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.

  • http://www.livinghomegrown.com Theresa Loe

    Robin thank you so much for this informative article. It will be interesting to see what happens here and I agree, all their plans sound a little…vague. I for one will be watching.

  • William

    The wild land shown in the photos here looks a lot more beautiful than any straight-row monoculture. The Detroit Free Press drawing is a COMPLETE FANTASY and in no way depicts Hantz’s true intentions for that land. This is a straight-up corporate venture, it is not community based and will be governed by the profit motive first and foremost.

  • William

    Furthermore, if the company spokesperson can say, when asked if they plan to grow food, “. . . our neighbors are not accepting of the idea of fields of food growing within their neighborhoods,” then you know he’s a liar. Maybe what they don’t want is commercial chemical-based agriculture happening next to their homes.

  • Klay

    Look into Geoff Lawton growing food forest around the world. Now that is a world wide growing solution to the earth’s problems.

    You can solve all of the world’s problems in a garden. – Geoff Lawton

    A lot of videos on youtube and look up Regreening the Desert.

  • Kate

    I’d be interested to hear what they’re doing to protect plants from urban soil contaminants. Lead in soil = toxic produce. In New London where we’ve had programs to improve food security with urban gardens, many abandoned sites are useless for this reason.

  • Maria Kasstan

    While I love the idea of greening the city and producing an abundance of local food, I find the emphasis on “straight rows of evenly spaced trees” to be kind of depressingly regimented and I really wonder why this would be considered preferable to a more natural setting. And, because trees live in communities with other living things: native plants, fungi, moss, soil bacteria, insects and various other creatures, creating a “lawn” beneath them might also not be the best choice. Perhaps this focus is designed to appeal to city politicians or the real estate business, and the rigid ideas will disipate once the urban aesthestic has embraced Nature with an open heart.

  • http://Lzgardener.com Catherine W

    All very good points. I think it’s fine to have this land go to whoever wants to buy it. That said, planting “high value trees” that won’t pay off for a generation seems like a terrible business idea. I have to agree, it sounds fishy.

  • Marie Altman

    Is the bottom pic of green onions a promotion photo for Hantz? It is misleading. Green vegetables are not what they will be growing, and that’s not evident by this photograph. In fact, something else entirely is being conveyed by the farmer’s hands.

  • Linda Hales

    This is an important story, not only for Detroit, but for all residents of under-farmed cities. Urban Gardens deserves credit for pursuing answers to difficult questions.

  • Rick S

    Kate has a point — you must test city soil for contaminants before attempting to grow food on it.

    But, if you have contaminated soil, all is not lost. Some solutions:

    1) Replace the soil;

    2) Block the contaminated soil with a barrier, and put clean soil on top (essentially capping the contaminated soil as if it were landfill) — depending on topography, you could do this for the whole site or just use deep (> 12 inches) raised beds;

    3) Grow sunflowers or other similar plants that take up the contaminants, essentially cleansing the soil in which they grow, for several seasons. Unfortunately, the sunflowers have to be disposed of at the end of the season — since they end up containing the contaminants, it would be pointless to try composting them.

    Urban farmers, especially in Detroit are very familiar with the problem and usually follow the barrier and raised bed solution.

  • S. Carter

    Great article, thanks. I’d like to see more on the MSU-funded programs, and hear more about the results of the trainee programs.

  • Tammy

    Being born and raised in the Detroit suburbs I can tell you that this chunk of land won’t be doing much to beautify the city of Detroit. Sure, the people who live across the street from it are ecstatic over the disappearance of derelict buildings and overgrown brushy areas where an assailant could be lurking. You would be too if you lived in this neighborhood. The city is huge and has been an ever-growing expanse of ugly and hopelessness since the riots in the 1960s. The withdrawal of the auto manufacturers is just the last straw, really.

    What Hantz is doing has nothing to do with urban agriculture. They have purchased ground to install a ‘private forest’. In common English, this is a tree farm planted for the sole purpose of growing straight oak lumber that will command high prices on the market as furniture board foot 20 years from now. Planted closely together there will eventually be very few lower branches as the trunks mature. This produces knot free boards – premo furniture building wood.

    This fantasy land that the FreePress graphics shows will cost much more than what Hantz has said they are poised to invest. Constructing it will mean they will grab huge chunks of land at a fraction of the fair market value. Additionally, the food grown in such an operation will be priced far above the means of those who live in Detroit where it isn’t so much a question of locally available fresh food but a dilemma of locally available food of any sort beyond party stores and fast food restaurants.

    Detroit is like a ghost town. All major retailers have long since left. Small markets can’t hope to compete with big buying groups. Food in any form is expensive in the City of Detroit unless you count McDonalds and Kentucky Fried as ‘food’.

    MSU has programs alright, but all of them are funded by huge corporations. Neither the university or Hantz is a savior to this down trodden city. No. Here the answer is to truly allow the phoenix to rise from the ashes. It will take a total dissolution of all current government offices for new life to truly spring forth. A crooked lot they are, and have been for decades.

    Let it die completely. Its the only hope for bringing true prosperity back to residents of Detroit. That isn’t what Hantz has in mind. Its just one more corporate profiteering game at the moment. Fast, cheap and easy spoils.

  • Ashlyine Brooke

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  • Andrea Hamann

    Is anybody else doing anything? Who else is having a crack at bringing in new industry and new projects to Detroit. It sounds to me like the deal is done now, and the project is underway. Derelict neighbourhoods could do worse than have urban forest through them.
    And if down the track they develop something else, so what, at least they are doing something right!

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