Will Detroit’s Hantz Farms be the World’s First Urban Farm?
In a few weeks, Detroit-based Hantz Farms will present the Detroit City Council with its plan to build the largest urban farm the nation has ever seen. The plan has been years and millions of dollars in the making, and there’s no doubt that it has the potential to reinvent the city’s economy, creating jobs while blighted areas are transformed to lush farmland. Even though the project, at this point, exists only on paper, it has already drawn press interest from outlets as varied and widespread as the BBC, the Atlantic magazine, and ABC News.
As any astute observer of the media has already noted, the reinvention of Detroit is a topic du jour that never seems to run out of steam. Whether it’s Dan Gilbert’s Detroit Venture Partners seeding IT ventures and mobile app labs, or the Big Three delving into advanced battery-powered automotives, investors seem determined to transform Detroit into a hub for cleantech. Hantz Farms envisions a reinvention of an entirely different sort, one that takes Detroit back to its pre-Industrial Age roots, when it was a scrappy community along the river known for soil so potent one of its districts was referred to by the French as “Black Bottom.”
But Hantz Farms’ proposed agrarian reinvention project isn’t without stumbling blocks. It requires the city to demolish vacant structures on a fairly aggressive timeline and then adhere to its own blight ordinances thereafter, which has historically been a struggle for Detroit.
Then there’s the Michigan Right to Farm Act, which was created to protect farmers from nuisance suits but also, in effect, prohibits farming in heavily populated areas. The proposed Hantz Farm project spans hundreds of acres across neighborhoods on the east side of Detroit—that would require local legislative intervention. Then there are the people in the affected areas themselves: Do they want to live in the middle of a farm? Have they even been consulted?
In addition to worldwide media, it’s safe to say that companies across the globe who would like to erect similar farming projects in other cash-poor, land-rich cities along the rust belt are watching to see what Detroit does with Hantz Farms. Will it be a revolutionary first step in a new form of urban revitalization that provides cities with fresh, local food; trains underemployed populations in new agricultural trades; and beautifies city cores that are rotting into rubble? Or will it become a yet another bureaucratic nightmare in Detroit’s history, done in by infighting and institutional incompetence?
Mike Score, president of Hantz Farm, believes wholeheartedly in his company’s vision. The idea for an urban farm first came about a few years ago when John Hantz, the farm’s namesake and CEO, grew tired of watching the city he had lived in for decades crumble.
“John fell in love with the city,” Score says. “He chooses to live in Detroit even though he could live anywhere else in Michigan. He saw how pockets of blight were expanding, and he was concerned the city could become unlivable.”
Hantz, who made his fortune with a financial services company, worried that more vacant land would lead to less property-tax revenue in city coffers, which would in turn would mean the city would no longer be able to provide city services—an idea that has become reality as the Bing administration convenes planning meeting after planning meeting in search of a solution to this very problem.
Score says Hantz came to realize the city had a problem in the bombed-out blocks, poorly educated workforce, and perpetually high crime rate that makes Detroit appear to be a shaky proposition to many investors. But Hantz didn’t see it that way. He saw a city with an international border crossing, a port, a solid transportation infrastructure, nearby universities to provide technical support, and a chronically underemployed workforce.
“John began to wonder what business could do to change the marketplace,” Score says. “He saw that there was no scarcity of land, and he realized something had to happen to create scarcity of land again.”
Score says Detroit has 40 square miles of publicly owned vacant land. Hantz wanted a way to put a significant amount of land back in the private sector, so that the maintenance shifted away from the cash-strapped city and into the hands of private enterprise. Hantz decided he’d invest $30 million toward acquiring up to 10,000 acres in Detroit. Next, he wondered what kind of business could convert “blight to beauty” while paying for itself. He hit upon the idea of commercial agriculture, and Hantz Farms was born.
Despite the Hantz Farms website’s beautiful pictures of bright red apples crowding leafy branches, freshly pulled green onions with soil still clinging to their roots, and a pair of hands gently cupping a seedling, the Hantz project will be a tree farm.
“We’re interested in higher value agricultural and horticultural goods,” Score says. “We need crops that can grow in varied soil, around concrete and rebar.”
The initial parcel will be 200 acres just east of the Indian Village neighborhood, with the company working to acquire an additional 300 concurrent acres. During that interim period, Hantz Farms says it would work with local businesses on a site plan. Score says the company would clear the land of brush and trash and get the farm planted within a year. Hantz plans to farm around infrastructure: sidewalks, plumbing, and homes.
Part of the deal, Score says, is that city would use federal dollars to demolish vacant structures, and they would have to do it in a certain timeframe.
“We’re bringing global industry to Detroit to get a new infusion of economic development into the city, but the city has to be willing to deal with dangerous infrastructure issues,” Score says.
To prove the merit of the project to skeptics—which include a few in city hall—Hantz Farms has already closed on a deal with the city to establish a demonstration project. The city agreed to sell the company 20 parcels next door to its headquarters off Mt. Elliott on the east side. Before Hantz Farms closed on the project, it removed brush and garbage to the tune of 430 tires and 150 cubic yards of trash. The city then came out and hauled what Hantz had cleared to the dump.
“The people who live here loved it,” Score says. “It was proof that this can be done in a way the city is proud of.”
As for the larger project east of Indian Village, Score says Hantz Farms spends a lot of time working on its relationship with neighbors affected by its project. He points to a petition that he claims was signed by 90 percent of affected residents asking the city council to work with Hantz Farms.
“I’d love to see a copy of that petition,” says Dan Lijana, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bing. “We can’t attest to the methodology of their petition. If it were official, we’d have to go through a whole process of address verification. That’s great that they’re trying to generate support, but for the city to verify that … we haven’t done an analysis.”
When asked if the city is in favor of Hantz Farm’s proposed project, Lijana says, “Conceptually, yes—we’re absolutely in favor.”
Rob Anderson, the city’s director of planning and development, says that he’s still waiting to see architectural plans of the Hantz Farms project so the city can fully understand the scope of the project.
“Plus, Right to Farm has been a roadblock so far,” Anderson adds. “We’re looking for a solution that isn’t just for Hantz Farms, but for a number of other smaller entities as well.”
Keith Creagh, the director of Michigan’s Department of Agriculture, disagrees with characterizing the Right to Farm Act as a roadblock. He says Governor Rick Snyder has asked his department not to be an impediment and to participate in urban agricultural initiatives by increasing access and assisting in economic recovery, but ultimately the state’s Agricultural Commission will need to approve any policy that allows local governments to bypass zoning laws that conflict with the Right to Farm Act.
“We’re asking the Commission to pre-approve local ordinances that allow commercial farming entities to negotiate directly with the cities they wish to farm in,” Creagh says. “We ought to be proactive to work with cities and businesses on safety issues and economic enterprise. We ought to be a resource and not an impediment, and that’s our goal.”
Since the Agricultural Commission isn’t expected to take up this issue until December, the fate of the Hantz Farms project remains unknown. Anderson says an agreement hasn’t been presented to the city or finalized, though he expects it to go before city council sometime in October.
“We want Hantz Farms to be successful if they go forward,” Anderson says. “We’re all ambitious and want to move fast, and the [project's] potential impact to create jobs, provide local food, and use vacant land for this type of activity has a really great shelf life. But at this point, nothing is quantified. It’s just something we’re negotiating.”