Detroit mobile farm extends growing season year-round

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Detroit’s burgeoning urban farming scene has an obvious downside: the growing season isn’t that long.

Chris Craft, a Ford Thirty Under 30 fellow working with Cass Community Social Services, arranges plants in the Ford Mobile Farm.

But a local social services agency and a group of ambitious Ford Motor Co. employees may have found a way around that. Their solution: growing a farm in a 40-foot enclosed shipping container equipped with LED lighting and solar panels that can produce crops year-round. Take that, Mother Nature.

The Ford Mobile Farm, created with a $250,000 grant from Ford Motor Company’s Bill Ford Better World Challenge program, will be on the campus of Cass Community Social Services on Detroit’s west side.

There, workers and volunteers will not only grow food in a shipping container, but they’ll also transport some of the farm in an F-150 truck donated to Cass this spring by Ford. They’ll use it to visit schools to talk to kids about the importance of farming, where crops come from and healthy eating.

“Everybody is always talking about urban gardening, which is great — for summer,” said the Rev. Faith Fowler, Cass’s executive director. “But the other three seasons it’s not so great in terms of providing fresh food. We are very excited about the prospect of being able to go 365 days and harvesting food year-round.”

Todd Nissen, director of communications for Ford Motor Co. Fund, said it isn’t just about access to healthy food in urban areas, but recognizing it as well. Fowler and some Ford volunteers made their first visit to a Detroit school earlier this spring with their new mobile farm truck to talk to elementary school students and show them fresh herbs and other produce.

“In a lot of urban areas, kids in particular, they don’t always make the connection — where does lettuce come from? How do tomatoes grow? And what do they taste like?” Nissen said.

The idea of creating a mobile farm actually came from a group of young Ford employees who are part of a new initiative by the automaker to tap the brainpower and fresh thinking of its younger employees to help address various community issues. Thirty employees under the age of 30 are tapped each year and put into groups to brainstorm solutions to certain issues. Last year’s topic was food and security.

Nissen said Ford already has a program, the Ford Mobile Food Pantry Networks, that uses a network of Transit vans to help nonprofits with food assistance. The new mobile farm is the “2.0 version of that.”

The Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services, tells a student about food grown in the Ford Mobile Farm. A specialized F-150 pickup truck visited a local Detroit school where students could get hands-on lessons about farming.

Once the shipping container arrives this summer — it’ll be installed near Cass Community Social Services headquarters at Rosa Parks and Webb, Fowler said — the plan is to erect hundreds of vertical planters inside. The container will have the growing capacity of up to 2 acres of land and produce up to 52 harvests per year.

“It uses hydroponics, so you have light and water, and nutrients going all the time,” Fowler said. “You start the plants in a very small sleeve, grow it for about a week, and then transfer it into what looks like hanging blinds, quite frankly, up and down the shipping container. When it’s ready to harvest, you just take it off the blind and away you go and start again. It’s very cool.”

And since it’s enclosed, it takes Mother Nature out of the equation, “which is very, very good for Michigan,” she said. “... We’ll go all winter long, which is a really exciting thing.”

A child carries produce and plants from a special F-150 at a local Detroit school as the children get hands-on lessons about farming as part of the Ford Mobile Farm.

Cass likely won’t open the garden until fall since there will be a bit of a learning curve, Fowler said. The new mobile garden also will provide jobs to some of Cass’s clients, including those with developmental disabilities. And Ford would likely have volunteers help in various ways.

“We see it as not only feeding, but as jobs,” Fowler said.

The mobile farm is about applying “new thinking to really hard-to-solve problems,” Nissen said.

He said Ford could potentially expand this concept to other urban areas, though no plans are in place at this moment.

“That’s one of the great things about this project,” he said. “It could not only transform areas here, but we could definitely apply it to other urban areas.”

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Twitter: @mfeighan