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Detroit: The New Frontier for Urban Farming?

June 1, 2010

Photo courtesy of Celsias.com

Detroit is a city where a very important, very innovative U.S. industry was born: assembly line automobile manufacturing. The recession has left the car industry gasping for breath and looking for government handouts, and what was once the backbone of Michigan’s economy is thriving no longer. Meanwhile, unemployment in the city is at an all-time high of 27 percent. The average Detroit home is valued at $15,000, the lowest in the country. Crime and vacancies pervade across the landscape. Detroit needs an opportunity to turn blight into growth.

The answer may be farms.

What makes Detroit the perfect city for growing food? Available land is cheap, empty lots are plentiful, and residents are desperately seeking jobs. The total vacant property space in Detroit covers roughly the same space as the entire city of San Francisco. The number of small community gardens has been growing each year, and larger scale commercial agriculture could be coming as city planners draw up land use rules for farming.

Large Scale Commercial

Millionaire businessman and founder of Hantz Farms, John Hantz, has a vision to create the world’s largest urban farm within the city limits of Detroit. He’s behind this vision with $30 million of his own cash. Hantz’s farm plan involves “pods” placed throughout the city. The pods will utilize the latest in sustainable farming technology like compost-heated greenhouses and hydroponic systems. Also worth noting: For now, Hantz Farms will be creating conventional farms, complete with the customary pesticides and fertilizers. This is because organic certifications take upwards of three years to approve. Hantz wants to get moving. The more I read about this man, his gated home and his expensive cars and cigars, the more cynical I grow about his motives (just check out this Fortune article from last year), but it’s true a business-savvy approach might be what the city needs…

Small Scale Nonprofit

Urban Farming, a nonprofit founded in the city, has been turning vacant lots into garden plots for a couple of years now. The model works at very low overhead to the organization or to the city (who supplies the water), and anyone and everyone can walk into the unfenced gardens and take their pick of produce. Any excess goes to food banks. Urban Farming is growing rapidly, too—they plan to reach 1,100 gardens in thirty U.S. cities in 2010.

Questions remain to be answered about taxing, zoning, and what to do about remaining residents that may be scattered amongst targeted land parcel areas. These obstacles have stalled farming on larger parcels. Rather than recreate the city with some new agrarian model, companies like Hantz Farms hope to do as much planting as possible in the city limits as they are now.

I find myself asking:  What does it mean that a once industrial city is returning to the land to save its economy? What does it say about shifting economics, industries and values in America? A “model city” for successful urban agriculture in the U.S. has yet to emerge, although Portland, the Bay Area and Los Angeles have several farm programs underway. Could Detroit be the golden city of the future, and is it only after losing so much industry that this option emerges?

As an organization that keeps a finger on the pulse of sustainability issues throughout the Upper Midwest, the folks at the Minnesota Project are keen to observe the progress Detroit makes in this urban farms experiment. Perhaps a single food-focused project will spur economic growth in other areas and industries in the city. Is commercial farming, versus smaller individual or community-sponsored farming, the surest path to success? To my mind, Detroit’s residents are in need of both access to healthy foods and access to paid, full-time employment. Large-scale farming may promise those jobs. If  Hantz can provide jobs as well as fruits and veggies at fair prices, it seems a winning combination. Then again, Urban Farming is giving their produce away. On its own scale, the city of Detroit is going to have to grapple with the fundamental issues at odds within the “food movement” nationwide–how to balance sustainability with access and affordability.

What do you think? Feel free to join the conversation below. And stay tuned to the MN Project blog, because next week I’ll be doing a Q&A with the folks at Urban Farming to learn more about their goals for the program.

Urban Farming

Nonprofit headquartered in Detroit and now expanded to 30 other cities across the U.S.

www.urbanfarming.org

Hantz Farms

A commercial farm formed by longtime Detroit businessman John Hantz.

www.hantzfarmsdetroit.com

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2010 12:46 pm

    I was recently at the National Farm to Cafeteria conference in Detroit and had the opportunity to hear from some very eloquent urban farmers. They are a part of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and are operating a 2 acre sustainable farm in urban Detroit. They had some strong concerns and feel great skepticism regarding John Hantz and his ideas and motivation. While he clearly has money and influence, their concern is that he is not interested in this because of any particular commitment he has to environmental or social justice, but because it is a good business investment. They have worked at a very grass roots level with very little funding to develop their incredible farm, and will be expanding it this summer. It would be a sad and unacceptable situation to see a big business farm try to corner the market on the sustainable development of the inner city, without any kind of participation or collaboration with those who represent and already work for this larger cause. I feel great concern that we are so taken with the possibility of ideas like this on a giant scale, when in part sustainability is about eliminating this scale and creating a level, and manageable playing field that is driven by the people whom it is meant to support. Malik Yakini has requested a meeting with Mr Hantz-it will be interesting to see where that leads, but I am fully in support of the BCFSN taking charge of any urban agricultural development process.

