Detroit Introduces First Director of Urban Agriculture in Pioneering Move

In a landmark move that signifies Detroit’s growing commitment to urban farming, Mayor Mike Duggan introduced Tepfirah Rushdan as the city’s inaugural Director of Urban Agriculture. Rushdan, 43, is no stranger to community activism or agriculture. A resident of Detroit’s Greenacres neighborhood, she has been a tireless advocate for urban farming, co-directing the Keep Growing Detroit Farm in Eastern Market and sitting on the Detroit Food Policy Council.

Rushdan’s appointment comes at a pivotal moment. Urban farming is more than just an innovative way to use vacant lots; it’s an act of reclaiming and healing. It resonates particularly deeply in Detroit, a predominantly Black city, when you consider that agriculture is an industry from which Black Americans have historically been disenfranchised. Whether we look back at the unjust sharecropping systems post-Civil War, or the contemporary struggles for Black farmers to secure loans and government assistance, the soil carries stories of both pain and potential. Rushdan, who established the Black Farmer Land Fund to provide urban farmers with capital for land and infrastructure, stands on the shoulders of those who sowed seeds both literally and metaphorically for future generations.

Speaking at a press conference at Eastern Market farm, Rushdan emphasized that her first priority would be to streamline processes. “I literally stand on the shoulders of giants who pushed to get land access through the city,” she said, echoing a sentiment that takes on additional layers of meaning within the context of Black history. Her work in this role goes beyond administrative functions; it is symbolic of a broader social justice movement to reclaim land and provide food security in communities that have long faced systemic obstacles.

Mayor Duggan emphasized that the city has witnessed an “evolution” in urban farming, and it was high time to make the role official. According to estimates from Keep Growing Detroit, the city currently houses 2,029 gardens and farms, covering a gamut of family, community, school, and market gardens. “We probably should have done this sooner, but now, she is not speaking truth to power—she is the power,” Duggan said.

It’s crucial to recognize that this isn’t merely a local or even a national issue but a global one. Food deserts—urban areas where it’s difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food—are pervasive, particularly in marginalized communities. Detroit has been a stark example of this issue, but the city has also become a trailblazer in changing the narrative. As of last summer, it was designated the nation’s capital for urban farming by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Rushdan’s appointment was born from Mayor Duggan’s Land Value Tax Plan, designed to encourage the productive use of vacant lands and reduce homeowners’ taxes. “When I was elected a decade ago, there were more than 45,000 abandoned homes. Today, 25,000 have been knocked down, 15,000 have been fixed, and 5,000 more will be eliminated in the next 18 months,” said Duggan. For urban farmers who often didn’t know how to navigate acquiring land from the city or securing permits, this appointment will serve as a game-changer.

In appointing Rushdan, who will be receiving a $112,000 annual salary, Detroit joins cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington D.C., in creating a dedicated governmental role for urban agriculture. This is more than just a bureaucratic milestone; it’s a socio-cultural one. In a predominantly Black city, with a rich but often fraught history of Black involvement in agriculture, this appointment is a way of rewriting the script, planting seeds for social and economic growth, one vacant lot at a time.

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