Will Detroit Get World’s Largest Urban Farm?

January 19, 2013 by

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Mike Score, President and spokesperson for Hantz Farms at proposed tree planting site. Photo, Sarah Hewitt, NPR.

Despite heated controversy surrounding the sale of a large parcel of its municipally-controlled land, the Detroit City Council recently approved an entrepreneur’s acquisition of 1500 vacant lots, about 170 acres of city land on the city’s east side for development of an urban “beautification project.”

The Hantz Group, a network of financial services companies who purchased the land for the fire-sale price tag of about $520,000–or less than $350 per lot–has established Hantz Woodlands, a sub-subsidiary of Hantz Farms, designated for creating what they refer to as “the world’s largest urban farm,” a story that has been amplified by many media outlets. On their website, Hantz shares that it’s their “dream to create the world’s largest urban farm, right here in Detroit” and clearly states that they will be “transforming blight to beauty as vacant, abandoned properties are converted to fields for new agricultural production.”

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Detroit neighborhood where Hantz plans to plant trees. Photo, Sweet Juniper.

In fact, Hantz Woodlands is so confident about its vision for transforming the urban landscape, the company is selling its education and consulting services to universities, businesses, and foundations, offering to assist leaders in “expanding and improving urban agriculture as a new commercial sector within urban economies” through studying the impact of commercial agriculture on the “quality of life” in Detroit.

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Via Hantz Woodlands website.

Urban Agriculture or Beautification?
In a video on the company’s website, Hantz spokesperson, John Score, speaks about planting trees, but does not address farming or food production. I contacted Score to ask if they planned to grow any food on the newly acquired land. Score responded by email that they “are starting with trees” because “larger scale food production is not yet legal in Detroit, and our neighbors are not accepting of the idea of fields of food growing within their neighborhoods.”

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Lots o’ Greens Detroit neighborhood garden, Photo, Carlos Osorio, AP

When I explained that “urban farm” commonly referred to urban agriculture and the growing of food, not just trees, Score wrote back that “Tree farms are common in Michigan” and, hoping to change my understanding of tree farming, forwarded me a Wikipedia article about The American Tree Farm System, a woodland certifying system primarily for privately-held forests. Scored elaborated that, “Commercial production of trees is actually quite common. The positive environmental impacts are substantial. And by the way,” he added, “over time the trees can produce food; not vegetables and fruits, but nuts, mushrooms, and other specialty items.”

An estimated 72 percent of Detroit residents live in food deserts, areas without access to fresh food and vegetables. Perhaps Hantz believes urban food deserts can be remedied by the availability of fresh nuts, mushrooms, and specialty items.

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Area of Hantz Group land purchase. via AltDetroit.

Vacant Land Up for Grabs
Detroit possesses an estimated 60,000 vacant lots which they acquired through tax foreclosures when owners and residents abandoned the properties. The city claims that they lack the manpower and funds to clean up and maintain the land, so they’ve welcome it’s sale to a private concern like Hantz who will demolish remaining blighted structures, maintain the land, and pay property taxes on it–although Hantz will recoup the cleanup costs over several years through tax credit agreements.

Some of the city’s leading nonprofit community gardening activists and some of it’s own government officials portray the sale as a corporate land grab, contending the purchase price was below fair market value. Opponents feel, according to the Detroit Free Press, that Hantz is receiving special consideration, complaining that ordinary Detroit residents have tried unsuccessfully for years to buy lots only to encounter city red tape and inaction.

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Concept for for creating urban farm on Hantz property. Martha Thierry, Detroit Free Press.

How Will Motown Grow?
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s Detroit Works project has released a blueprint for the city’s future which includes recommendations for vacant and unproductive land use. In its report, developed by a group of community leaders, urban designers, landscape architects, engineers and economists, the project recommended the testing of a medium-scale urban agriculture pilot program for areas identified as “Innovative Productive,” vacant land that could be put to productive use–specifically for growing food and planting productive forests. According to the project report, proposed innovative landscapes would include flowering fields to clean up contaminated soil, research plots to test ideas, urban farms and greenhouses, cultivated forests (silviculture), aquaculture, and algae-culture facilities.

