Green acres: Urban Agriculture class gives perspective on legal landscape


Hundreds of lots in Detroit that were formerly plagued with abandoned houses and crabgrass are now home to chicken coops, flower and vegetable gardens, and large-scale drip irrigation fields blooming with crops. While the majority of “urban gardens” are residential cooperatives, dozens of farms have set up shop in Detroit.

Starting and maintaining a thriving urban farm comes with significant legal considerations and challenges, according to two professors at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

To better understand these challenges, Detroit Mercy Law offered an immersion course in Urban Agriculture, covering such topics as land acquisition, zoning for livestock and produce, insurance and liability for small farmer-retailers, water management, and green development.

Co-taught by Professor Jacqueline Hand and Adjunct Professor Amanda Gregory, the weeklong summer course addressed pressing needs, not just in Detroit, but in urban areas across the country.

“One of the real benefits of exploring agricultural law and food law with students is the way it illuminates the overlap between a particular industry with a variety of areas of legal practice, while also bringing a lens of community engagement and awareness,” Professor Gregory said. “Our students have gotten to compare nonprofit law to traditional corporate law and see that the law surrounding urban agriculture encompasses land use, contracts, environmental issues, civil rights, human rights, legal practice ethics, insurance, tax, corporate formation, and a veritable grocery list of other topics.”

Students spent half of each day in the classroom, welcoming guest speakers like Detroit City Planner Kathryn Lynch Underwood and Kibibi Blount-Dorn, program director of the Detroit Food Policy Council. The other half was spent visiting small farms and agricultural businesses.

At Eastern Market, students examined the Market’s role as a small business incubator, while the trip to Detroit Abloom explored land acquisition and ways in which a for-profit business could be used to support a nonprofit. At Pingree Farms, students learned about the challenges of supporting livestock and crops in an industrial setting, and visited  RecoveryPark, a produce farm employing veterans, ex-offenders, challenged workers, those in recovery, and other marginalized citizens.