Greg Willerer may not seem like your average entrepreneur. The once full-time school teacher quit his job to follow his passion for farming in the most unlikely of places. Located not far from Downtown Detroit, Willerer launched his urban farming business on just one acre of land.
During his first year, Willerer earned almost the equivalent of his teaching salary. His venture, Brother Nature Produce, sells locally grown produce to restaurants across Detroit. They recently received a $10,000 grant to help grow their business from the New Economy Initiative’s small business challenge, and his farm was among one of five Detroit based urban farms to be awarded.
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Willerer’s story is part of a growing trend in a city with a bountiful amount of unused land. With an estimated 20 square miles of vacant land, Detroit’s abandoned lots are roughly the size of Manhattan according to the Detroit Future City Report. Detroit has an estimated 40,000 blighted properties needing to be cleared. The city allows residents to get an easy start at urban farming with the sale of side lots for only $100 dollars through the Land Bank.
Entrepreneurs here see a business opportunity to grow locally, reinventing the way the land is used, while creating products made from an all around sustainable business model.
Growing and serving locally
Noah Link got his start at urban farming after moving back to Michigan in 2010. Link saw the potential for organic farming to take off in Detroit. His business Food Farm has since sustained it’s needs and hired on several employees to grow, profiting from sales at Detroit’s Eastern Market, through the City Commons Agricultural program, and by selling to local restaurants and businesses.
“There is definitely opportunity for urban agriculture businesses to grow in Detroit,” said Link. “Next year we’ll operate a weekly onsite cafe to serve meals based around our own organic produce.”
Other farms are expanding their offerings to grow, as well. Buffalo Street Farm is adding a small vineyard to their land in Detroit. Co-founder Chris McGrane says it may take a lot of groundwork to become sustainable, profitable business.
“Successful urban growers usually find a high value niche crops to keep business afloat, or use a cooperative model,” said McGrane, pointing out the City Commons program both farms participate in.
Though land is plentiful, urban farmers must secure land suitable for farming and work around city zoning and licensing. Link says he always encourages entrepreneurs to find ways to integrate into the existing farming community, and to keep an eye out for ways to reach new markets.
Related: Two Young Entrepreneurs Get Their Hands Dirty With Urban Farming
New food products launch
One way these urban farmers are expanding their reach is by connecting with other food entrepreneurs. Devita Davidson of Foodlab Detroit, a network of food entrepreneurs in the city, has helped create a partnership with local urban farms called Detroit Grown and Made. The project’s goal is to see special-edition products developed with Detroit grown produce.
Products launched so far include Strawberry Basil Jam by Beau Bien Fine Food and a Strawberry and Fig leaf drinking vinegar by McClary Bros, a company specializing in craft drinking vinegars.
“These products have been wildly successful with sales exceeding their expectations,” said Davidson. Excited by the successful start, Davidson sees this partnership as just one step in transforming Detroit’s food supply chain into one that is locally sourced and grown.
“From preserving land for Detroiters to grow food, to food entrepreneurs who are processing that produce, to retailers who buy and sell locally grown/made food, a crop of new businesses and nonprofits are building an integrated food economy in Detroit,” said Davidson.
The largest urban farm of them all
One entrepreneur in Detroit is thinking big when it comes to repurposing the land. Hantz Farms boasts the title of the largest urban farm in Detroit. Owner John Hantz made his fortune in the financial services industry, before turning his sights to urban farming as a way to address blight in the city.
“We were looking for a tool that could deal with a large amount of blight at once,” said Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms. “We knew that a larger scale farm could be attractive and profitable in the long run.”
The Hantz Farms project, a 174-acre tree farm, is just beginning to take root after several years of planning. On Detroit’s East Side hundreds of trees have been planted this fall and 57 blighted homes will be demolished by the end of the year. Five full time employees work on the farm that Score says is on track to meet long term financial goals.
But for the Hantz team, a driving factor for entering this industry is closely tied to helping the community.
“When we come down the street our neighbors wave and smile at us. That really motivates us,” said Score. “When we came in and mowed 175 acres and started ripping out the brush and tearing down houses, it made it possible for others to stay.”
Like this first batch of trees on Hantz Farms, the urban farming movement in Detroit is growing. Detroit may see more entrepreneurs reinventing land and leading the way for a locally sourced food movement.
Related: How the Farm-to-Table Movement Is Helping Grow the Economy