Widgets Magazine


The Promise of For-Profit Urban Agriculture

Four years ago, something novel happened in Detroit. John Hantz, a rich entrepreneur, decided to pursue the creation of Detroit’s largest for-profit urban garden.

Hantz’s initial plan was to buy 10,000 acres from the city and turn it into a farm that housed a diversity of crops and trees. That’s a lot of land, but it’s important to remember that over the last decade, Detroit’s population has declined by 25 percent and that 40 square miles, or about 2,5000 acres, are now vacant within the city due to foreclosures. Hantz’s idea was simple: to provide work, fresh food, and a hospitable, pleasant outdoor space in an environment that was short on all three. Urban gardening isn’t totally new to Detroit, but its scale was unlike anything proposed by a private developer.

Unlikely as it sounds, Detroit has no real shortage of small-scale urban farms. In the last couple of years it has been estimated that there are as many as 355 urban agricultural farms and gardens in the city. Most of them are small, and many of them are non-profit community gardens. Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, for example, runs one of the more successful community gardens within the city limits. It hosts a 1.5-acre vegetable garden and an apple orchard. Several other NGOs have sprung up in the last couple of years, like Greening of Detroit, which has given the urban agricultural movement in Detroit legitimacy and force. Even an institution like Detroit’s Eastern Market (a farmer’s market founded in 1891) has changed its purpose to become part of this new movement. Michigan State University has even been pouring money into urban agricultural research, spending $100 million on an urban agricultural center in Detroit and financing a $1.5-million project called Metro Food Plus, which aims to reshape the food system in Detroit and beyond.

But Hantz stepped into a morass of competing visions for the future of Detroit and all the various ideologies that butt heads over how to best use the vacant land to rebuild the city. Since the time of his initial idea, the city government and various citizen groups have scrutinized and arm-wrestled the plan to the point that now the land will be converted into a 200-acre tree farm.

Debate around the Hantz farm spanned more than what should be grown there and included whether the farm should exist at all. Even advocates of urban farming in Detroit questioned its existence. Some characterized it as a “corporate land grab,” stating that Hantz had bought the land at a hugely undervalued price and suggesting the government gave him special treatment. With population declining and high poverty rates in Detroit, activists wonder why the city can’t offer those prices to the people who already live there. They wondered whether a for-profit farm of this size would change the role of urban agriculture in the area. Community organizations view urban gardening as a community-building tool, not a business, as Hantz has proposed. I attempted to contact several urban agriculturally focused non-profits in Detroit, and none of them returned my calls to comment.

I recently spoke to Mike Score, the president of Hantz Farms, about the specific charges that various writers and community board advocates had leveled against the farm. He told me that the main opponents actually came from within the local government, and that during the time the farm has been proposed, there have been four mayors and many changes to the city council, which therefore required restarting discussions several times. On an ideological level, the local government resisted the farm because of its own development plans for the city. The local government did not return my calls for comment.

But as Score pointed out, the city does not necessarily have the money to put any of their large-scale plans into play. Non-profits also raised some objections to Hantz’ plan, such as the aforementioned price of the land, the city’s responsibility to its people and a need for urban gardening to remain solely a mechanism for community empowerment. Score agrees that the current price of city land is too high and that citizens of Detroit should have an opportunity to buy vacant plots if they so desire.

He objects, however, to the idea that Hantz Farms won’t build community. In fact, when I asked how Hantz Farm had accommodated the surrounding neighborhoods, he had a list ready for me. Scope told me that 90 percent of the people one square mile from the parameters of the farm support the project. Second, community members were concerned that food crops would attract rodents. So Hantz Farm became a tree farm. Third, Score initiated a program where vacant lots next to properties surrounding the farm must be offered to the neighboring property owner at a lower price. Fourth, Score plans to keep all roads and streets through the 200-acre property intact so that community members feel free to walk through the farm and enjoy the trees. When I asked Score whether he considered for-profit urban agriculture to be part of Detroit’s future, he answered affirmatively. He expects both large and small companies to emerge in Hantz Farm’s footsteps.

This process has already begun. Farms like Food Field have sprung up in the last couple of years with the mission of creating an alternative (not simply a supplement) to our industrialized food system. Food Field grows organic produce on four acres of land in Detroit and is looking to expand into aquaponics, a closed-loop system where both vegetables and fish are grown. Both Food Field and Hantz Farm stand as testaments to the need for a for-profit urban gardening initiative that can work at scale to truly change the food system and make Detroit a more habitable place.

Furthermore, the ideology of the city government and non-profits are not fundamentally opposed to farms like these; both would like to see a greener, economically healthy Detroit. Some green initiatives can and will be governmental or prompted by NGOs. But when something as potentially useful as two hundred acres of a tree farm growing in the middle of a city come along, it is hard to not think that it’s a step for a better future – one in which government, NGOs and private capital all combine to produce a brilliant mosaic.

Contact Graciela at gwatrous@stanford.edu.

  • Student

    The concluding line, “one in which government, NGOs and private capital all combine to produce a brilliant mosaic”, was the key point for me. I liked your acknowledgment of the potential role that private capital can play. Great piece.