Urban Farming in Detroit

  • Entrepreneurs in Detroit want to build the "largest urban garden in the world." (Photo by Shawn Wilson)

The world’s largest urban farm in downtown Detroit?

This is The Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

In cities where there are a lot of abandoned houses and miles of vacant land some people are starting gardens. But now one entrepreneur in Detroit is taking this a step farther. He’s ready to spend millions to create a large-scale urban farm. Julie Grant has more.




Money manager John Hantz is one of the richest men left in Detroit. While many have made fortunes in Detroit and fled to greener pastures, Hantz continues to live in an older, wealthy enclave of the city. Mike Score works for Hantz. Score says a couple of years ago, Hantz was driving his daily commute to Southfield.

“He noticed that there were large vacant, blighted areas that were expanding within the city, and he wondered when the city would be able to get around to addressing the declining quality of life in the city of Detroit.”

There are more than 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit. Score says Hantz realized the city wasn’t in a position to fix broken neighborhoods.

“And it really comes down to actions in the private sector. Business leaders like himself putting their equity at risk to make a difference in Detroit as a livable city.”

Score says John Hantz came up with the idea of taking all that unused land and making a huge farm in the city. He committed to investing 30-million dollars over ten years to make it happen.

He’s talking about greening thousands of acres in Detroit, as much land as a huge Iowa cornfield, and he plans to eventually hire hundreds of people to grow everything from horticultural plants to vegetables, fruit and even Christmas trees.

Old industrial cities like Detroit usually swoon at the possibility of large business investments and new jobs. They offer tax breaks and help with infrastructure costs, but the city isn’t rushing to embrace Hantz’s mega farm idea. And some well-established community activists and urban farmers in Detroit say the plan is downright insulting. Some have called it a land grab, and worse.

“I think the third word that was said by somebody in the room in April a year ago when this was presented to us for the first time – the word ‘plantation’ came up.”

Chris Bedford is founder of the Sweetwater local foods market, which features food exclusively grown in Michigan.

“And in fact, it is kind of a plantation. This guy owns all this land, and he’s going to have a lot of people working for him.”

Bedford says Hantz is proposing a top down approach. He says depending on big corporations in this way is what got Detroit into trouble with lost jobs and home foreclosures.

“And so in the guise of helping Detroit, he’s grabbing square miles of land to do something that’s really not going to help the people of Detroit. Maybe they’ll have a few low wage jobs, but it would be much better to have the land owned by the people, gardened, farmed by the people, growing food for themselves and for the neighboring communities. It’s just the opposite of what Detroit needs.”

There are urban farming organizations in Detroit that have worked for many years to help communities establish gardens and learn to grow food. Mike Score at Hantz Farms says people don’t need to choose small, local gardens or a large-scale farm. He says each fills a place in the market.

“Those organizations lack to capacity to create jobs, and also they are not well suited to meeting the needs of larger scale buyers like grocery stores and distributers. So, we’ll focus on the larger end of the marketplace, to complement what’s being done by the smaller scale operations.”

But the city of Detroit isn’t ready to sell off all its vacant properties to Hantz. Mayor Dave Bing has said he’s looking into issue of vacant properties, and will come up with a plan for the open space within the next 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, Hantz Farms says it has already purchased some acreage and plans to have crops growing in the city of Detroit later this season.

For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

You can learn more about the Hantz Farms plan at environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.