Would the Hantz Farm be good for Detroit?

detfarmLast week, in the wake of a post on urban food production and how it might help stave off the impending cannibal apocalypse, a reader by the name of KJC asked what people thought about John Hantz, and his plans to create a massive for-profit farm in the heart of downtown Detroit. As I didn’t have much knowledge about Hantz, a Detroit-based financial services millionaire, and his plans, I started doing a little research. And, after making a few calls, I was directed toward the following analysis of the project by Christopher Bedford, the founder of Michigan’s Center for Economic Security.

There was a special break out session at the Food & Society Conference in San Jose in April on this project. About 20 people gathered to hear a presentation of the Hantz Detroit Proposal. It was a stunning, disturbing session — one that further indicates how much trouble Michigan really is in.

The proposal? To ultimately create a 20,000 acre farm (about 26 square miles), in the heart of a major city. The presenter (a fellow by the name of Matt Allen) talked about consulting with MSU Extension, MSU, Michael Hamm of the CS Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, and other “experts” to develop their proposal — implying strongly that the 20,000 acre farm was supported by these institutions and people.

When I was in Detroit last, Dan Carmody told me the proposal was to grow Christmas trees on the land — not food.

A bookstore owner and food activist from Detroit used the word “plantation” in the first sentence of his question once the discussion began in San Jose. Indeed, the proposal is for the creation of a “plantation” amidst several hundred thousand poor and challenged urban residents. The jobs created would be farm labor jobs — transforming Detroit’s neighborhoods into farm labor housing, IF Detroit residents actually got the work. So much for the Jeffersonian ideal of the agrarian freeholder as the basis of democracy.

The presenter talked in broad, moral terms about “creating” a legacy for Detroit. I asked him, “Wouldn’t your legacy be more positive if you helped create 2,000 ten acre farms with community ownership than a 20,000 acre plantation?” He was silent to this question.

The Hantz proposal is a kind of extreme parody of what is wrong with our food system, particularly in Michigan…. A few points:

• They propose to grow a commercial non-food crop in one of the most profound food deserts in our nation.

• They ignore and profoundly undermine Detroit’s growing and exemplary community garden and urban farm movement based on the great work of Greening of Detroit (Ashley Atkinson), Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (Malik Yakini), the Eastern Market (Dan Carmody) and many others.

Land tenure for urban agriculture is a critical issue. This project answers those important questions unilaterally.

• They ignore and ultimately defeat the entrepreneurial opportunity the local food revolution offers Detroit residences, not just to feed themselves and their families but to develop self-reliance and community resilience through community enterprise.

• The proposal ignores the people of Detroit, their interests, their dignity, their future.

• The proposal is another example of Michigan’s command-and-control approach to agriculture (at the state level) which continues to ignore the lessons the state should have learned from its singular dependence on the auto industry. Hantz Farms is poster child for the idea, “If brute force isn’t working, you aren’t using enough of it.” We don’t need more monocultures. We need diversity.

• Finally, the discussion of Hantz Farms as an agricultural project ignores what it ultimately is — a dishonest grab of some of the most valuable (in the future) land in Michigan. Once Hantz owns the land, who is to say what he will use it for in five years, ten years. In the Post-Petroleum era, land in urban centers like Detroit will become much more valuable as food supply lines, by necessity, shorten.

This proposal is like passengers on the Titanic breaking up the ship’s lifeboats for firewood.
It is just plain stupid, or worse, the beginning of the grab of land and other resources of the powerless by the powerful in the new age of scarcity upon us.

At its heart, this proposal is about justice — or, more appropriately, about injustice posing as progress.

