When the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative acquired its first parcel of land in 2011 in the North End of Detroit, it looked nothing like a farm, much less an experimental neighborhood that would try to bridge the gap between urban living and sustainable agriculture.
Back then, the two blocks that now make up the central farming area were vacant, with a large burned down building, a parking lot and several abandoned houses. Now, 300 different crops grow there, producing about 20,000 pounds of food annually and providing an orchard, a greenspace and a garden where children can explore nature in a hands-on sensory garden.
It's the centerpiece of what co-founder Tyson Gersh envisions as the first truly urban agrihood, a neighborhood centered around agriculture that's located firmly in a city.
RELATED: Flat-Packed Gardens Pop Up For Urban Farming
But the neighborhood continues to change, and it's not just crops of leafy greens or fruit trees moving in to the area.
"We're seeing a huge development spike partially as a result of the public transit development happening a few blocks from us," Gersh said. "People are a little nervous about what the future is going to be like, ourselves included. This model was sort of our way of preserving a part of our community from changing by emboldening the assets in our neighborhood and positioning them as the attraction around which the developments ought to occur."
The food produced on the farm is given away to roughly 2,000 households in a two-mile radius as well as local churches and food pantries, supplementing food purchased at grocery stores and farmers markets. But in some ways, the farm itself is more important economically to the area than the food produced by the farm could ever be.
"Urban agriculture is really struggling to get a foothold as a legitimate, long-term land use," Gersh said.
More money can be made by using the land for other purposes, putting urban farms in a precarious position over the long term as cities try to figure out how farming fits into the urban framework. Other urban farms have fit in by growing crops in existing warehouses, or on rooftops, but just using the land itself to grow crops can be a difficult sell, even for a non-profit like the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.
"We've been acutely aware of the lack of economic feasibility for the direct sale of crops to support this land use." Gersh said. "There's not very much money to be generated on an acre of urban land."
RELATED: Vertical Gardens to Sprout Up in Cities
That's why, as part of the agrihood model, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is focusing not just on the crops but on adding value to the community. An adjacent building will be retrofitted into a community resource center, another abandoned basement will be converted into an automated rainwater cistern that will water the farm, and a cafe on the property will bring in even more money, leveraging the wallets of people who come to visit the farm for its agricultural oasis.
"There's a really big jump in your profit margins if you're selling something like petso instead of basil, or an omelette instead of eggs," Gersh said.
Then there's the value of living next to a farm. Gersh lives a block away from the farm, and is noticing other people move into the area, with developers interested in building an areas adjacent to the farm and the new light rail system, with the farm being a key attraction.
Gersh hopes that this model can be used in other cities to make urban farming attractive as a long-standing part of a community, and not just as a fad.
"The point of the agrihood is you can have the farm and eat from it too," Gersh said. "You can have it all."
WATCH: When Earth Can't Produce Enough Food