Growing Capacity: How Urban Farms Can Meet The Demand For Locally Grown and Produced Foods

Chances are that if you have bought a product produced in Michigan in recent years, you’ve seen the product labelled as “Made in Michigan” as businesses have tried to point out their local connections to consumers in the hope that their local connection will distinguish their business from others. There is evidence that suggests that businesses may be onto something, as consumers have expressed a preference for local products. A 1,000 person survey conducted by American Express found that 93% of consumers believe it’s important to support local businesses and 73% consciously shop at local businesses to support their success. While an increased demand for local products has seemingly increased across all sectors of the economy, it has been particularly strong in the food economy. A survey of 1,100 grocery shoppers found that 70% of shoppers want to buy locally grown food, even if that means paying more.

However, many businesses are doing much more than simply slapping a label on an already existing product; some are building their entire business model around the concept that people will pay more for locally produced goods. A prime example is Shinola. Prior to opening, the company commissioned a focus group and asked consumers if they preferred to purchase a $5 pen made in China, a $10 pen made in the U.S.A., or a $15 pen made in Detroit. They discovered that enough people would pay the increased price for a Detroit-made product to support a viable business. Of course companies like Shinola are not without their critics as people have pointed out that Shinola is not locally owned which can make its Detroit-centric branding look like a disingenuous way to simply mark up the price on an otherwise mediocre product for the benefit of the out-of-town owners of the company. Regardless of the criticisms, looking to the grocery shopper survey above and the results of the Shinola focus group, it appears that there is a strong market for fruits and vegetables grown in Detroit.

Consumers are drawn to locally produced products and local businesses for several reasons. Specifically in regards to food, many consumers seek to buy local products to strengthen their local economy, promote a stronger sense of community, and reduce the impact on the environment caused by the globalized food system. Based on the evidence that consumers are demanding locally produced products and may be willing to pay a premium for them, many have started to ask the question of just how much food are urban farms currently supplying to the local population and what is the capacity for expansion?

The answer to the first question of how well current urban farms are meeting local demand is: not very well. According to the Economic Analysis of Detroit’s Food System conducted by the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative, Detroit farmers are meeting only 4% of the current agricultural demand in Wayne County. This is not uncommon. A similar study in Cleveland found that urban farms in Cleveland were only supplying about 1.7% of the total amount of fresh produce consumed by Cleveland residents. The answer to the second question of what the capacity to expand agricultural production in the city to create a more localized food system is another story.

Kathryn Colasanti, Charlotte Litjens, and Michael Hamm sought out to answer the question above in 2010. They started by looking at the total number of publicly owned, structureless parcels in Detroit, excluding parkland. They found that in Detroit there were 44,085 such parcels of property, which totaled 4,848 acres throughout the City. Next, they looked to how much food could potentially be grown on the thousands of vacant areas. This was done by looking to how the total poundage of fruits and vegetables currently consumed by Detroiters and factoring in the seasonal limitations that farmers traditionally face. Lastly, the study factored in crop loss and differing yield rates based on skill and farming methods.

Overall, the production capacity of Detroit’s vacant land depends on two distinct factors: the degree to which a farm is able to utilize an unheated hoophouse to extend its growing season and what the farm is able to yield based on skill and production method. The first important factor is season extension. If a farm can utilize an unheated hoophouse, it can reduce natural seasonal limitations and extend its growing season. This, in turn, will increase a farmer’s ability  to meet local demand because the farm will be able to grow more with less land. The second important factor is farming method and skill. Assuming a farmer is using a biointensive method of farming, what their yield is will depend on their skill. A more skilled farmer will be able to get more out of their land than a novice farmer.

The studies findings can be summarized as follows: Detroit has the capacity to meet the majority of the current fresh fruit and vegetable consumption of its residents, but just how much land is needed depends on the two factors described above.

If no season extension techniques are used, then Colasanti estimates that Detroit’s urban agriculture network could produce 65% of the vegetables and 39% of the fruits currently consumed by Detroiters on anywhere from 511 to 1,839 acres. If season extension techniques are used, Colasanti estimated that Detroit’s urban agriculture network could produce 76% of the vegetables and 42% of the fruits currently consumed by Detroiters on anywhere from 568 to 2,086 acres of property. While Colasanti estimated that there was 4,848 acres of vacant, publicly owned land in Detroit, that number is likely higher today. Therefore, it’s likely that Detroit farms could supply Detroiters with a sizable portion of the fruits and vegetables they currently consume by repurposing less than 50% of the publicly owned property in Detroit for agriculture use. Even using the undoubtedly outdated figure that estimates the amount of Detroit’s publicly owned vacant property at 4,848 acres, it is possible to provide Detroiters with the majority of vegetables they currently consume by repurposing a mere 11% of the existing 4,848 acres currently in the public inventory.

While the study shows that Detroit has the capacity to meet a large portion of the current vegetable and fruit consumption of its residents, it is important to emphasize that translating that capacity into reality is an entirely different question and there are three main obstacles that need to be addressed.