Chris Bedford

And I should mention that this letter of Bedford’s appears with his consent… Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, I like that a successful local entrepreneur wants to invest his own money and buy up land in the city for the purposes of farming. On the face of it, it’s a good idea, as it would increase the scarcity of plots available for development. As we’ve discussed here before, Detroit is bigger than Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco combined. Sprawl is a colossal problem in Detroit, and it certainly contributes to the perception that “nothing good is happening in the city.” Taking 26 square miles out the mix would force people toward the City center, thereby, I think, making it more likely that some critical mass of activity might be reached. But, on the other hand, I think that Bedford makes a persuasive argument, that, in the end, growing corn for high fructose corn syrup in Detroit, probably isn’t going to raise the standard of living of average residents very much. What might, however, is creating a thousand community-owned gardens, where people could grow their own food, and raise crops to be sold at Eastern Market and elsewhere. And, I think that Bedford is right to ask what the developers long range plans might be for the land, once things begin to turn around in the city. I agree that this could all be a play to buy up land cheap and sit on it for a few years, waiting for the opportunity to sell it for significantly more. With all of that said, however, I don’t think I have a problem with Hantz pursuing it as an entrepreneur. If he can acquire the acreage himself, and follows the law with regard to pesticide use, the containment of wastewater runoff, etc, I think he should be encouraged. If, however, the City gets involved, and begins taking properties from their legal owners with the claim of eminent domain, well, that’s a different matter altogether.

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  1. Posted January 10, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone asked if folks in Detroit want to or are willing to be farmers? As you know Mark, I teach school in Detroit and while I would never assume to speak for folks in Detroit, I will say that I have never heard much talk about gardening or farming. This is not to say that folks aren’t interested in it, but this is not a huge topic of conversation. So I would say that there should first be some sort of look to see if this is of interest to folks (and who knows? Maybe one has been done and people are chomping at the bit to be farmers).
    Overall, this reminds me of how white folks like to solve the problems of others, namely minorities but never think to *ask* other folks how they feel. I know foodies who are just dying to get organic food to Detroiters and agonize over how to get them to want/like that kind of food. I’ve tried to explain that right now, organic food is not a priority in Detroit. Again, not to say it couldn’t be, but right now folks have a million more issues to contend with–and as my teacher’s aide put it, “If Walmart’s got it for $1 but the other place has it for $3 and I only have $1 in my pocket, well, guess where I’m buying it?”
    PS: The blog Stuff White People Like addresses the issue of how we love to solve poverty and other issues.

  2. Posted January 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    That’s funny, a friend from Africa came back into town and said that for all the money spent on trying to get people to use solar stoves in Africa, nobody uses them. He said it’d be a lot better to sell more efficient fossil-fuel burning stoves and teach people how to plant a few trees for every one they cut down. Or something along those lines. I guess people burning wood fires for cooking in their homes is a big cause of lung-health issues and also deforestation. I’m paraphrasing and probably getting something wrong, but I think that was the gist of it.

  3. Posted January 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know much about the plan, Patti, but my sense is that Hantz isn’t looking to grow obscure organic greens. Given the commentary I’ve read, he’s probably looking to grow big cash crops, which probably means soy and corn. As for whether people want farm jobs, I don’t know. I suspect, however, that a lot of people would love to have an opportunity to work as long as the pay is fair.

    And, for what it’s worth, I do think that there are non-white people downtown who are concerned about access to healthy food. (see Detroit Black Community Food Security Network) With that said, though, I agree with you that there are a lot of folks who project their own wants/needs when discussing the plight of the urban poor.

  4. Posted January 10, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Is it the best that could happen? No. Is it better than what’s there now? Yes. As long as it’s not done through eminent domain and sweetheart deals, I’m fine with it regardless of how much money Hantz makes on it.

  5. Amanda
    Posted January 10, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    among the literally thousands of people engaged in urban gardening and urban farming in detroit (many of whom have been for a long long time in a very grassroots, community-owned way)


  6. Andy Ypsilanti
    Posted January 10, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    There is a movement to use the Water Street Property as an urban farm. A meeting was held last weekend, and about 30 people came out to the Tap Room to talk about Water Street, Urban Farming, and Ypsi in general. There is a Facebook Page you can join to learn more information, just look up Water-street Farm-Ypsilanti. More info will be available soon, for those who don’t like the faceyspacer. We would like to include a few raised bed gardens in the Water Street Trail project, just to get a little head start and illustrate how an urban farm can be created.

  7. Tom
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    What other topics about Ypsilanti were talked about?
    Thank you,


  8. Kim
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think anyone was arguing against urban farming, or saying that burned out crack houses are preferable to fields of corn. The main issue seems to be ownership. I think the use of the term “plantation” is pretty heavy-handed, but I think there’s legitimate concern behind it. This farm may employ a few local folks, but they aren’t likely to get minimum wage. Still, for Detroit, it would be a step forward.

  9. Tom-IliveinYpsi.
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Urban farming in a highly toxic site at Waterstreet?


