The Rust Belt goes green

In the 20th century, the American heartland — from Kansas City to Pittsburgh — sprouted factories that turned out everything from hammers to rocket engines. Now, after decades of hard times for manufacturing, the heartland is sprouting again. Only this time, the crop is sprouts – along with jobs, an urban-agriculture industry, and a solution to the problem of the “food deserts” that plague down-at-the-heels downtown neighborhoods.

The grassroots of urban farming are small volunteer groups of African-Americans and Hispanics banding together and either “garden-squatting” or winning permission to garden on small pieces of land owned by someone else.  It’s becoming a means of empowerment and self-determination for minority people to grow healthy food in areas abandoned by chain supermarkets.  Now hundreds of neighborhood gardens, tended by volunteer bands of minority city-dwellers, are cropping up in downtowns across the Midwest. But urban farming also is attracting entrepreneurs applying the same industrial approach to growing crops as they once would have to producing flywheels.

The roots of the urban-agriculture movement can be traced back 20 years to the ground-breaking efforts of Will Allen, a former pro basketball player and corporate sales executive who grew up on a farm. In 1993, Allen reclaimed two acres on Milwaukee’s north side and developed Growing Power, an outpost of agricultural education for inner-city youth to show them where food comes from. That early project has mushroomed. It now includes greenhouses growing salad ingredients, poultry pens, a 14-hive apiary, pens for goats, a composting operation, a rainwater collection system, and an anaerobic digester that turns organic waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Allen’s project has also become an idea farm, testing innovative approaches to soil enhancement, new growing methods, and ways to integrate different parts of the farming operation into closed loops in which one part’s waste is another’s raw material. Growing Power was an early testbed for hydroponics — growing food in beds of inert materials, such as ceramic beads, and bathing the roots with nutrient-rich fluids. The farm then added aquaponics, which connects hydroponic beds to tanks of fish raised for market. The tanks’ waters are circulated to the hydroponic beds, where plant roots draw out the nutrients contained in fish waste and return the cleaned water back to the fish. Combining hydroponics with fish farming uses up to 90% less water than traditional dirt farming.

Over the last 20 years, Allen’s plot has become a mecca, not only for urban farmers, but also for educators, public officials, and food policy advocates. Satellite farms have sprung up throughout Wisconsin and Illinois.

Today, Growing Power is only one among many urban farms that are creating secure jobs in city districts abandoned by manufacturing and teaching marketable skills to young people.

Factory farm

Ironically, much of the produce that feeds America’s heartland isn’t grown there. Jolanta Hardej, founder and CEO of FarmedHere LLC, will tell you that the typical head of lettuce sold in Chicago has traveled 1,200 miles, losing flavor, freshness, and nutrition along the way and trailing a carbon footprint almost half a continent long. But Hardej’s company doesn’t grow the typical head of lettuce.

FarmedHere LLC grows arugula, mint, four varieties of basil, and has inaugurated its own line of salad greens at what may be the largest indoor produce farm in the U.S., as well as a prototype of tomorrow’s truck farm. The company has reclaimed a 90,000-square-foot abandoned warehouse in Bedford Park, an industrial area of metro Chicago, and stacked hydroponic growing beds six high, each bed with its own ceiling of compact fluorescent grow lights that are never turned off. Stacking the beds yields 140,000 square feet of planting area, from which the company expects to harvest 300,000 pounds of produce this year. By 2015, it expects the yield to grow to a million pounds and plans to increase its 20-person staff ten-fold, in part by working with Windy City Harvest, a program that trains disadvantaged youth for technical work in urban agriculture. Last year, FarmedHere became the first large-scale indoor urban farm to be certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The produce is grown in little baskets made of coconut shells and held in place in the growbeds by foam floats. The hydroponic beds are aquaponic, plumbed to tanks of tilapia, so the closed loop discharges no water as waste. The company is beginning to use aeroponics, a technique that sprays plant roots with a nutrient-dense mist and needs even less water than other dirt-free growing systems.

Currently, FarmedHere wholesales to 55 Chicago-area retailers and restaurants, all within 25 miles of its plant. Customers include Whole Foods Market, which loaned Hardej and her partners $100,000 to help start the business. Retail prices are currently higher than for conventional produce but competitive with organic or specialty vegetables.

