Agricultural entrepreneur puts focus on farming for the Motor City

I’m watching with interest a Detroit-based entrepreneur whose vision for his city could throw many of our paradigms about urban agriculture out the window.

Seeing Detroit’s huge amount of vacant land as an op­portunity, the entrepreneur is setting out to assemble large parcels of vacant inner-city land and create a large-scale, for-profit agricultural enter­prise.

The entrepreneur in ques­tion is John Hantz, the head of Hantz Financial Services, a company with more than 500 employees and $1.3-billion in assets under management. He has created Hantz Farms De­troit and has committed $30-million over the next 10 years as start-up capital to create an innovative farming business wholly within the city limits of Detroit.

In addition to the business opportunity, Hantz also hopes his contribution to the city will take some of the surplus land off the market, provide jobs with benefits, supply local markets with fresh produce and stimulate development around the edges of his farming en­terprises.

And if ever a city needed such an entrepreneurial vision, it is Detroit. Once a city of nearly two million people, it has now shrunk to fewer than 900,000.

Devastated by long-term changes in the auto industry, plus more recently the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the city has seen a steady exodus of people and capital. In fact, one source says that over 25,000 acres of abandoned land (be­tween 30 and 40 square miles) rests within the city, with the mayor currently pushing for­ward with a plan to demolish about 10,000 vacant houses.

Some community leaders say the city has to plan for a steady population of only 700,000 people, which means that lots and lots of vacant land exists that needs new uses.

Hantz figures that a large-scale, for-profit agriculture fits the bill for the vacant land. He’s starting slowly and is cur­rently in negotiations with the city to open up 77 acres for farm­ing on Detroit’s east side and is proposing to turn 40 acres of the Michigan State Fair­grounds into a demon­stration farm. Along the way, he has met with plenty of naysayers who allege that Hantz is just performing a land grab. Also, resistance is strong from advocates of a more com­munity-oriented, less profit driven approach.

Although early on in its development, I’m going to be watching with interest how the Hantz experiment rolls out. It has the ability to throw a major paradigm shift into our think­ing about the relationship be­tween cities and their food supplies. And it also may create new models for urban devel­opment in cities that are now con­sidered post industrial. Either way, farming is front and center in some of the economic visions for the Motor City and it bears watching for the less­ons it may hold.

John Clement is the General Manager of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario.