Detroit's Drew Farm takes farming to next level

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Dozens of different kinds of vegetable, herbs and fruits are grown at Drew Farm for Detroit schools' Office of Nutrition. The farm is funded by the National School Lunch Program.

Looking out from a berm along the perimeter of the Drew Farm, a totally unique former elementary school that’s now a farm in the fields of the Drew Transition Center in Detroit Public Schools Community District, Matt Hargis sees more than empty fields and hoop houses. He sees potential.

On 2.5 acres of land, the district has created a one-of-a-kind farm that produces 20,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables and herbs to supplement the district’s Office of Nutrition.

“All that we produce goes right back into the cafeteria,” said Hargis, the district’s Farm-to-School Program Supervisor.

Started in 2012 and funded by the National School Lunch Program, the farm may be the only operation of its kind in Michigan run by a school district. It has six hoop-houses, bee hives, six fields and a perennial garden. Hoop houses are U-shaped structures that extend the growing season for plants.

“We’re one of very few operations like this in the United States,” said Hargis.

Baseball fields were removed to make room for the farm’s fields. Soon Hargis and his team will plant green beans, summer squash, zucchini, potatoes, kale and collards. Inside two of the hoop houses, lettuce is already growing in one and tomatoes in another.

Inside one of six hoop houses at Detroit Public Schools' Drew Farm, radishes, bok choy, cilantro and other veggies grow. School groups from across the district visit the farm for field trips.

Plantings are timed so they’ll be ready to be harvest when classes resume each year. Hargis said foods are also processed and frozen so they can be used in meals throughout the year.

And while the farm doesn’t produce enough to cover even a week of the district’s raw food needs, it’s something, Hargis says. And there’s an education component. Detroit students take field trips to the farm in both the spring and fall. The district also offers farm internships for older students, exposing them to agricultural careers.

And inside the Drew Transition Center, adult students aged 18 to 26 with cognitive disabilities, also learn skills by growing hydroponic plants with dozens of artificial lights.

Plans are in place, meanwhile, to install heating units in the hoop houses next year so “we will be a year-round operation,” said Hargis.