After testing the model in their native Chicago, the partners are now studying 20 other urban areas as potential markets and are interested in talking with investors to help the company grow nationwide.

An ecosystem of farms

Hardej has brought an industrial approach to indoor farming. A few miles away, in Chicago’s old stockyards district, former chef John Edel is fashioning an example of how an industrial site can be transformed into an urban food ecosystem. Welcome to The Plant.

In the old Buehler Brothers four-story meat-packing site, Edel’s tenants include hydroponic and aquaponic vegetable growers, two bakers, and a brewer of kombucha, a vegetable tea. Each plays a role in The Plant’s internal symbiosis.

For example, waste from the vegetable beds is raw material for the kombucha brewery and also channeled to an anaerobic digester that turns organic materials into methane. The methane is used to fuel the building’s turbine generator (made from a reclaimed jet engine,which makes power to light the growing beds and creates carbon dioxide, which also is directed back to the vegetable beds. The sludge from the digester fertilizes the vegetable beds and some plants for the aquaponic farms’ fish.

This summer, Edel will add a beer brewer to his crop of tenants – an essential element in his plan to heat and cool the building using internally-created fuel. The generator also produces heat that can be used to fire the brewery’s tanks. The hot water can be pumped to a chiller and used to cool the building. The brewery’s spent grains will be sent to the anaerobic digester, making more raw materials for The Plant’s other occupants.

The Plant is destined to become part of an even larger ecosystem that will include its parking lot. Much of the three-acre site will eventually be marked by swales, permeable pavement, rain gardens, and other features to channel and capture rainwater and snowmelt, further reducing the building’s need to import resources. Over time, more of the outdoor area will be converted to growing beds for tenants, who will be able to build greenhouses—on the ground and also on The Plant’s rooftop—and then warm them with heat generated inside the building.

Up on the roof

When it comes to roof gardens, New York City-based BrightFarms is out to corner the market. The firm grew out of urban farming pioneer Ted Caplow’s vision of using bare, flat urban rooftops — especially those of grocery stores and shopping malls — to grow commercial produce. The idea parallels the solar industry’s power purchase contract: an energy service company rents space atop commercial buildings, installs solar panels, and sells the electricity generated
to the buildings’ tenants and the power grid. Instead of energy, BrightFarms would sell produce grown on top of a supermarket to the store below. Cutting the food’s shipping time and costs would deliver fresher food at a potentially cheaper, and definitely more environmentally friendly, price.

So far, BrightFarms has advised on greenhouses atop the Manhattan School for Children; and the Forest Houses affordable housing project in the Bronx. It’s currently developing the world’s largest rooftop farm in partnership with the A&P chain of supermarkets — 100,000 square feet of glassed-in growing space in Brooklyn that will grow a million pounds of produce a year, feed up to 5,000 New Yorkers, employ 25 full-time workers, and divert almost two million gallons of water from the city’s sewer system each year.

But BrightFarms isn’t limiting itself to rooftops, many of which aren’t engineered to take the additional weight of a large growing operation. In Kansas City, Missouri, BrightFarms has inked a deal to build a 100,000-square-foot greenhoused farm in the Berkley Development Park, a 45-acre riverfront site targeted for a mix of homes, offices, and stores. The $4-million farm is expected to create 25 jobs and produce more than a million pounds of produce a year. A twin of the project is to be built in St. Louis, in partnership with the Schnucks supermarket chain, and other projects are being developed in St. Paul and Oklahoma City.

Farming Detroit

However, urban farming doesn’t have to be all about food, as John Hantz is proving in Detroit.

Once the U.S.’s fourth largest city and a symbol of American industrial power, Detroit is bankrupt and in serious trouble. It has lost more than half of the two million people who lived there during its heyday. More than a quarter of its 139 square miles, encompassing more than 200,000 individual land parcels, are abandoned. As a result of tax foreclosures, the city and its school district now own about 25% of Detroit’s real estate. The city is so broke it can’t even afford to hire contractors to tear down all the derelict houses. “Detroit will probably be a city of 700,000 people when it’s all said and done,” Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, told Fortune magazine. “The big challenge is, what do you do with a population of 700,000 in a geography that can accommodate three times that much?”