First, the property surveyed by Colasanti will not all be available for agriculture for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, soil contamination, location, and soil condition. While soil condition and contamination can at times be remedied, location cannot. Some of the property surveyed by Colasanti is undoubtedly isolated vacant parcels that exist between two occupied structures. While someone may be able to start a garden on that site, it may be difficult to maintain a for-profit farm on such a small space. Further, if expansion was ever pursued, those involved would have to look for non-contiguous lots which would bifurcate the farm or garden and create an operational obstacle.

Second, the City must be a willing partner and must be willing to sell property for agricultural developments, which is currently not the case. Currently, the City has no policy regarding land disposition for agricultural projects. This often means that requests to purchase property for an agricultural development are either ignored or refused. As a result, farmers and gardeners currently don’t have a strong working relationship in regards to land purchasing with the largest landowner in the City.

Lastly, each individual urban agriculture enterprise must be financially viable on their own. While the scale or urban agriculture ventures vary widely, most are less than 2 acres. small-scale farming is often difficult financially. A survey of small-scale vegetable farmers in 2005 estimated that farm owners with a farm of less than 3 acres had a net cash income that translated to $4.96 per hour. This can be achieved in numerous ways, including organizing farm cooperatives or increasing the average growing capacity of each individual farm in Detroit. However, as it currently stands, very few farm owners in Detroit are making what could be considered a living wage.

In summary, surveys and studies show that the demand for locally produced agricultural goods is strong and studies also show that Detroit is uniquely positioned to meet that demand by repurposing a rather small percentage of publicly owned vacant land for agricultural production. However, to translate the capacity for expansion into reality, the City of Detroit must become a willing partner and work with Detroit’s farmers to clearly define how much property it plans to dedicate to commercial agricultural operations, where that property will be, and how it will be sold to farming enterprises. In turn, farmers must develop a sustainable business model to ensure that the farming business makes enough to support themselves and their families.





Where Is Detroit’s Sustainability Plan?



The Mayor of Los Angeles signs
the City’s first-ever Sustainable City Plan


While it may be hard to combat things like greenhouse gas emissions at the local level, many cities are finding that there are a whole host of environmental issues that are best addressed by local government. Over the last decade, cities across the country have started to talk about what can be done at the local level to make themselves more environmentally sustainable. Just what “sustainable” means varies from city-to-city, but in general it at the very least means scrutinizing development projects through an environmental lens. In taking an environmentally sustainable approach to development, the hope is that a city will develop in a way that makes it more resilient to future resource scarcity and climate change as well as more socially just for its residents.

While cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle have always been leaders in sustainability, they are by no means alone today. Cities of all different sizes are developing long-term sustainability plans and creating city agencies to implement those plans. For example, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis (just to name a few) all have adopted a long-term sustainability plan and have created a city agency to oversee the implementation of the plan. Even Grand Rapids has developed a sustainability plan and charged the Office of Energy and Sustainability with implementing the plan. While former-mayor Kenneth Cockrel created an Office of Energy and Sustainability in 2008, it did not survive long and no sustainability plan was ever crafted. Today, Detroit is without a long-term sustainability plan of any sort or any city department dedicated to sustainability. This makes it the exception among large American cities; Detroit is the only of the country’s twenty most populous city’s to have no formalized, long-term sustainability plan.

The lack of direction on the issue of environmental sustainability can be felt by Detroit’s urban agriculture community. In developing long-term sustainability plans, many cities have sought to improve resident health through boosting the local food economy. This has typically included providing support to urban farms and gardens in the form of increasing the amount of City-owned land under cultivation. As the implementation of various cities sustainability plans have progressed, so has their dedication to urban agriculture. This month, Atlanta hired its first Urban Agriculture Director. Operating within Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability, the director will be responsible for a wide range of activities related to urban agriculture in the city of Atlanta, including agricultural policy development and the conversion of brownfields into urban gardens. The director will also work with community organizations and various City departments to improve growers’ access to public and private land, facilitate the permitting process, obtain necessary zoning permits, support local initiatives, manage code compliance, and address other issues to advance urban agriculture in Atlanta.

If you talk to any farmer or gardener in Detroit, one of the biggest complaints is how difficult the City of Detroit has been to work with regarding agriculture projects. Typically, a farmer or gardener that contacts the City is greeted with skepticism. Farmers often find themselves explaining what a hoophouse or a raised bed is to a confused City employee. The languishing of applications to purchase City-owned property has become routine and expected. All of this points to a basic problem regarding the relationship between the urban agriculture community and the City; the City lacks the appropriate personnel to be able to promote and manage the City’s farms and gardens and also lacks any comprehensive sustainability plan that envisions the future of urban agriculture in Detroit.

Developing a long-term sustainability plan and having an urban agriculture director in Detroit City government would be enormous developments for Detroit’s urban agriculture community. It would signal to Detroit’s urban agriculture community what the City is planning and give them a point person within City government. It’s time the City caught up with the rest of the country.