Why I Loved–and Left–Detroit

Detroit is a bad city. I mean, Michael Jackson bad. Urban Dictionary bad.

I love the country feel of the East side because it reminds me of home. I love the stylish realness of the West side because it reminds me what I left home to experience. I love being in a city full of black people where I can walk into a room, a bar or a party and not feel the heft of an entire race on my shoulders.

Detroit gave me a profound service that perhaps no other city could: it taught me that agriculture is cool and that black is beautiful. When I was 15 I left my family farm so that I could go to school and escape the fate of being a lowly subsistence farmer in the bush (I’m talking less than 10 acres).  In Belize, like many parts of the world, farming and farm work is mostly for peasants or the lower socio-economic class. Big old mega farm owners are hardly farmers compared to the small grower who tills the soil themselves. Large scale farmers are often lofty managers of managers of supervisors of farm workers.

Small scale/ subsistence farming—putting your hands in the soil—is just not a respected trade in most parts of the world. As much a I loved watching things grow as a child and teen, I knew I had to leave the small farm if I wanted to wear shoes or eat cheese more than one day out of the year. But despite the hard times, farming followed me around. Plants wouldn’t leave my head. The day I left Belize was the saddest day of my life. I was 15.

For four years I felt ruined. I stuck with my decision to live in the US and get an education because I believed it led to a better future. After I endured  all that pain, culture shock and homesickness, if you were to tell me that I would end up in agriculture in the end I would have felt defeated. It would have shaken my will to live.

But being in Detroit changed me. And then this happened: After 16 years in Michigan (seven of them in the city of Detroit) I moved back to my small farm in Belize.

Right now I am sitting in my room here in Belize City at my family’s house. It’s dry season here and everything is crispy hot. A few thirsty frogs are croaking in the empty drains under the window. Through the darkness I can hear people talking in the street, trying to get their kid to take a bucket bath.  The barking of dogs is so constant I hardly hear it anymore. The backs of my heels are on fire from walking around the city in new shoes. My tongue feels gritty from eating too much cashew fruit (more on that later).

Today was my first day of having an upper management job. Before this I worked contract to contract hoping ends would meet. After serving with AmeriCorps for two years, I scraped by with freelance writing work (mostly corporate puff pieces) and from selling goods grown on vacant lots I managed in the city of Detroit.

In 2012, I threw all my energy into a one-acre urban farm (about 14 city lots) 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 (especially in cities) 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.

I could be ironic and say I’m moving to a (so-called) third-world country to get out of poverty, but that would be irresponsible. It’s way more complex than that.

Living in Detroit did something magical for me. It exposed the cruel design of the American food system and beyond. Not only did I get exposure to the unjust systems in Detroit, but I got a hand in challenging it. Detroit made it okay to be me: a wild and strange bush girl with the reflexes of a single quash.

Detroit cured my bitterness about farming.  The city linked me with people whose faces lit up when I told them I grew up on a farm; people who openly admitted they wanted to farm. Good people, cool people, smart people, stylish people. My mind was blown. I didn’t know how to take it. At first it made me mad. My head raced with sharp thoughts, like: “What could these city slickers know about farming? If they really had to farm to live, they would hate it. It’s not cool, it’s not glamorous, these fools! If only they knew the suffering I endured in order to escape the farm life!”

But after five years of working with people who have made farming in the city a part of their life, I realized that if it’s done right, urban farming is a gallant act of social justice, community building and self-determination among many other spectacular things. Let me be clear: growing food in a city is a powerful thing to do. In the city, the moment you tear up even a patch of grass and put in kale, it’s an act of defiance and self-determination and absolutely no one on this earth can put a price on that. But in the current system we operate under, urban farming as a for-profit business is not a pathway out of poverty.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where food is not currency. Our food system has taught us that it’s an insult ask for $3 for a pound of carrots while it’s a status symbol to buy a shot-sized cup of coffee for $6. I know people who work tirelessly to change that. And they are doing it one heart and mind at a time. But that takes time.

The hard truth that I don’t want to even say out loud is that in the given current system, micro-farms cannot fully financially support the amount of people/energy it takes to run them without some sort of subsidy or what most would consider abject poverty or even  *gasp* slave labor. In the United States, large mega farms depend on subsidies as well. Clearly, this isn’t something we can work within the system to change. We have to find new models that involve taking money out of the equation and build trade/barter systems. That, too, takes time.

In the meantime, though, I’ve decided I can’t live so bare bones anymore. I also can’t do the corporate grind, hustling my life away for something I don’t believe in.  So I got a job managing a cacao supply chain company in my hometown in Belize. I’ll be working with a socially and environmentally driven for-profit company whose mission it is to support small farmers and develop a quality product and provide access to resources to scale up their cacao bean production and their income.

I’ll also be rehabbing my family property with my main goal being to revive our subsistence farm that will ultimately hammer down my cost of living so that the amount I make in cash is not a reflection of my quality of life. My experiences in Detroit helped clear the static so could hear the tropics, my birthplace, calling.

One thing Detroit is not, is tropical. To me, the winters became more frightening to live through than hurricanes.

Detroit, hopefully my mark on the city will live on in the farms I built and worked and supported with all of my energy. Hopefully my work will show in the perennials I planted, the grants I wrote, the dirt I dug and buried my heart into. Detroit became such a part of me that in a way, I haven’t really left.  When I lived in Detroit, that’s how I felt about Belize. Now that I live in Belize, that’s how I feel about Detroit. They say home is where the heart is, but I wonder: can the heart be in multiple places at once without being broken? I am starting to think the answer is yes.

Cashew fruit. Did you know the cashew nut hangs outside of a false
Cashew fruit. Did you know the cashew nut hangs outside of a false fruit? They smell like heaven and taste like sweet, fruity deliciousness aside from the stringent gritty after taste. Cashew Fruit should be The Body Shop’s next scent.

8 responses to “Why I Loved–and Left–Detroit”

  1. Dayam Minnie. THis is winnie, if you can remember me…..I identify so much, having also come from a so called third world nation. This piece resonates in so many ways. Thank you and Thank you.
    I wish we had more of a chance to connect…

  2. What about the subsidies necessary to keep giant agribusinesses going too? Like how corn and dairy farms are heavily subsidized by the government? It seems as though FOOD generally isn’t a moneymaker, not just on small scale farms. However, “value added” foods can rake it in. I think one of the problems is that people don’t cook any more and the value of raw healthy food is not realistic. It’s a cultural flaw I think. No kidding about the coffee vs. carrots…..People are just not equipped with knowledge, patience or time to prepare their own food. (Gross generalization)

    • That’s a great point! The entire food system, as it is, is so screwed. That’s why I really think we need to change the model. Food is the essence of life and yet it’s not a money maker. Messed up system.

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