Cover Crops and Compost May Be Key To Improved Soils for Urban Agriculture

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By Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

An ongoing study in Detroit on the potential to recondition soils in urban areas to enable locally-grown agriculture is producing promising results, Brian Allnutt reported in Civil Eats. The study out of  Michigan State University-Detroit’s Partnership for Food Learning and Innovation, is working to find the “quickest, cheapest, and most environmentally sustainable ways to build urban soil” using cover crops and compost combined.  Right now, as Naim Edwards, the director of the Partnership for Food Learning and Innovation noted to Civil Eats that, “you can barely push a knife into this soil.” In five to ten years, Naim aims “to be able to push my fingers into this, which [now] is impossible.”

Why This Matters: Detroit is experiencing an agricultural revolution, and this study is one important piece in the puzzle. The city is working to develop “agrihoods,” or agricultural neighborhoods, and to plant green roofs. But to achieve true local food sovereignty, healthy urban soil is needed. By determining how to recondition urban soil, denizens of Detroit and other cities can have more and better access to food. And beyond farming, the implications are huge: cover cropping, according to Edwards, could help sequester storm-water that catalyzes flooding in the city, as well as potentially reduce asthma- and allergy-inducing weed species.

The Importance of Cover Crops

One important avenue of exploration the study is taking is that of cover crops, or plants like “clover, rye-grass, or hairy vetch that are grown to adding carbon and nitrogen to the soil, reduce weeds, and feed pollinators.” What the study is finding is that there is a “lot of potential in using cover crops, a strategy that has sometimes been overlooked on urban farms,” as Allnutt noted.

As study director Naim Edwards told Civil Eats, “Almost all farmers are paying lots of money for composts.” Longer running farms are even “noticing imbalances in their soil and nutrients because of this practice of simply laying on a compost every year.” Cover crops on urban farms could potentially help remedy this problem. The study is currently searching for the optimal mixture of cover crops to help improve Detroit’s soil.

Fighting Food Insecurity

The pandemic, as Civil Eats noted, has hit Detroit hard. As Planet Detroit put it, the pandemic has revealed “issues with local food supply chains — like how much of it caters to restaurants and wholesalers instead of residents.” This means, according to Ashley Atkinson, the co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, that plant gardens will be “more critical for Detroiters this year than ever before.”  Within the city of Detroit, there are approximately 1,400 community gardens and farms, and one officially designated agrihood, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), which was founded in 2012 and calls itself America’s First Sustainable Urban Agrihood.  While urban gardens are not necessarily a panacea to the structural problems with our food system, healthy soil means potentially greater access to healthy food, an important step on the way to food sovereignty.  And what they are learning in Detroit can easily be taken up in other cities as well.

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