  10. Posted January 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    How “highly toxic” is Water Street? If there is toxicity, how deep into the ground does it go, and how long long is it likely to persist if no reclamation work is done? Has anyone done soil tests, etc. or are we just making assumptions?

  11. Curt Waugh
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    One gent I heard talking about Detroit community farming said that the ground was polluted so they simply built boxes on top of the ground to make the small plots and brought in uncontaminated soil.

  12. Tom-IliveinYpsi.
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    It is well documented when discussing anything about Waterstreet,
    a lot of money is/was needed to clean up the toxic site.
    A big problem with the site is who, is/was going to pay for it?
    not assumptions, reality and a big problem.
    good luck,


  13. Joe Posch
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    It is my understanding that some of the grass-roots opposition to this commercial venture has to do with concerns about regulating, zoning and taxing farming in the city. Right now the community and small-scale gardens can pretty much do what they want. If commercial gardening enters the picture, scrutiny will follow.

    Inflammatory racial remarks come up with everything in Detroit. If you are opposed to something, turn it into a race thing. Kwame was the king of that, the “lynch mob” mentality comments.

  14. Joe Posch
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Oh also, a really good argument for not planting crops for consumption, at least not right away, is soil contamination. Nobody knows exactly how contaminated the soil on the near east side is or what it will take to remediate it at this point.

  15. Posted January 12, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, the remediate issue is huge in Detroit. I would think that it would be difficult to fund a 26 square mile parcel without some huge percentage needing remediation. Of course, I guess they could bring new soil it, but that seems kind of silly when they could just grow the crops with the clean soil is in the first place.

  16. Andy Ypsilanti
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Ok, for starters, Water Street is not “highly toxic” as was suggested by someone here. Most of the pollution has been remediated, and most of the remainder will be done in the spring. For the record, one of the ideas for remediation the one untreated area, the Ypsi Metals site, involves using sunflowers to draw out the pollution and then disposing of them as polluted material. Go to the city’s website and read the EPA reports if you would like to learn the accurate information on Water Street pollution levels. As for the farming project, the lead organizer has been steadily researching the issues of pollution and abatement, and can tell you all sorts of things about how to avoid the issue of pollution in agriculture, from raised bed farming (which we hope to experiment with along the hiking trail this spring) to pollution eating alga.

    The original idea of the Water Street farm was also to have a for profit venture to try and provide jobs by selling high quality produce to local people and businesses. No one knows if that is possible. The heart behind the idea, like so much else going on in our community, is to just take steps to improve our situation. Are a farm or a walking trail going to save our city? Certainly not. But starting these grass roots projects will do a hell of a lot more for our city than whining about all of our problems.

    I have been involved in a few projects already this year that give me a lot of hope for Ypsi. The group that came together for this farming project was amazingly diverse. We talked about city politics, Water Street, urban farming, city parks, busses, had a couple drinks, shared some laughs, had a great hike on the Water Street trail (considering it was like 10 degrees that day) and generally shared our love of Ypsi. I even met an A2 resident that loves and promotes Ypsi to her uptight friends and neighbors in the Deuce; I didn’t even know such a person existed. If our leaders are willing to take some risks on projects like this that are community led and outside the box, who knows what we can do in this city. The city’s own 2020 study says that we should become a creative community. These are creative idea by creative people aimed at nothing else but doing good for the city. I firmly believe we have the people here capable of making Ypsi a model of how to resurrect Michigan cities, if we want it, and if we are willing to try.

  17. Posted January 16, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Also, check out the article entitled DETROIT: URBAN LABORATORY AND THE NEW AMERICAN FRONTIER at NewGeography.com. It’s a really good compilation.

  18. John Bystrom
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    You really need to take a look at Master Hantz is saying….in the CNN Money article Hantz stated that what Detroit needed is “scarcity.” What that means is that the value of property will go up when less of that land is available…..and when he controls large swaths, prices will go up because other investors will perceive scarcity and want to buy in before the price gets higher. It is about the money…no matter what he says…

    If Hantz had another couple billion, he might be able to buy the Lions and we’d all be better off…

    Unfortunately, our government ie Michigan State University has bought into the plan. Hantz has paid them off, hired their guy Mike Score and will probably make a couple large donations to the college of ag or something.

