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Originally published December 27, 2009 at 10:46 PM | Page modified December 27, 2009 at 10:49 PM

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Detroit's vacant factory land to sprout farms

On the city's east side, where autoworkers once assembled cars by the millions, nature is taking back the land. This green veil is proof of how far this city has fallen from its industrial heyday and, to a small group of investors, a clear sign. Detroit, they say, needs to get back to what it was before Henry Ford moved to town: farmland.

Los Angeles Times

DETROIT — On the city's east side, where autoworkers once assembled cars by the millions, nature is taking back the land.

Cottonwood trees grow through the collapsed roofs of homes stripped for scrap metal. Wild grasses carpet the rusty shells of empty factories, now home to pheasants and wild turkeys.

This green veil is proof of how far this city has fallen from its industrial heyday and, to a small group of investors, a clear sign. Detroit, they say, needs to get back to what it was before Henry Ford moved to town: farmland.

"There's so much land available, and it's begging to be used," said Michael Score, president of the Hantz Farms, which is buying up abandoned sections of the city's 139-square-mile landscape and plans to transform them into a large-scale commercial farm enterprise.

"Farming is how Detroit started," Score said, "and farming is how Detroit can be saved."

The urban agricultural movement has grown nationwide in recent years, as recession-fueled worries prompted people to raise fruits and vegetables to feed their own families and perhaps sell at local farmers markets.

Hundreds of backyard gardens and scores of community gardens have blossomed in Detroit, helping to feed students in at least 40 schools and hundreds of families.

Yet it is the size and scope of Hantz Farms that make the project unique. Although company officials declined to pinpoint how many acres they might use, they have been quoted saying they plan to farm up to 5,000 acres within the city and raise everything from organic lettuces to trees for biofuel.

The project was launched two years ago by Michigan native and well-known financier John Hantz, who has invested an initial $30 million toward purchasing equipment and land.

It will start small. Next spring, the farm is to begin growing crops on about 30 acres, Score said.

Because it has been difficult for Hantz and his team to purchase large contiguous parcels, much of the acreage has been grouped into smaller "pods." Each will grow different crops, Score said.

Envisioned is a city where green fields and apple orchards flourish next to houses and factories, and forests thrive alongside interstates and highways. The team is still figuring out what will grow where: Tree groves could be planted in places where the soil is too contaminated to grow food, while empty factory buildings may be converted to house hydroponic fields to raise specialty vegetables, fruit and cooking herbs.

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"People look at these abandoned houses and think, 'No one could live there. Let's tear it down,' " said Score, a former business-development consultant for Michigan State University's agricultural-extension program. "I look at it and think, 'Maybe we could grow mushrooms inside there.' "

The city, one of the Midwest's oldest, began as an agricultural settlement in the early 1700s with "ribbon" farms — long, narrow stretches of land — carved out along rivers. And up until the industrial boom of the early 20th century, this swath of southeastern Michigan was covered in apple and peach orchards and miles of grape vines.

In 1910, about 80 percent of the 396,800 acres of Wayne County was being farmed, according to research collected by Michigan State University. By 1925, as the auto industry boomed, that fell to 47 percent.

Today, less than 21,000 acres are being farmed.

Local leaders say they are encouraged by the idea of farm jobs, which could ease a grim economic situation: The Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn area had unemployment of 17.7 percent in October, the highest in a region of 1 million residents or more, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But local officials put the number far higher: Mayor Dave Bing recently said nearly half of the city's workers are either unemployed or underemployed. They support the effort to redevelop the estimated one-third of Detroit's 376,000 parcels that are vacant or abandoned.

And in a city where there are no major grocery chains, and more than three-fourths of the residents buy their food at convenience stores or gas stations, easy access to fresh produce is appealing.

"Urban farming will be part of Detroit's long-term redevelopment plan," Bing said in a statement.

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