Mayor Mike Duggan opened a new chapter in Detroit’s urban farming story by hiring one of the people who is writing it.
He appointed Tepfirah Rushdan as the city’s first director of urban agriculture, who will serve as a liaison between the mayor’s office and the city’s urban farmers.
“I want to make sure people get through that process and purchase the land they’re growing on.” — Tepfirah Rushdan, Detroit’s Director of Urban Agriculture, summarizes her top priority.
Rushdan says growers now have an advocate within city hall. She will assist them with buying vacant land and getting permits to farm on it.
“A lot of times we find that folks in higher-up positions don’t know the issues, like we’re struggling on the ground and they don’t even know why that struggle is happening,” she said.
Detroit is only the fifth city in the country to appoint an urban agricultural director, joined by Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and Washington D.C.
Duggan says he saw the need to create the position after hearing from local farmers who were frustrated with city government.
“The more I heard about (their) difficulties, I felt like I was supportive of farming, but our bureaucracy wasn’t supportive,” Duggan said.
Rushdan brings lots of experience to the job. She was the co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, which owns a little over an acre of farmland near Eastern Market.
She also worked for the nonprofit The Greening of Detroit and sits on the Detroit Food Policy Council. And she co-founded the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund to help Black and Latino farmers acquire land and permits.
“Every time we have to intersect with the city, there’s been issues, there’s been struggles,” said Rushdan. “And I want to make sure that people get through that process and purchase the land they’re growing on.”
Duggan says he hired Rushdan to make Detroit’s urban farming rules work for farmers. Kathryn Underwood wrote those rules. She was a city planner when then-councilwoman Joanne Watson directed her to draft an urban farming ordinance.
“The number of gardens and farms was growing exponentially, that there was nothing that defined them as a land use, and so people could get ticketed for farming on land,” said Underwood.
Food sovereignty is key
Underwood says having an experienced advocate like Rushdan at city hall will address those problems. She also says it will boost urban farming as a way to reclaim vacant land.
“What has been in Detroit thought as a negative thing, all the vacant land that was a result of disinvestment, really can become a positive thing as people are actually able to come back to the land, grow their own food, feed their families and feed their communities,” Underwood says.
Rushdan says the spotlight should be on the farmers themselves.
“They’re doing it out of their own pocket,” she said. “And just to make sure their neighbors have access to food, to make sure their neighbors see something beautiful when they walk down the street.”
Rushdan has already made a difference in her new role. She helped persuade the mayor to exempt urban farms from his proposal to raise taxes on vacant land.