  19. Stacy
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Teacher Patti,

    I am white and was raised in the city of Detroit at 6 and Gratiot. I was poor but I had food that I could go purchase at the local bakery, meat store, fruit market. I could go to a grocery store nearby as well. My friends were black, white, Chinese, Philipino, Indian, Polish, Italian, German, Irish and Chaldean. Because of the crime in our city, thanks to the most corrupt Mayor Young and his attempts to keep us down, we had to fight for our own survival. We worked together to keep our community as safe as possible. We couldn’t rely on the Detroit Police to protect us. We had to rely on each other. The color of our skin didn’t matter. It is people like you that continue to cause a division in the races. How dare you assume that “white folks” are trying to solve other people’s problems. The problem of the citizens of Detroit not having access to fresh, healthy food is not a race thing. It is a people thing. The neighborhood I grew up in looks like a war zone. The markets I used to be able to buy local and fresh food from are all gone because of the crime that plagues that city like a cancer. That crime is a mentality, not a color. Crime doesn’t have a color Teacher Patti. It is an attitude, a way of viewing life, a way of thinking. I grew up with that mentality all around me and so did the others that didn’t share my heritage. We all fought hard to keep ourselves from becoming victim to the way of thinking that has finally won and taken over Detroit. I am fed up with people of any color blaming everyone but themselves for the situation they are in. We are all responsible for what happens to us. All of us. Yes Teacher Patti, I grew up poor and in a dangerous place and white, not black but the love of my family, my faith and my community kept me from giving in to the mentality that somebody owes me something and that I shouldn’t be responsible for what happens to me. That Mayor Young and his cronies did this to me as so many white people like to spew, or that the white man did this like to many black people like to spew. We are all faced with things that can make or break us in this life. It is how we respond to it that will decide how we will turn out. But, unless we have the support of the community to help us, our chances of succeeding is very low. So, urban farming creates community. The people of Detroit see the value in being able to grow their own food so they can have something other than what the corner liquor store has to offer. They can take that food and sell it at various farmers markets around town and make some money for their families. They are a community who supports each other. They are teaching their children the value of community and hard work. Your inflammatory comments and attitude is the very same attitude that keep the citizens of Detroit down. Rather than bashing white people and this urban farming movement which, is quite ignorant and what Dr. Martin Luther King fought hard to stop and lost his life doing it, educate yourself on the movement and take a look at the diverse group of people who have joined together to help this movement grow. Your name lends one to believe you are a teacher. Rather than teaching the hate that was clearly stated in your post, teach respect and love. I don’t know if you caught President Obama’s prayer breakfast speech this morning, February 4, 2010, but he talked a lot about civility and faith. I encourage you to watch it and apply what he states to your life and start finding solutions to the problems rather than continuing to be a hater and a blamer. I am so glad you were not someone in my community growing up. I would have never made it if I was surrounded by people like you . You have a responsibility to help our youth grow out of the mindset that they are owed and that white people somehow hurt them. Check out the various urban garden networks around town. Take a tour, look at what this beautiful community is doing with our beloved Detroit.

  20. russ
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Very sad that divisive racial remarks were introduced into this conversation. With that attitude, any creative re-thinking of how to rebuild this city is doomed before it begins.

  21. Posted April 13, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    As an architect I can attest that the prospect of devloping urban land for agriculture is yet another buzz idea of the Green movement. The issue for me with this project unlike what is being discussed in cutting-edge architectural circles is the idea of vertical farming (agricultural towers) vs horizontal farming (traditional farming). There are many arguments why vertical farming is a very good idea and only really one against (that vertical farming is initially cost prohibitive). The benefits are: higher crop yields, less water usage, insusceptibility to traditional farming problems like drought or crop infestation, no soil-degradation through petro-fertilizers or soil erosion, high quality of agricultural product, localized food source, local job opportunities, etc…

    I do not know anything specifically about the Hantz groups plans other than what little information I can get online and the rendering at the top of the page. I do know, however, that this opportunity represents an immense market-anticipatory opportunity for Detroit if it is done right.

    As to anyone who would question whether or not anyone wants to actually do this kind work. I would pose the question, when did we get so out of touch with reality that unemployed people in an economically downtrodden area would refuse work or a chance to work. If these people are too picky then we can find someone else who will to this work. Our society has become scared or boredwith good old fashioned hard labor. A verticle ranch would, by the way, not represent hard labor. It would be more of a technical job unassociable with traditional farm labor. Hopefully this will not cast me as a racist, but isn’t there a quickly growing Mexican population in Detroit? I gaurantee these people will do the job.

