futuristically?

Permaculture and Off-grid bad-assery anyone?


One thought on “Economically unviable: No Grants, No Urban Agriculture

  1. This is so important to point out to City officials. I’m always surprised that they don’t realize the really big flashy projects in town are all supported by tax exempt charitable donations, which significantly distorts the market for local produce.


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