PHOENIX RISING IN DETROIT
public school teacher and urban farmer Paul Weertz with his working 50
year-old Ford tractor in the back of his house on Farnsworth Street
Well, not totally alone. The 58 year-old public school teacher has a dozen chickens and ten beehives that belong to a neighborhood “honey co-op.” He has about an acre of fruit trees and veggies growing on ten vacant lots behind his house. The day I came by, his working 1960 Ford tractor was parked a few paces away from a huge pungent patch of basil. Weertz’s sister was about to go pick peaches. The slim urban farmer walked over to his tractor and looked at a gauge that reported more than 2,000 hours of use since Weertz bought it 20 years ago.
“I farm about ten acres in the city,” Weertz tells me. “Alfalfa’s my thing. I bale about a thousand bales a year.” Some of that alfalfa is used to feed animals at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school for pregnant and parenting young women. Weertz started an agriculture curriculum at the school and worked there for 20 years but now it’s a private charter school and this year he’s going to have to work elsewhere in Detroit’s public school system.
“So many people think you can’t do [farming] in a city,” he says in his Midwest twang. “And you can. It’s the same dirt and the same plants.”
“Detroit is unique because we have all these vacant lots and if we can think it through, we could have high-density housing but save some green space for people who want to get their hands in the dirt. Maybe, as we get a development plan and more people move back to Detroit, it will be greener.”
Weertz has been buying up abandoned homes and vacant parcels of land in his neighborhood for years. You might say that the land and the houses are dirt cheap. A city lot can go for just $300 and some houses are worth a mere $5,000, if anything. But Weertz is no greedy real estate speculator. He encourages young people who want to farm to move into the Farnsworth neighborhood. People like Caroline Leadley, who used to work at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, and her husband Jack Van Dyke.
Jack Van Dyke with son Finn on his back and Caroline Leadley stand near rows of cherry tomatoes
Leadley and Van Dyke live a few doors down the block from Weertz. Standing in front of their rows of lush tomato plants, the couple present a quirky version of American Gothic: Leadley has a pierced nose and Van Dyke wears a cycling cap and has their 10-month old son Finn in a back carrier.