We’ve all seen the pictures, we’ve all heard the horror stories. We know about the 25% unemployment rate, the unsolved crimes; we know there’s not a single chain grocery store within the city limits. Detroit is depicted as the picture of dystopian America. But not everyone sees it that way. Plans to revitalize it surface emerge from time to time, but all the while, the 800,000 residents who remain have begun quietly transforming their own city, with small urban farms.
Now, financier John Hantz, a Detroit resident, is pushing a plan to convert large tracts of abandoned land within the city limits into a large urban farm. Hantz wants to use $30 million of his estimated $100 million personal fortune to establish farms that would sell produce locally and elsewhere, while helping to cut the city’s 25% unemployment rate.
Why a farm? Well, why not?
“Well, I wondered, ‘How could we create scarcity in a way that impacts everything else we’re trying to fix, like reduced services?’” he explains. “With a farm, you can turn the sewage and the water off; it takes care of blight; it’s actually cheap compared to other solutions, because once you’ve gotten down to the ground, you’ve succeeded. It’s really the cheapest option you have. So I came up with the farm and I wondered, ‘Who’s going to do that?’ And I thought, ‘No one.’ So if you think it’ll work, why don’t you try to do it?”
While some call it a land grab, Hantz does seem earnest about the social benefits of his plan; he claims a major reason he doesn’t want to run the venture as a non-profit is because the city needs the taxes — taxes they’re not collecting from empty spaces and abandoned homes. And the fact that he still lives in the city limits lends him some credibility. “To get to work, I leave the city and drive to the suburbs—the opposite of what most people do,” he said.
“[T]he farm will be open to schools so that students can come to the fields and touch fresh fruit,” Hantz said. “It will have a huge research component that will deal with aeroponics and hydroponics and breakthrough ideas in the new urban-ag industry.”
But, two years after he started working on this project, the city is still dragging its heels. The venture, Hantz Farms Detroit, broke ground in the spring and raised its first, experimental crop, but it still awaits city permits and decisions on such important matters as pesticide rules. State Representative Gabe Leland tried to grease the wheel in Lansing exempting the city from the state Right to Farm law, which would allow city officials to make their own rules concerning Hantz’s venture. But so far, no dice. And in the meantime, property values for those who remain in the city continue to fall.
But it seems that, steely-eyed capitalism aside, Hantz has a bit of the dreamer about him, too. He might be in it for the long haul.
“The world is going to change,” he said. “And Detroit could be a ground zero for new engineering and manufacturing of indoor growing systems.”