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Commissioned by Fortune Magazine,  artist Bryan Christie’s plan, above, for how Detroit’s thousands of abandoned residential acres might be transformed into cutting-edge, city-style farms using solar panels and windmills to power vertical growing systems that are efficient, attractive, and tourist-friendly. Greenhouses would allow crops to grow year-round, and new development sprouts on the periphery.

From Cars to Cabbages?
From the 1700s until the early 20th century, Detroit had many farms, until a building boom forced most agriculture outside city limits. With an abundance of vacant land, Detroit today is home to hundreds of community gardens, backyard plots, and urban farms.

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Earthworks Urban Farm trainee, Darryl Howar. Photo, Detroit Moxie.

Several Detroit non-profits such as Greening of Detroit, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the Detroit Eastern Market, Food Field, among others have been instrumental in development of urban food gardens. In a vision for repositioning Detroit, once the world center for automobile production, as a global model for urban food systems technology, Michigan State University has committed $1.5 million over the next three years for a food system innovation program that would promote local economic development, land recovery, and food security. Through its collaborative effort with the city, MetroFoodPlus Innovation Cluster Detroit, the program will promote community-assisted urban farming while researching and implementing innovative farming strategies.

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Aerial view of Detroit urban farms. Photo, Urban Roots Film

“We salute the urban food work already being carried out by so many highly committed Detroiters and community-based organizations,” said MSU’s MetroFoodPlus program co-director Rick Foster,  “The opportunity ahead is to address our current critical development needs through expanding the urban food agenda in Detroit, connecting our work to other major cities around the world and positioning the city to be a leader in new food growing technologies for the future.”

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Map showing Hantz Farms property along with some of Detroit’s small operating urban farms. via AltDetroit.

Urban Farming Obstacles or Opportunities
One thorn in the side of modern urban farming in Detroit has been The Right to Farm Act, legislature originally aimed at protecting commercial farm operations from harassment by suburban residents complaining about odors or other farm effects. The city has been reluctant to approve any larger-scale urban farming for fear they would be prevented from acting on possible resident complaints. To circumvent this, State Senator Virgil Smith from Detroit has proposed legislation that would exempt the city from the Act’s restrictions precluding oversight and regulation of commercial agriculture.

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Mike Score of Ann Arbor and Andy Williams of Detroit plant trees in a once-vacant lot near the Hantz Farm headquarters. Jarrad Henderson, Detroit Free Press.

Out on a Limb
Although Hantz still refers to their project as the world’s largest urban farm, according to Change.com, the company said they specifically chose not to grow fruits and vegetables so that local gardening programs would not be negatively affected by the company’s neighborhood improvement project. I can’t see how new urban farms would negatively affect existing ones, certainly not in an area where fresh food is scarse. Despite their efforts to distinguish their proposed tree planting as an “urban farm,” Hantz’s original vision for the property is still unclear, but maybe that’s now a moot issue.

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Score points out more of the proposed tree planting area. Photo, Sarah Hulett, NPR.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to cleaning up and planting trees on blighted abandoned land. I know trees are good for environment and there is nothing wrong with beautifying neighborhoods. But I can’t help wondering if Hantz is being transparent about their plans for this property. Or, as some have suggested, in three years when their city contract is up, will we see Hantz develop this property into something else, something profitable?

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From the Hantz Farms Facebook page.

For the moment, the Hantz Group invites Detroiters to join them in building “a new, green economy in Detroit, and lead the world by example,” asking them to: “Picture oaks, maples, and other high value trees planted in straight, evenly spaced rows.” Hantz promises that “grass between rows of trees will be mowed regularly, and flowering trees will be planted between streets and sidewalks to create a breathtaking place of beauty each spring and fall season.”

We invite you to weigh in on Hantz’s plan by commenting below.

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