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This American Road

Experience America this summer with Andrew Burmon

Detroit's Urban Farms: Budget Battles and Milking Goats



I had never milked a goat before the time I wrapped my fingers around Apple's teat and squeezed, inside a barn on a one-acre plot next to a public school in Woodbridge, Detroit. Two volunteers at the farm, Doug Reith and Leeann Drees, offered to bring me along for their turn at tending the animals at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school that's also home to one of the city's best known urban farms, made so by its appearance in the much-lauded documentary Grown in Detroit and a profile in Oprah Magazine.

Urban farms have become sort of cliche in Detroit, cast as a gardener's pipe dream that will save the city, one batch of arugula at a time. There's no question that many stories on the subject have been done. But at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for pregnant teens and young mothers, four in five girls participate in free and reduced-price meal programs. Cliche or not, this is a city that needs cheap, nutrient-dense food -- the kind that comes out of the sun and soil of a farm, urban or otherwise.

But the pastures at CFA, as its known, are facing a crisis.

As Rachel Maddow recently reported, city-wide budget cuts are threatening to close the school, and if that happens, the fields will go fallow. My hosts Doug and Leeann, who make cheese with surplus goat milk harvested from the farm, told me about a protest to keep the school open, a sit-in that was quickly broken up by police.

Why risk arrest to protest the school's closure? Says one student in a YouTube video of the sit-in, talking about pregnant women, including herself, "Sometimes it's like we don't have no hope. Basically it's our job to give them some hope. You can't just let them feel like they're alone. [This says to them] You're not alone, because you've got people like us fighting for you."

As the budgetary fight wages on-a decision on CFA is scheduled for this summer-the goats still need to be milked twice a day. As the sun was setting and the mosquitoes were coming out in force, Apple and her pen-mate Royal, gave almost two liters of milk, most of which will stay on the farm. (I was most proud of myself for avoiding the flying hooves of Apple, who probably hasn't been called docile lately.)

Walking past the rabbit warrens, hen house and horse pasture, where the school's brown mare trotted over to greet us, Doug and Leeann wondered what would happen to the farm if the school was shut down. Without girls and volunteers and, yes, money to tend the fields, they'd probably just be abandoned. Like so much else in Detroit.

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