Growing the farming movement in Detroit

November 6, 2023

UM-Dearborn student Tepfirah "Tee" Rushdan, Detroit's first director of urban agriculture, is working to grow community efforts toward food sustainability.

UM-Dearborn student Tepfirah "Tee" Rushdan
UM-Dearborn student Tepfirah "Tee" Rushdan is the City of Detroit's first director of urban agriculture.

When thinking of farming, many people may imagine broad fields of crops with grazing animals, well away from the concrete jungle of major cities. But over the last few decades, local food security, sustainability concerns and neighborhood green space movements have created an enthusiasm for urban agriculture, growing food within the smaller areas available within city limits, including vacant lots, gardens and balconies.

Tepfirah "Tee" Rushdan is helping push these movements forward. The urban and regional studies major holds leadership roles in three local farming- and food justice-focused nonprofits and was recently appointed the City of Detroit's first director of urban agriculture, a sign of the growing importance of these efforts to the city's vitality. Appointed to the role this fall, Rushdan will help shape city policy regarding urban farming and serve as a liaison to the urban farming community.

The value of a government position for urban agriculture, Rushdan says, comes from the unique nature of the practice. "Farming in a city is totally different than farming in a rural area," she says. "And farmers are left to navigate complicated city functions that are, frankly, not necessarily meant for farmers."

Rushdan, a Detroit resident, says she first came to gardening both through a desire to beautify her neighborhood, while also achieving a degree of self-reliance by growing her own food. The blackout of 2003, in which 50 million people across large parts of the U.S., including Detroit, lost power for several days, gave Rushdan a new sense of how the systems we rely on can break down. "I didn't grow up with a green thumb or anything like that," she says. "I got to a point in my conscious awareness that I understood that the way that food comes to our table is vulnerable. As far as food goes, nothing is produced right inside the city.”

Being a "young and slightly revolutionary minded" person at the time, Rushdan decided to act. "I thought I was really doing something to counter the negative impacts of systemic racism and things like that. But then that blackout really showed me that I was doing nothing but talking," she recalls. "That was an awakening point for me where I was like, I want to participate in my own food." Rushdan says her first attempt at gardening – planting some carrot seeds in her backyard – was "horrible." But, she adds, “I was learning.”

Eventually, Rushdan started a community garden on her block, and she also began participating in other beautification projects for a neighborhood that had been hit hard by the housing crisis. "We were just trying to make the neighborhood look good for our family and for the children on the block,” she says. “And I also was on this sufficiency kick."

From there, Rushdan took on a farming apprenticeship and began her professional career in farming and agriculture advocacy. Referencing the Drake song "Started from the Bottom," she explains that she eventually rose to the role of director at Greening of Detroit – a nonprofit focused on tree planting and job training across the city – before founding the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund and serving as co-chair of Black to the Land Coalition, positions she continues to hold. She also assumed the position of co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, another nonprofit focused on local food sovereignty, which had her meeting and interacting with key figures in Detroit, and taught her how to navigate the city bureaucracy. 

Rushdan's path to becoming Detroit's first director of urban agriculture arose directly from this advocacy. She says that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's Land Value Tax Plan, unveiled at the Mackinac Policy Conference in May 2023, held a number of implications for farmers she felt were not being taken into consideration. Rushdan arranged private meetings with the mayor and his staff to craft an exemption for farmers, as well as addressing questions about water and land access. "I said, ‘A lot of cities – Philly, New York – have installed directors of urban agriculture," Rushdan explains. "’Let's get somebody in the city that's focused on that.’ I didn't know it was going to be me."

Rushdan was also surprised at how quickly the mayor acted. "I'm thinking this is something that he would think about down the road," she says. "And then a couple of weeks later, I got a call from the mayor's office. 'Would you be interested?'"

Rushdan says the knowledge she’s gaining through the Urban and Regional Studies programs will help support her work in Detroit. "It's great to have professors to talk to about current issues," she says, noting that she’s “not a traditional policy person." "It's great to have people there to kind of talk things out — how is this supposed to go? how can this be helpful?"

Rushdan says a city like Detroit requires a concerted effort to repurpose vacant land, including working with community members who are already engaged in reclamation efforts. And she’s proud to live in a city that’s created a position to lead these efforts. "We should be figuring out how to iron out the system to make it easier and also figure out what support we can provide these projects,” she says.

Article by Shaun Manning