Indoor farms give vacant Detroit buildings new life

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Entrepreneurs are taking advantage of inexpensive former warehouses and factories in Detroit and transforming them for agricultural use to produce local foods.

Green Collar Foods operations director Darren Riley explains the process of misting plants at Eastern Market.

There’s a growing movement of using vacant buildings and spaces to produce lettuce, basil and kale, and even experiment with fish farming — year-round.

And the city is considering regulations that could expand indoor agriculture even more.

“Fifteen, 20 years from now, we want people to say, ‘Of course they grow kale in that building,’ ” said Ron Reynolds, co-founder of Green Collar Foods Ltd. It built its first indoor-farming research hub in Eastern Market’s Shed 5 in 2015.

Green Collar Foods mists the bare roots of kale, cilantro and peppers using an aeroponics system under fluorescent lights in its 400-square-foot plastic-encased greenhouse. The system is built vertically, stacking plants on shelves to grow above each other. Supino Pizzeria in the Eastern Market buys its kale.

It’s one piece of Detroit’s growing urban agriculture scene. Although the city lost about a quarter of its population between 2000 and 2010, community gardens flourished from fewer than 100 in 2004 to around 1,400 today, according to Keep Growing Detroit.

In response, Detroit adopted a zoning ordinance in 2013 to legalize urban farming that was popping up all over the city. The urban agriculture ordinance, however, assumes indoor farming would be large-scale, said city planner Kathryn Underwood. To increase the zoning district, the City Planning Commission sent an amendment to the City Council for consideration that would take into account smaller operations. It is expected to vote on the proposal in the fall.

“(The amendment) recognizes (indoor farming) can happen at very large scales and very small scales,” Underwood said. “It will allow more of it to happen.”

There’s space for it. In 2014, Detroit had more than 78,000 vacant buildings, according to a blight task force survey.

That’s what Green Collar Foods found attractive about Detroit, co-founder Frank Gublo said. Several Detroit and Flint entrepreneurs are interested in working with Green Collar to create farms in 7,000-square-feet indoor spaces.

Green Collar’s Reynolds envisions franchised operations in unused buildings. “It creates a business in an area that is struggling to find businesses to locate in,” he said.

Less water, longer shelf life

Since 2013, at least three other indoor farms have opened in Detroit.

Jeff Adams started planting in 2015 at his Artesian Farms located inside a 7,500-square-foot former vacant warehouse in the Brightmoor district. He uses stacked growing beds and hydroponics to grow lettuce, kale and basil. The hydroponic system replaces soil with nutrient-filled water.

Adams said the kale sells competitively for around $4 for 5 ounces at retailers in Metro Detroit, including Busch’s and Whole Foods Market.

He said his farm has advantages over traditional growers. California farms use seven gallons of water to grow a bundle of lettuce, while his system uses three-tenths of a gallon. Growing locally also extends shelf life.

Artesian Farms, located in a 7,500-square-foot former warehouse in the Brightmoor district, uses stacked growing beds and hydroponics to grow lettuce, kale and basil.

“The food you’re eating right now, it’s seven to 10 days before it reaches Michigan,” Adams said. “(Artesian Farms’ produce) is from here to the market in a day, at most, 48 hours. ... It’s going to be much more flavorful and much more nutritional.”

Although the lights feeding his plants suck electricity, Adams is replacing them with purple LEDs, which use 40 percent less power.

That’s important for the future: Adams has five plant racks — one recently produced 95 pounds of lettuce in 36 square feet. By September, he expects to have 11 racks; by November, 26 racks; and in one year, 46 racks of lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula and bok choy. He plans to add five people to his team of two, including himself, by the end of the year — and another three when all stations are installed.

“The whole purpose of this was to employ people, and you can’t employ people if you’re going to be doing it four months out of the year,” Adams said. “If you want to farm all year-round, this is the way to do it.”

Start-up already plans to expand

Eden Urban Farms harvested its first batch of hydroponic lettuce earlier this year.

After researching indoor farmers in the Netherlands, CEO Kimberly Buffington started a pilot farm with four trays of plants, one producing 170 bundles of lettuce. Eden has grown herbs, lettuce, peppers and strawberries.

The company, which now resides in the basement of a business partner’s Milford home, will expand in the next two years to a 31,000-square-foot rental space at 1800 18th St. on the border of Corktown and Mexicantown. Eden has two employees and plans to hire five or six by year’s end. Once in full operation, Buffington expects to employ about 70. Her team is also developing a small-scale system for entrepreneurs.

Eden Urban Farms sells produce at markets and restaurants. Its basil goes at market price between $1.99 and $2.29 for three-quarter ounces, Buffington said. Herbs and peppers are the most profitable.

“We know that the model works,” she said. “If we want to be in business, we have to be competitive.”

Employing people was the goal

Central Detroit Christian Farm and Fishery opened in 2013, taking over a former food market at Second and Philadelphia when the owner donated it after struggling to sell the 3,200-square-foot facility.

The farm used a closed-loop aquaponic system. Tilapia swam in large tanks of water, and the fish-excrement wastewater was pumped through a dirt-and-earthworm filter. The water then flowed through sprinkler heads to the plants as a natural fertilizer, before cycling into the fish tanks again.

But like regular farming, indoor farming has challenges: A review six months ago found keeping the water at the ideal 75 degrees for the tilapia cost too much, said operations director Randy Walker. Fish had to sell at $8 per pound, above the $3 per pound Asian-raised tilapia at supermarkets.

“There’s a future in it, but the technology hasn’t caught up yet,” Walker said. “Everybody says they want it, but when it comes to putting the money down for it, they don’t buy local.”

The indoor farm now grows tomato and pepper starter plants under the lights formerly used for the aquaponic system to sell at Central Detroit Christian’s Peaches and Greens produce market.

“I think they found their stride,” Walker said. “We were employing people, that was the goal. We were educating people and producing food. We met our goal.”

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