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Investors see farms as way to grow Detroit

Acres of vacant land are eyed for urban agriculture under an ambitious plan that aims to turn the struggling Rust Belt city into a green mecca.

December 27, 2009|By P.J. Huffstutter

Reporting from Detroit — On the city's east side, where auto workers once assembled cars by the millions, nature is taking back the land.

Cottonwood trees grow through the collapsed roofs of homes stripped clean for scrap metal. Wild grasses carpet the rusty shells of empty factories, now home to pheasants and wild turkeys.

This green veil is proof of how far this city has fallen from its industrial heyday and, to a small group of investors, a clear sign. Detroit, they say, needs to get back to what it was before Henry Ford moved to town: farmland.

"There's so much land available and it's begging to be used," said Michael Score, president of the Hantz Farms, which is buying up abandoned sections of the city's 139-square-mile landscape and plans to transform them into a large-scale commercial farm enterprise.

"Farming is how Detroit started," Score said, "and farming is how Detroit can be saved."

The urban agricultural movement has grown nationwide in recent years, as recession-fueled worries prompted people to raise fruits and vegetables to feed their families and perhaps sell at local farmers' markets.

Large gardens and small farms -- usually 10 acres or less -- have cropped up in thriving cities such as Berkeley, where land is tough to come by, and struggling Rust Belt communities such as Flint, Mich., which hopes to encourage green space development and residents to eat locally grown foods.

In Detroit, hundreds of backyard gardens and scores of community gardens have blossomed and helped feed students in at least 40 schools and hundreds of families.

It is the size and scope of Hantz Farms that makes the project unique. Although company officials declined to pinpoint how many acres they might use, they have been quoted as saying that they plan to farm up to 5,000 acres within the Motor City's limits in the coming years, raising organic lettuces, trees for biofuel and a variety of other things.

The project was launched two years ago by Michigan native and financier John Hantz, who has invested an initial $30 million of his own money toward purchasing equipment and land.

It will start small. Next spring, the farm is expected to begin growing crops on about 30 acres of land, Score said.

Because it has been difficult for Hantz and his team to purchase large contiguous parcels, much of the acreage has been grouped into smaller "pods." Each will grow different crops, depending on the condition of the soil and what buildings remain on the land, Score said.

Hantz executives envision a city where green fields and apple orchards flourish next to houses and factories, and forests thrive alongside interstates and highways. The team is still figuring out what will grow where: Tree groves could be planted where the soil is too contaminated to grow food, and empty factory buildings may be converted to house hydroponic fields to raise specialty vegetables, fruit and cooking herbs.

"People look at these abandoned houses and think, 'No one could live there. Let's tear it down,' " said Score, a former business development consultant for Michigan State University's agricultural extension program.

"I look at it and think, maybe we could grow mushrooms inside there."

The idea of turning this former American manufacturing capital into an agrarian paradise is not that far-fetched, at least not with history as a guide.

The city, one of the Midwest's oldest, began as an agricultural settlement in the early 1700s with "ribbon" farms -- long, narrow stretches of land -- carved out along the edge of local rivers. And until its industrial boom of the early 20th century, this swath of southeastern Michigan was covered in apple and peach orchards and miles of grapevines.

In 1910, about 80% of the 396,800 acres of Wayne County was being farmed, according to research collected by Michigan State. By 1925, as the auto industry boomed, that figure fell to 47%.

Today, fewer than 21,000 acres are being farmed.

Local leaders say they are encouraged by the idea of farm jobs coming to Detroit, which could help ease the region's grim economic situation: The Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn area had an unemployment rate of 17.7% in October, the highest in a region of 1 million residents or more, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But local officials put the number far higher: Mayor Dave Bing recently said that nearly half of the city's workers are either unemployed or underemployed. These officials support the effort to redevelop the estimated one-third of Detroit's 376,000 parcels that are either vacant or abandoned.

And in a city where there are no major grocery store chains, and more than three-fourths of the residents buy their food at convenience stores or gas stations, the idea of having easy access to fresh produce is appealing.

"There is real potential for this to work, because land prices in Detroit are low and there's a demand for local food," said Bill Knudson, an agricultural economist at Michigan State.

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