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Good Enough for Profit, Good Enough for Populace?
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Detroit -- A Tale of Two... Farms?

Though the scale is unprecedented, does this real estate project differ from the land grabbing sweeping the tropics? And is the solution anything other than geonomics? This 2012 article is from The Huffington Post, Jly 10, by the Executive Director, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.

by Eric Holt Gimenez

Financial services magnate John Hantz has offered to buy up over 2,000 empty lots from the city of Detroit (now on sale at $300 each) to establish a 10,000 acre private farm in Detroit, which would be the world's largest urban mega-farm.

Presently John Hantz is actually growing trees rather than food.

In the short run, the purchase by Hantz cleans things up, puts foreclosed lots back on the tax rolls and relieves the city of maintenance responsibilities.

In the long run, however, Hantz hopes his farm will create land scarcity in order to push up property values -- property that he will own a lot of.

The Hantz Farms project openly prioritizes appreciating real estate to cash in later rather than creating value through productive activities.

If successful, the urban mega-farm will accumulate private wealth on what was public land.

Under Michigan's Right to Farm Act, the Hantz megafarm would pass from the jurisdiction of the city to that of the state. Many in the city are reluctant to lose control over such a big chunk of real estate.

The potentially massive transfer of public assets to private ownership (at a cleanup cost of $2 million to the city) has led many residents to call the Hantz deal a "land grab."

Though the scale is unprecedented, does this real estate project really have anything in common with the brutal, large-scale land acquisitions sweeping Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America?

Land grabs in far-off places occur when governments allow outside investors to push subsistence farmers and pastoralists off massive swathes of tropical farm and range land to establish mega-plantations of palm oil or sugarcane for ethanol. Very few of these projects actually grow any food. Often the land grab is simply about investing in real estate.

From Goldman Sacks and the Carlyle Group to university pension funds, holders of big money are anxious to put their wealth into land, at least until the global recession blows over. Cheap land, devalued by economic and post-industrial recessions, is literally up for grabs. Once acquired, the easiest and most effective, low-cost way for big financial dogs to quickly mark their newly-acquired territory has been to plant trees -- trees require little maintenance and if global carbon markets ever really kick in, could pay dividends.

But like most places around the world, there are people living in the land of Detroit, and not all residents are happy with Hantz's plan.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network is a coalition of community groups that focus on urban agriculture, policy development, and co-operative buying. They have been farming in Detroit since 2006. They have helped grow an extensive network of gardens and buying clubs to address fresh food access and employment challenges in Detroit's underserved neighborhoods.

The seven acre D-Town Farm is a hub in an extensive community-based effort to turn the local food system into an engine for local economic development, owned and operated by those who are most adversely impacted by the lack of fresh food access in Detroit's underserved neighborhoods.

But recognizing that Hantz Farms follows a speculative and private real estate logic and seeks to concentrate wealth, while D-Town Farms follows a community livelihoods logic that seeks an equitable distribution of opportunities and resources, still barely touches the surface of the deep differences in demography, culture, socio-economic status and political orientation of the two urban farming projects.

At the center of this tale of two farms, lies a contentious global question just beginning to resurface in the United States these days: the land question.

Land -- rural or urban -- is more than just land; it is the space where social, economic and community decisions are made, and it is the place of neighborhood, culture and livelihoods. It is home.

Therefore, it is more than just a "commodity." While John Hantz's stated objective is to produce scarcity of the land as a commodity, residents living in the lower-income homes of post-industrial Detroit deal daily with scarcity of health, education and basic public services. The transformation of these public goods into private "commodities," coupled with their scarcity has not resulted in any improvement for residents.

There are many notable, socially and economically-integrated projects in Detroit that are already improving livelihoods, diet, and incomes through urban farming. It is difficult to see how these can flourish in the shadow of a mega-project designed to price low-income people out of their own neighborhoods. Driving up the price of land in underserved neighborhoods may well put the city on the road to gentrification, but it won't help solve the challenges facing the majority of Detroit's citizens.

To read more

JJS: Humans are social animals. Like all social animals, we’re hierarchical; we see where people fit into the class structure and care enormously about the status of ourselves and others. When conflict arises, we see it as those higher on the ladder imposing upon those who’re lower.

Conflict is most easily understood as a dispute between good and evil. If you’re conservative, the good ones are those higher in the hierarchy -- smarter or harder working -- and the bad ones the ones lower in the hierarchy -- lazy or envious. If you’re progressive, of course, it’s just the opposite; the higher ones are mean and greedy and the lower ones are hard-working and disadvantaged. Both are right, but at different times.

At the same time, both sides are wrong. The problem is not a moral one but a cognitive one. Neither side recognizes the fact that the worth of Earth belongs to us all. Overlooking that simple fact is what lets owners speculate and grow rich in their sleep and is what keep wannabe reformers so sadly, repetitively ineffective.

What makes common wealth a fact? It’s simple. Nobody made land and everybody makes land valuable. Land goes up in price or rent when people move in, not when any owner sells out.

What are not common wealth are tax revenues. The things we now tax -- income, sales, and buildings -- those are things that an individual does produce and those values do depend upon how well somebody produced the work or enterprise or structure. If society could get clear on property what’s yours, what’s mine, what’s ours then we could solve the land question, the poverty question, and live life comfortably in our green cities and countrysides.


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .

Also see:

Family farmers worse off despite high prices

Royal Legacies that Continue to Plague Most Places

Farmland Outperforms S&P 500

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