An Urban Farm Story: How to Fight Blight in Detroit

Detroit urban farm fights blight

Steven Elam, principal of Southeastern High School in Detroit, wants his students to help their community get back on its feet and he thinks an urban farm can do it.

“This is our neighborhood. We want to be a part of it,” Elam said.

Right outside the school’s front door, students planted trees with Hantz Woodlands, an urban farm started in one-square-mile of the city’s Lower East Side, where vacant houses and overgrown yards weakened home values, fostered crime and, generally, supported the opinion that the city was dying.

Hantz Woodlands (part of Hantz Farms) is a subsidiary of a financial services conglomerate in Detroit’s suburbs called the Hantz Group. After forming an agreement with the city, Hantz Farms bought foreclosed property in 2012. It called for demolishing more than 60 vacant structures and planting thousands of trees in their place.

Elam’s students helped plant about 5,000 of those trees in May across from the school’s football field.

“I think the tree planting was very crucial,” Elam said. “For years, [Detroit] was labeled as a vacant city – dead. Now, there’s life here.”

Led by Mike Score, Hantz Farms has exceeded its contract with the city, tearing down more structures, planting more trees and mowing more frequently than they originally estimated. While the enterprise is for-profit, the company was formed to bring “relief” to the city.

“Every other lot in the whole square mile was unmanaged blight. If you own a house in that square mile, you can’t make the blight go away and you can’t sell your house,” Score said. “To be part of an investment that brings that kind of relief was important to me.”

In 2008, John Hantz, CEO of the Hantz Group, thought a large-scale urban farm could conquer blight, revitalize the community and support a business.

“He noticed how blight had been expanding since foreclosure,” Score said. “He was wondering how to turn that around because the city was becoming unlivable.”

Jonathan Demers is the executive director for MACC Development, a group that started working in the same area around the same time as Hantz Farms. He said the Lower East Side has a rough reputation, and it suffered greatly in the recession.

“We really got hit hard in Detroit,” he said.

MACC Development is redeveloping commercial property for mixed use. The group wants to see the community drive development. The area is full of nonprofits and groups with goals like those of Hantz Farms, which has had a positive impact as a neighbor, he said.

Score said Hantz once lived in a rural area and knew farms “could be beautiful if well managed and if they paid for themselves.” So he thought a large urban farm could help in this part of Detroit. At the time, Score worked at the Michigan State University, helping people write agriculture business plans.

“[Hantz] asked if I could help him write a business plan. At the end, he asked if I’d like to run it,” Score said. “I lived in Detroit all my life. I was looking for an opportunity to start a large farm in the city before I met John. I didn’t have enough resources to succeed in launching a farm, but John did. I was thrilled because I really saw this as an opportunity to bring relief to people who’d been trapped in chronically poor [situations].”

Hantz Farms has the chance to move into growing food later. For now, “we’re just feeling our way forward,” Score said.

Score has turned his attention to helping Elam’s students learn to solve problems and start businesses of their own.

At Southeastern High School, Hantz Farms cleared two acres behind the school for a learning lab. Students were taught to operate the machinery and learned more about possible career tracks at the same time, Score said.

This spring, students will propose ways to use the learning lab. They already have ideas for planting crops or harvesting energy from solar panels or wind turbines, Elam said.

In an entrepreneur club Score started, students harvested grapevines – a.k.a. blight – from around the neighborhood to make holiday wreaths. They’re selling at a new Carhartt store. They have other ideas for ag-based products to make and sell in the spring.

“We’re teaching them to put together a business that can weather financial changes and succeed,” Score said. “If they can learn to do that in school, they can start business in Detroit.”

Elam said Hantz Farms brought momentum to Southeastern’s effort to get students involved in solving community problems.

“They’re bringing a lot of excitement. The kids have skin in the game,” Elam said. “They’ve been here. When other people left the city, they were here to deal with blight, crime, food desert. The task we put in front of the kids [includes] real-world problems.”

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Photo via Hantz FarmsLLC