Hantz has come up with the answer: You create the largest urban tree farm in the world.

Hantz is the founder of Detroit’s Hantz Group, which began as an investment management firm and has morphed into a conglomerate owning businesses as diverse as a bank, a private jet charter service, and a bowling alley. Passing block after block of urban blight on his way to his office each morning, Hantz evolved a plan: invest as much as $30 million to buy up to 10,000 acres of vacant city land, clear it, and plant high-value tree seedlings — maples and oaks, primarily. After a few years, the trees could be sold as nursery stock or raised to maturity, generating cash while reclaiming city lots.

The city signed on. Last December, it agreed to sell Hantz 1,500 lots at $300 each. The deal raised howls among inner-city residents who complained that, if the city was selling lots at giveaway prices, the land should go to folks in the neighborhood instead of to a corporation. The city council overrode the concerns, pointing to the larger social benefit that Hantz’s plan would bring and the financial difficulties individuals could face in trying to put individual lots in down-at-the-heels neighborhoods to equally beneficial uses.

Why trees? The 1,500 lots Hantz has committed to buy cover 150 acres “and that would be a lot of salad greens,” says Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms. Also, residents in the neighborhoods where Hantz is launching its venture didn’t want to see bare garden patches for six months of the year, were concerned that a food farm might use chemical pesticides, and worried that fields of edibles would encourage the city’s already ample population of rats and other rodents. Besides, the fields would need to be fenced to reduce pilferage, making the plots more costly and less visually attractive.

“We didn’t set out to grow food,” Score emphasizes. “Our intention was to do something on a large scale to help make the city more livable and recover our expenses over time.”

Hantz and Score considered planting Christmas tree fields, but — in addition to also inviting pilferage — the idea didn’t please the target area’s residents. So the company settled on the idea of hardwoods.

But Hantz can do more with the land than simply watch his trees grow. The farm could cultivate ornamental shrubs under the tree canopy and sell them as nursery stock or to homeowners. Varieties of gourmet mushrooms can be grown on trees and in wooded areas; genuine maple syrup is a sought-after delicacy. Bees could be hived on the land and produce commercial products such as honey, pollen, and beeswax. As the trees mature, the park-like lands could be rented as sites for weddings, family reunions, and other special events.

So far, Hantz Farms has reclaimed 6.5 acres around its office building. Its agreement with the city calls for it to buy a total of 1,500 lots, raze at least 50 condemned or dangerous structures, mow all properties at least once every three weeks in season, and plant 15,000 trees. Score expects to complete the one-time tasks well within the two-year window called for in its agreement.

In addition, the 15,000 trees will fit comfortably on 15 acres, leaving the rest of the land open to other possibilities. As neighborhoods see results and become comfortable with Hantz and his company, “they might ask us to do something other than plant trees,” Score says.

Whatever that might be, it’s not likely to be labor-intensive. Hantz Farms is mowing about 350 lots — roughly 20 acres — with a total payroll of two full-time employees and one part-time and expects to add no more than another three or four. The farm’s economic benefits are expected to be indirect: Hantz is reducing the city’s inventory of derelict land and adding parcels back onto the tax rolls.

As weedy, abandoned lots are beautified, the value of surrounding houses and neighborhoods increases and people become more inclined to continue living in them — or even return to them — instead of abandoning them and fleeing elsewhere. Businesses stay and grow where people live, reviving the local economies in the rescued neighborhoods. There’s more growing here than trees.

Hantz’s approach was tacitly supported by the Detroit Future City plan unveiled in January. Under the plan, the more densely populated parts of Detroit would be shored up with cash investments, improved infrastructure, better public transportation, and other services, such as job training programs. People still in neighborhoods losing population would be given incentives to move to more populous areas, bringing additional vitality to those neighborhoods and concentrating city services. The abandoned parts of town would be given over to environmental uses, including farms and urban forests.

Detroit also has endorsed a Michigan State University plan to explore the possibility of establishing a $100-million urban agriculture research center on 100 acres in the city. With luck, some of these plans will be able to blossom even while Detroit is in the throes of bankruptcy.

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