Urban Farming, Anyone?

I’m too swamped with work these days to do much but skim headlines, but I couldn’t resist clicking through and reading this story. Seems that some foreclosed properties in the City of Detroit are in such bad repair, and owners are so desperate to get them off the books, that houses are actually being let go for just one dollar.

The sale price of the home may be an anomaly, but illustrates both the depths of the foreclosure crisis in Detroit and the rapid scuttling of vacant homes in some of the city’s impoverished neighborhoods.

The home, at 8111 Traverse Street, a few blocks from Detroit City Airport, was the nicest house on the block when it sold for $65,000 in November 2006, said neighbor Carl Upshaw. But the home was foreclosed last summer, and it wasn’t long until “the vultures closed in,” Upshaw said.

“The siding was the first to go. Then they took the fence. Then they broke in and took everything else.”

Tuesday, the home was wide open. Doors leading into the kitchen and the basement were missing, and the front windows had been smashed. Weeds grew chest-high, and charred remains marked a spot where the garage recently burned.

Put on the market in January for $1,100, the house had no lookers other than the squatters who sometimes stayed there at night. Facing $4,000 in back taxes and a large unpaid water bill, the bank that owned the property lowered the price to $1.

On Tuesday, Realtor.com listed one other single-family home, one duplex and one empty lot at $1 in Detroit.

Dollar property sales are the financial hangover from the foreclosure crisis, said Anthony Viola of Realty Corp. of America in Cleveland.

Lenders that made loans to unqualified buyers during the height of the subprime market now find themselves the owners of whole neighborhoods of vacant, deteriorating homes.

“No one has much sympathy for these banks that made subprime loans,” Viola said. “And in some cities like Cleveland, judges aren’t letting them sit on the properties — they’re ordering them to tear them down or sell them.”

So desperate was the bank owner of 8111 Traverse Street to unload the property that it agreed to pay $2,500 in sales commission and another $1,000 bonus for closing the $1 sale; the bank also will pay $500 of the buyer’s closing costs. Throw in back taxes and a water bill, and unloading the house will cost the bank about $10,000.

“It doesn’t make sense in some neighborhoods to keep paying costs and costs,” Colpaert said. “It can make more financial sense to give it away.”

This got me thinking: I wonder if it’s possible to acquire one of these urban properties, tear down the house, and somehow use the land for food production? The property must have city water and power. Some remaining portion of the house could be used to store garden tools. I doubt that livestock would be possible, but I bet a person could establish a large market garden and get away with a keeping a pen of laying hens. You could move the pen up and down the unused portions of the garden as a tractor, using the hens to destroy the weeds and return fertility to the soil. (You’d need someplace to move them in the winter time, though.) Chickens are probably technically illegal in the city, but who’s going to report you? Hens are quiet, and any nosy neighbors could be bought off with free eggs.

The key, I suppose, would be to put a secure fence around the perimeter. If neighbors have stripped the house of everything valuable, just imagine what they’d do to a market garden.

Anybody know of anyone who’s tried doing this kind of thing with an abandoned city property? Could be an interesting way for someone stuck in the city to acquire some gardening skills, and prepare for a move to the country.

Niche Farming

The New York Times has been running a good number of articles lately about niche farming. Their latest, today, has a nice profile of some widely divergent types of people who have moved to the country. It also has a nice bulleted list of advice, all of which I would heartily “second.”

For entrepreneurs tempted by the rural life, Ms. Aubrey and Ms. Holmes offer these bits of advice:
¶ Do market research. Go to farmers’ markets. Walk around. See what products are common and which ones are missing. Talk to people. Ask if they would they buy your product.
¶ Check out the local labor pool to make sure enough workers are available.
¶ Get the advice of an accountant and an attorney.
¶ Decide early on whether to go into the wholesale or retail market.
¶ Ask yourself whether you will be able to adapt to the “farm lifestyle,” notably long hours of hard toil. If you doubt you will enjoy bending over crops under a hot sun, find another line of work.
¶ Do not make the common mistake of growing too big too fast. You will risk
discovering you do not have the cash flow to put into the equipment you need to
meet your orders.
¶ Choose a “value-added” niche product, like gourmet mushrooms, that is not sold widely in your area.

“Make sure they’re unique enough for people to buy them and eat them,” Ms. Aubrey said. “If it’s unusual and tastes good, people will buy it.”

Still Here. Still Buried.

My apologies for the sparse posting. Work has been keeping me unbelievably busy, leaving very little time for much of anything else; at this point, just keeping my head above water with farm chores and trying to spend a bit of time with the kids.

This afternoon, I had a window of about three hours where I was completely, gloriously, caught up. I spent most of that time napping, and catching up from my massive sleep deficit. Sure enough, at about 6pm, I got a call from one client and an email from another, with various new requests. Enough to keep me glued to my chair for roughly two solid days, at least.

If there’s one thing farming has taught us, you have to make hay while the sun shines. And my plan is to put up all the more blog posts this fall and winter, once the election work has been gathered into the barn (as it were).