Vertical Farming Sprouts In Detroit's Brightmoor District
Vertical farming sprouts in Detroit's Brightmoor district
John Gallagher , Detroit Free Press 11:12 p.m. EDT May 2, 2015
Known as Artesian Farms, the venture is a rare example of vertical agriculture in the city -- growing food in trays stacked up to 14 feet tall to greatly increase the production capacity of any given space.
Detroit's urban farmers have proven some of the most innovative people in the city.
They've reclaimed vacant lots and learned how to bring fresh, nutritious food to neighborhoods in need of it.
Now two new ventures continue that innovation by introducing vertical farming systems into the city's mix.
One, known as Artesian Farms of Detroit in the Brightmoor district on the far west side, has begun to grow vegetables in a hydroponic system -- trays filled with water and nutrients -- stacked up to 14 feet tall.
The other, known as Green Collar Foods, set up its vertical racks last week in a corner of Eastern Market's newly renovated Shed 5. It uses an aeroponics system, in which nozzles mist a thin watery film on the roots of plants suspended in air inside trays.
Growing plants indoors inside cities has been done for a long time in various places around the world, including in the RecoveryPark project on Detroit's east side. Now adding vertical racks greatly increases the production capacity of any given project by taking advantage of vertical space.
"It doesn't necessarily take a huge building," Ron Reynolds, one of the partners in Green Collar Foods, said last week at Eastern Market. "You don't have to go to the city and say, 'I'd like that 50,000-square-foot building.' Effectively in 400 square feet you can have three stories up. So a lot of the buildings begin to open up for viability."
These vertical growing systems typify how urban farming has undergone rapid innovation in recent years. Practitioners around the world have learned to wring increased production from seemingly barren urban sites to bring fresh, nutritious food to city residents.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Detroit recently and said that growing food inside cities could become an important part of regional food systems in a world beset by drought and other issues. Detroit, he added, is known far and wide as one of the centers of that movement.
"I think it's real and I think it's a great complement to the agriculture that takes part in other parts of the country," Vilsack said. "We face a very interesting challenge of feeding an ever-increasing world population when the land available for production will likely shrink. We have to have new and creative ways to produce the food to feed our people."
Artesian is the creation of Jeff Adams, a neighborhood resident who spent most of his career marketing automotive products and then spent a decade fund raising for nonprofits. A few years ago, he was inspired by Detroit's well-known west-side urban farmers like Riet Schumack and Malik Yakini.
"I was looking for entrepreneurial opportunities that could employ neighborhood people," he said last week. "The whole urban garden thing really peaked my interest."
He bought an empty industrial building in Brightmoor last August. It had been empty since 1998. He installed a system of vertical racks designed and produced by Green Spirit Farms of New Buffalo, Mich. Known as Vertical Growing Stations, the units are 14 to 16 feet high utilizing specially designed lighting that provides the right type of light at the right intensity for a good growing environment.
Each VGS can hold approximately 1,200 to 2,400 plants depending on the produce to be grown. With about 6,000 square feet of space in his building, Adams has enough room to install 40 of the vertical racks, which he estimates is the equivalent to about 20 acres of field growing. Adams can harvest 17 crops per year of a mix of salad greens including several types of leafy lettuce plus spinach, kale, and basil.
Muir and Rhazes lettuce grow under induction lamps at Artesian Farms, which the founder hopes to have fully operational by the end of the summer. (Photo: Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press)
For somebody who was trying to solve as many problems as possible, vertical farming seemed to offer the best opportunities.
"You look at what it means for our city -- transforming blight, employing local people, and then you look at how it affects the environment," he said. "This system can grow produce year round and uses about 90% less water than what is used where our big agriculture belts are in California and Arizona."
He hired a local Brightmoor woman, Yvette Martinez Evans, to work full time helping him tend to the plants. "I thought it was great because I always liked growing stuff in the outdoors," Evans said last week.
Unlike the vast majority of community gardens in Detroit, Artesian Farms is a for-profit entity, an L3C organization known as a social enterprise, where the profits go to support community needs. Initial funding for the project was provided by Impact T3 Investment Fund, Skillman Foundation, Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation and the Scott Brickman Family Trust.
Adams plans initially to distribute his produce in local farmers markets, but he's working on an agreement with the Whole Foods chain to sell his salad greens in the company's stores in metro Detroit.
"This will turn a pretty significant profit once it gets operational," he said.
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.