    • Amanda Buhman permalink*
      June 8, 2010 1:18 pm

      Hi Jenny,

      Thanks so much for your insightful comments about Hantz. The more I learn, the more I tend to agree with your perspective that the entire mission of these new urban farming projects should be to create something sustainable from the onset, and that should mean starting small and having goals beyond being the first, the largest, or the most profitable. The community in Detroit has some very basic needs that need to be met. There’s a huge opportunity here to do the right thing, but just as much to do something wrong.

      I really look forward to hearing what comes of Yakini’s meeting with Mr. Hantz. I also look forward to speaking with someone at Urban Farming, and I’ll be sure to share that interview with you and the MN Project blog community.

      Keep in touch.
      Amanda

  2. Amanda Buhman permalink*
    July 1, 2010 1:22 pm

    Another really excellent, well-researched and articulated argument for the urban farm (regardless of its profitability): http://www.grist.org/article/2010-06-03-on-the-promise-and-limits-of-urban-farms/

  3. July 9, 2010 12:23 pm

    Gday (from Australia)
    I hope you don’t mind me commenting from afar and as a relatively uninformed observer of your local situation.
    I am very interested in this discussion and especially that focused around John Hantz.
    I am an ex- biodynamic farmer now living in the City of South Perth Western Australia.
    One of my mates here is from Detroit and I sort of follow whats happening in Detroit for that reason and because it was an icon of the automobile industry.
    Many cities around the world are looking at urban ag and I believe you have a great opportunity as you have a lot of under-utilised land within your overall city boundaries.
    Most cities and suburbs around the developed world seem to also generate lots of “waste”, much of which can be easily converted via compost/worm castings to food.
    “Waste” is only “waste” if we don’t use it productively – then it becomes a resource. This is not new. What is fairly new is the scale of ‘resourceful’ activity that can reshape our cities and how we live in them.
    I am working (at this stage voluntarily) on a blueprint for this city for a network of “W”2F (“waste to food) gardens to intensively and locally convert waste to food -”reducing food and waste miles”. This involves a business plan to gain support and enable implementation.
    The model would be somewhere between a community garden (more commercial than) and a commercial market garden (more sustainable than), as we call our intensive vegetable growing in Australia.
    For urban food production to live up to its potential in reshaping urban living so its more environmentally and socially friendly it needs to become an integral part of society, and to ‘pay for itself’.
    So how can you (me) have a more commercial ‘community garden’ without losing its basic purpose and philosophy?
    One aspect I am examining is selling say 1/3 of produce in a local chain of shops – not huge conglomerates but something that operates at a more local level. Here we have smaller chains of independent supermarkets and lots of local ‘corner shops’. Not only does this give an income to the garden (and a source of compostibles) the selling can be structured in-store to promote the gardens.
    I believe the right scale of implementation of a network of “W”2F gardens is one within easy walking distance of every house – roughly 1 km. ie 2km apart.
    It is also important that the gardens are aesthetically pleasing (mozaic design, water features that can be part of water recycling processes, etc) and functional (incorporate seating, bbq etc) so they become places where people want to go.
    This may require partnerships between the community garden type people who have the ideas and passion and groups like business and government who have the resources.
    The gardens would naturally evolve into sustainable living research and demonstration centres – I believe this sort of approach can lead to beneficial changes in our communities and the way we live that could help us all live with a smaller footprint on our shared planet (and maybe get rid of the need for taxes and legislation to ease our worries about climate and energy).
    This can only be achieved through genuine partnerships.
    In conjunction with the above, and as a retired organic farmer, I have been working on methods of “the intensive local conversion of waste to food” that are compatible with sustainable communities.
    I am developing several designs and processes, some of which sound similar to those to be used by Hantz Farms. eg Compost heated greenhouses. So I am encouraged by at least some of his methods. The fact that he is not looking at a few large city farms, but a network of smaller ones is also encouraging. I would love to have someone similar here! I think?
    The decentralised nature of his farms means he may need more labor and be suited by community partnerships.
    He also brings the ‘clout’ and credibility to negotiate land access etc with government.
    The major concern with extensive use of urban food production is that it is sustainable.
    Much of our “food” is grown using agri-business systems rather than agri-cultural practices (soil-money, soil-life) – introducing agri-business to the cities and suburbs would be a further step down a wrong path.
    I am also happy to share my designs with anyone, and collaborate on their development in an open-source manner.

  4. February 19, 2012 10:37 am

    Wow, if not for the government bail out of the automotive giants, “Imported from Detroit” could have had an entirely different meaning.

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