The secret email arrived late at night with the Porky Pig insignia.

SUBJECT LINE: “What can one person do to make a difference?”

Like those old-school raves of the 1990s, we were informed where to go, but the note ended. “Psssst … now you know the location, so guard the secret.”

Entire families, friends and neighbors helped put plants in the fertile Detroit soil.
Entire families, friends and neighbors helped put plants in the fertile Detroit soil.

The party was on, only this time we were planting. “All you’ll need are gloves, water bottle, a smile & enthusiasm.” I knew I’d found the secret location as I drove up to the sounds of a mariachi band.

Welcome to guerrilla urban farming, Detroit style.

I’ve known the _________ Family for years. They’ve slowly been buying up abandoned houses and plots of land around their Motor City business. Several years back, their eldest son suggested that instead of mowing the land, maybe they should plant some stuff.

That “stuff” burgeoned into acre after acre of urban farmland that flies under the radar. Along with the crops are pigs, cows, chickens, bunnies, sheep, goats, bees, a miniature horse and even a few emus. I joked that they should wear Eastern Michigan University jerseys, but Mrs. ________ shrugged it off, being a rabid MSU supporter.

Out in the fields, I put plants in the ground with an emergency room nurse, financial planner, a boxing promoter and a falconer. I began with gateway plants basil and cinnamon basil, the easy stuff.

Next up came the squash plants. By the time we got to tomatoes — I don’t want to brag — but I was sort of, kind of the designated row foreman. “Plant one, skip two holes, plant the next one, skip two holes,” were my commands.

Then I went far afield and began snapping photos and talking to people. I think I may have disappointed Mr. ________ by shirking my duties. But he gave me a grape Faygo, so everything’s fine.

Jewel, the American Kestrel falcon, flaps its wings under the care of Tom Grant.
Jewel, the American Kestrel falcon, flaps its wings under the care of Tom Grant.

One of the missions of this non-profit urban farm is to grow community development by using under-used urban lands. Once the fruits and vegetables mature, nearby neighbors are invited to pick and partake of whatever they like. Food is donated; eggs from the chickens are given away to their visitors and customers. They also distribute their produce through churches and senior groups among other organizations.

Another main goal of the place — named after 1890s Detroit Mayor, Hazen Pingree, who opened empty lots to garden farming — is to give hands-on agricultural and animal husbandry experience to folks in the neighborhood. Community is developed and understanding is fostered.

But I would argue that another secret goal of this secret farm is to help make all of us feel a bit better about ourselves. By cultivating the soil of a disused urban area, we are physically and metaphorically planting seeds of change.

We can yap all we want about how we’re helping the community. But in reality, the community is helping us.

Row after row, acre after acre, abandoned lots are being transformed as Detroit awakens from its long, exhausting winter.
Row after row, acre after acre, abandoned lots are being transformed as Detroit awakens from its long, exhausting winter.