An Urban Farm in Detroit Aims for Profit

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

In the Penrose neighborhood of Detroit, two landscape architects, partners in business and life, are testing out a new for-profit model: the market garden. While Detroit has acres of non-profit-run farms growing fresh fruit and vegetables that are then donated to communities, Ken Weikal, ASLA, and Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, who run GrowTown, want to show the residents of this poor community in Detroit and elsewhere that anyone can apply an intensive, efficient farming method to one-third of an acre, grow high-value produce in all four seasons, and make $50,000 – $70,000 a year.

But their market garden model is really just one component of a more ambitious plan they are leading in the community, with support from the Kresge Foundation, non-profits, affordable housing developers Sam Thomas and Cynthia and Joe Solaka, to create a “garden district.”

Penrose covers some 200 acres and about 335 homes, of which 10 percent are vacant. The area GrowTown and the developers are focused on, the Penrose Village housing community, comprises some 30 acres. The average income in the area is around $10,000 – $30,000 and some 26 – 37 percent live below the poverty line. Before GrowTown, a neighborhood design studio, got involved, there were few public spaces.

In 2013, GrowTown worked with school groups and architect Steve Flum to create a park, with neighborhood kids co-designing the layout and design of the space and the featured element: a serpent.

Penrose art park / Jared Green
Penrose art park / Jared Green

Across the street, the landscape architects worked with the kids to create a maze in the overgrown grasses of the empty lot, teaching them about history of these land puzzles in the process.

Penrose maze / Ken Weikal
Penrose maze / Ken Weikal

In both 2007 and 2013, sets of 30-plus affordable housing units were developed. Along with the later set of housing came a new farmhouse, a town meeting hall, which is right next to the demonstration market garden. There, Hagenbuch tends to her micro-greens every day, educating locals about how this intensive system works, and working alongside the Arab American and Caldean Council (AAC), which is also using the farm to educate the residents of Penrose about nutrition.

The farm will eventually be run independently by local farmers, but, in the meantime, Hagenbuch and Weikal are working hard to prove the four-season intensive growing model themselves, documenting all of their learning for a new toolkit funded by Kresge.

The tunnel house is open to the air in the spring and summer when it grows micro-greens, which sell great locally because they don’t travel well; tomatoes; and other high-value produce. In fall and winter, an extra layer of plastic is added to the top and the sides are closed up. Then, the mix changes to beets, kale, and swiss chard, which will grow in a Detroit winter, but at a slower rate.

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

Outside the tunnel house there are additional plots cultivated in warmer months. Future garden elements will include orchards, rows of berry bushes, and fruit-covered trellises.

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

For now, Hagenbuch sells her produce at local farmers’ markets, saying it’s too challenging to meet the stringent demands of restaurants’ timelines. While she earns hundreds per batch of micro-greens, she admitted that “it’s hard work to make money at this. You have to be very business-like about it.”

Micro-greens / Jared Green
Micro-greens / Jared Green

Weikal and Hagenbuch have a vision for these market farms taking root in a network in Penrose, creating a new kind of agricultural urban community. Weikal said: “If we had 10 of these market farms in Penrose, that’s a half million of year being generated in this community.”

They also think locals will buy the produce. “People want fresh food right in their neighborhood; they want to buy food from their neighbors,” said Weikal.

Still, they agree that there are some real obstacles, like a lack of understanding of their intensive SPIN farming method and a lack of commitment to these techniques. Furthermore, to really make this system work, farmers will need some fairly expensive equipment, like a walk-in cooler to store produce before market; a quick-green harvester, which enables growers to do 4 hours of micro-green harvesting in 5 minutes; and a flame weeder, which is needed to ensure weeds don’t sneak into empty plots. “There are some upfront costs associated with a tricked-out market garden,” Weikal explained. But all of this will be covered in the toolkit they are developing, and, hopefully, some loans or incentives can be offered to make these expenses less of a burden to new market farmers.

Weikal said that what they are trying to accomplish isn’t new. “In the 1880s, Paris had super-high density farms in the city. In the 20th century, during wars or disaster, many cities went to intensive farming. Today, in Cuba and Asia, a lot of food is grown in cities.” But he added that, “here in Detroit, where food is grown for social justice, the idea of farming for profit makes some people uncomfortable. ‘Is it inclusive?,’ they ask.”

But Hagenbuch and Weikal are thinking about long-term economic sustainability and a time when many of the foundations and non-profits have moved on to another city.

2 thoughts on “An Urban Farm in Detroit Aims for Profit

  1. Don 06/16/2016 / 5:56 pm

    Thank you for the article. Please explain why this is “new”.

  2. Dan 06/22/2016 / 11:54 am

    I find it gratifying that Weikal includes sustainable economic ownership in their farm model. America was founded on private property rights along with, and connected to, other freedoms, surviving multiple attempts of destruction (even by our own government.) Social justice should come from the foundation of responsible commerce.

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