Farmer in the D: Urban farming taking root in Detroit

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

The Second Annual Urban Farming Symposium held recently at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law was an opportunity to learn a lot about the subject without getting your hands dirty.

In addition to the legal questions raised by urban farming, the May 18 symposium talked about the future of the practice and its role in the revitalization of Detroit.

Speakers at the seminar included Professor Neil Hamilton of Drake University; Richard Harlow of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; Kathryn Colasanti of the Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU; and Melanie Duda, an expert in urban agriculture and recent graduate of University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

Professor Jacqueline Hand, who teaches Property Law and Environmental Law, co-chaired the event with Gregory J. Gamalski and Paul Thursam of Giarmarco, Mullins, & Horton PC in Troy.

Kathryn Colasanti coordinates the Michigan Good Food Charter Development Project and is a specialist with the Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University. She pointed out that urban agriculture is not new, especially in Detroit.

"Detroit can claim the oldest community garden initiative in the country, dating back to the late 19th century," Colasanti said. "Then Mayor Hazen Pingree promoted utilizing vacant lots for growing food, a model that was later followed by Chicago, Boston and other cities."

Neil Hamilton has taught agricultural law for more than 30 years and is currently director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University. Despite the movement of Americans off of farms for the last 150 years, Hamilton sees a universality he stresses we would be wise to recognize.

"This something we're all connected to, because we're only as far away from agriculture as our next meal," he said. "One of the things urban agriculture is doing is helping us to 're-imagine' the city and how we relate to food."

Richard Harlow is a program manager for the state's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. He said his department recognizes that value of urban farming and is trying to support it.

"A recent study showed that 53 percent of citizens in Michigan don't get enough fresh fruit and vegetables, especially local produce," he said.

Melanie Duda just graduated from University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. Her article, "Growing in the D: Revising Current Laws to Promote a Model of Sustainable City Agriculture," will be published in Volume 89 of the Law Review later this year. She sees a disaster preparedness and even national security aspect to urban farming.

"There is a strong public policy rationale for urban agriculture," she said. "It promotes food security and provides local food. It can also help stave off disaster. In the U.S., most of our food travels great distances, often from foreign countries. Imagine a disaster or terrorist attack that disrupts those supply lines. If we don't have local food production, we'll be in trouble."

Published: Wed, Jun 6, 2012