Farming for Their Lives
Behind orange aviators and under a floppy khaki hat, Greg Willerer never stops moving. It’s an early morning in June, and the purveyor of Brother Nature Produce is busy harvesting. Willerer stoops to haul water from collection barrels outside of his greenhouse in Detroit’s North Corktown neighborhood. With one hand, he pulls a wagon of French sorrel and lemony, peppery greens he’ll pack into a plastic tub. With the other, he pushes his 2-year-old daughter in a stroller over uneven terrain. A hen and chick teeter along the hay-lined rows of greens; his rat terrier tears off in pursuit of a grackle.
There are six homes on Willerer’s street, and one on the next block. He purchased his house with cash in 2004. Over the years, he’s asked neighbors for permission to expand his farm. It now sprawls across 10 lots.
Willerer comes from a long line of autoworkers—his father and grandfather worked for decades at the Ford River Rouge plant. They retired with full pensions, those relics of the industrial economy that Willerer knows no longer exists. “Your boss is not just going to give you a raise. You have to get ahead by making do and saving,” he says. After 15 years working at a charter school, he decided to live off the land. Doing so is perhaps more possible in Detroit than in any other major U.S. city: as of July 2016, there were more than 67,000 parcels of vacant property up for sale within city limits.
By selling his produce at markets and to local restaurants, Willerer is able to support his family from his land. He sells about 200 pounds of salad greens each weekend at Eastern Market, one of the country’s oldest produce marts; an 8-oz. bag of his greens goes for $5. His home and farm are insurance policies against another economic tumble.
Tepfirah Rushdan, a lifelong Detroiter, traces her introduction to farming to a blackout in August 2003. That power outage washed across eight states, from the eastern seaboard to Ohio, affecting an estimated 50 million people. Rushdan remembers how grocery stores struggled to keep perishable food from turning rancid in the summer heat. Now 36, she was a young mother at the time, and was rattled by the way that an unanticipated event could scramble the daily operations of her city.
“I understood, OK, systems fail,” she says. “Whether it’s something catastrophic or something as simple as a grid system failure, what we depend on can be impacted,” she adds. “The blackout really showed me how vulnerable we are.”
Afterwards, Rushdan began riding her bike to vacant lots to collect wild edibles and medicinal herbs, and then started teaching herself how to domesticate crops. She’s now the director of urban agriculture at The Greening of Detroit, an organization that operates farms and training programs throughout the city.
“Detroit’s been hit gradually: bang, bang, bang, punch, punch, punch,” Rushdan tells me as we sit under a tree in the 3-acre Detroit Market Garden. Ford Field, the Fisher Building, and the Renaissance Center are visible in the distance. Like Willerer, Rushdan feels disillusioned by a tidal wave of problems both endemic and acute: struggling schools, crime, and the city’s sluggish emergence from bankruptcy. In the midst of all of this, “there’s a breed of folks trying to figure out, what do you do when a system fails you?” she says. “And that leads some people to urban farming.”