  22. Posted April 13, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Caven, I appreciate your comments, but I’m wondering if Detroit might be a unique case in that so much of it is desolate. The benefit of urban farming here, as I understand it, is that it would allow us to cut our downtown down to a more manageable size. Right now, I believe it’s as big as Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco together, with only a fraction of the population of any one. I’m still not saying that it’s a good idea. I don’t know. I just wanted to point out that unique aspect… So, it’s not as though we’d be turning valuable land into farmland. Taking this property off the grid, would actually help us save millions.

    The interesting thing about this, and I think it’s mentioned elsewhere in the comments, is that the developer could be snatching up the land cheap, with the CIty’s help, taking it off the market, waiting for the demand to rise, and selling it back for development at a later time, at a huge profit. Some people see this as evil. I think it sounds like a pretty good business plan.

  23. Teresa
    Posted June 25, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    • Finally, the discussion of Hantz Farms as an agricultural project ignores what it ultimately is — a dishonest grab of some of the most valuable (in the future) land in Michigan. Once Hantz owns the land, who is to say what he will use it for in five years, ten years. In the Post-Petroleum era, land in urban centers like Detroit will become much more valuable as food supply lines, by necessity, shorten.

    I had to chuckle when I read this part of the letter. Someday this land is going to be the “most valuable” in Michigan. Where has Chris been living….that land has not been valuable since when the 30ies or 40ies. The property value in Detroit has been going down forever. If this guy does not do something productive with the land…who will. Business men are not knocking down the door to do business in Detroit. The land probably started out as farm land so let it be farmland for awhile and then become something else. At the very least the property will be cleaned up.

  24. Barb K
    Posted February 25, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I visited the Hantz Farm website. They are very careful to use the term “natural” which could mean anything. Unless Hantz Farms is going to commit to being organically certified, then there are several concerns that would be raised. First and foremost, organic farming does not allow GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). Considering that 93% of the soy grown in this country is GMO, then what are the chances that unmodified seed would be used? For those farming in local community gardens, there should be a concern for contamination of their seed stock.
    Right now, there are “land prospectors” betting that future properties are going become more valuable. I think that this is a genuine concern. Administrations change, zoning boards change.

  25. B.
    Posted January 16, 2012 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Have them plant sunflowers first off. Maybe for a couple of years, even. This is what was planted on land near Chernobyl, after the nuclear mess there many years ago. Apparently sunflowers clean the soil.

  26. Arion ater
    Posted April 15, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    If he’s got the bucks to buy the land at market value and develop it himself, Hantz should be able to have a farm. But giving him the land? Maybe not so much a good idea. Tax breaks? Maybe for awhile. Let’s see what he can do with 80-acres, a more reasonable sized chunk of land – in line with the first European settlers. He can even use a tractor instead of a mule.

  27. Edward
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    From the Free Press this weekend:

    Michigan State University has proposed building an urban-agriculture research center in the city of Detroit that over time could grow into a 100-acre campus and a $100-million investment.

    The goal, said Rick Foster, director of MSU’s Greening Michigan Institute, is to make Detroit the center of a worldwide research effort devoted to growing food inside cities as a way to get fresh food to urban residents and to put vacant urban land back into productive use.

    Research efforts would include “vertical agriculture,” in which food is grown inside multi-story buildings, and innovative ways to produce energy and conserve water in food production.

    If implemented, Detroit would become the key research city in a network that includes Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, Nairobi and others.

    Detroit “could be the research and innovation engine” for urban agriculture around the world, Foster said this month. The other cities “look at Detroit as the place where many of the answers will come from.”


  28. Sue
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    As of August, 2012, Hantz is trying to grow a crop of trees that take many years to mature. How is this supposed to help Detroit? Sure it would cut the grass and clean the lots, but the same thing will happen if the city would let it’s citizens, who want land to build on, buy the land. We are blocked at every turn. We can’t even buy lots next to our homes. Is this justice? Many people would feel better if the project was headed by a committee that represented the people instead of one businessman trying to set up his own private plantation in a city with a large minority population.

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