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Bringing Agriculture Back to Detroit

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When John Hantz drove through downtown Detroit several years ago, he did so with a heavy heart. Having lived and worked in the area for more than 20 years, he knew it during its boom times, when it bustled with energy from the city’s large industrial core. Now, he was faced with a different reality: one characterized by vacant fields, derelict homes, and countless warehouses in disrepair.

For a while, Hantz was optimistic that city officials would resolve these problems. But as the visible signs of Detroit’s decay grew, his optimism waned. He began to realize that the city government was ill-equipped to manage the vast quantity of land needing attention, and instead, the situation required private intervention.

After years of success in the financial services industry, Hantz was well positioned to get involved. In 2008, he took a bold step, setting aside $30 million of his own funds to be spread out over ten years to establish a unique urban agriculture business venture, Hantz Farms, intended to transform Detroit’s barren landscape into a vibrant agricultural one and reignite interest and investment in the city.
Although some people questioned the logic of putting Detroit’s vacant land and decaying buildings into agricultural use, Hantz felt the city’s resource base lent itself perfectly to the development of a large for-profit farm operation. As Michael Score, Hantz’s business partner and president of Hantz Farms, explains it, ‘The problems that rural farmers face simply don’t exist in this type of urban environment. For example, there is next to no cost in getting products from the production point to the end user. Both are in close proximity to one another, eliminating many of the expenses associated with shipping and storage that one would incur in more remote locations.”

Plus, Score says, Hantz Farms provides the city of Detroit with a unique opportunity to capitalize on low-cost real estate. “We can buy buildings in the city of Detroit very inexpensively, which leaves us with resources to convert them into agro- or hydroponic production facilities. This, in turn, creates conditions under which we can grow products and generate revenue year-round.” At the same time, because Hantz Farms would convert several vacant residential and commercial properties to productive agricultural use, the need for urban services (such as police or fire protection) in these areas would significantly decrease. This, Score says, would not only reduce municipal costs, but also help generate much-needed tax revenue for the city.

In spite of the many benefits that Hantz Farms has to offer Detroit, and the fact that it has received positive feedback from many members of the local community, the project has faced a number of hurdles. For example, concerns have been raised about the impact that a large-scale agricultural operation will have on Detroit’s long-term economic growth. Problems have also arisen due to the lack of agricultural ordinances in Detroit. As Score describes it, “We need government ordinances to legally be able to do what we want to do, and currently none exist. And, to complicate matters, there appear to be no major ordinances in other cities that we can easily adopt and apply to our unique situation here in Detroit.”

Corruption in Michigan’s political system has created additional barriers for businesspeople like Hantz. According to Score, for many years the only way to receive approval for different projects was to offer a series of bribes to government officials. The cost of such bribes made it nearly impossible for small and, in some cases, even large-scale operations to gain a foothold in Detroit.

Thankfully, Score says, times are changing. The federal government has cracked down on state-wide corruption, dramatically reducing the financial barrier to entry into the Detroit marketplace. At the same time, the interest in local food has markedly increased, creating a friendlier social, political, and economic climate for the type of change Hantz Farms hopes to bring about. “It’s still taken a lot of persistence on our part,” notes Score, adding that Hantz Farms spent two years and half a million dollars in its launch phase. “But we now have a 70-acre site on the lower east side of the city and hope to begin mapping soils this spring.”

If all goes as planned, Hantz Farms will offer Detroit much more than fresh fruits and vegetables; it will become a “global center for agricultural innovation” where consumers, farmers, and academics alike can learn about the latest in agricultural production systems and methods. Included are plans to raise some fruit and vegetable crops organically.

In addition, the Farm envisions offering a “Disney-land” style experience, where tourists can come and enjoy harvest festivals (among other things) every week of the year.

As Score puts it, “If we achieve our vision [for Hantz Farms], we will breathe life back into Detroit and put it on the map as an example of the power of urban agriculture at its best.”