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Grown in Detroit, but not in the ground: The next evolution of urban agriculture

Just south of Detroit's Boston Edison neighborhood -- ironically positioned across from a "you buy, we fry" fish joint -- is the first functioning commercial aquaponics operation within the city of Detroit, Central Detroit Christian's (CDC) Farm and Fishery.

Not only is CDC Farm and Fishery the city's first functioning aquaponics operation, it's also the first agriculture business to receive a special land use permit authorized under the city's recently adopted Urban Agriculture Ordinance. The operation is also licenced by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The Farm and Fishery operates in a colorfully painted building that recently housed a party store. CDC purchased the building two years ago and began converting it into the two-level aquaponics operation where plants and fish are being cultivated simultaneously and symbiotically today.

On the ground floor, rows of beer coolers and shelves were removed to make way for rows of hydroponic beds for growing herbs and vegetables. Today, grow lights slide on tracks above the beds, 90 percent of which are filled with basil. Recently, CDC added a multi-tiered stand for growing
microgreens to a corner of the ground floor.

"Basil and microgreens are tremendously lucrative," says Anthony Hatinger, CDC's production and garden manager.

In the building's basement are several large tanks holding approximately 4,500 tilapia fish in various stages of growth, all of which are the offspring of one male and two females (CDC has five female breeding fish, but only two have successfully reproduced). Two smaller tanks, one containing a bed of worms and another bacteria that work together as a "biofilter," convert fish waste produced inside the growing tanks into nitrate-enriched water that is cycled upstairs to the plant beds, fertilizing the herbs.

"We don't use fertilizers besides the fish," says Hatinger. "We don't use pesticides or other chemicals. We use organic practices and organic seeds, though we're not certified organic because it costs too much." CDC even uses organic, non-GMO fish food.
Anthony Hatinger
Hatinger, a Lansing-area native, fell in love with Detroit when he first attended the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (the free festival superseded by
Movement) when he was in high school. He moved to Detroit just over a year ago after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in religious studies and a minor in horticulture. He also obtained a specialization in sustainable agriculture and food systems. So when the opportunity to work for CDC on the city's first functioning aquaponics operation presented itself, it was a perfect fit.

A faith-based nonprofit community Development corporation, Central Detroit Christian manages eight socially-driven, for-profit businesses (LC3s). Several of these businesses are food-based, including CDC Farm and Fishery; Cafe Sonshine, a healthy soul food restaurant; and Peaches and Greens, a neighborhood produce market.

"The goal is to create jobs and be a force of change in the neighborhood by creating a community of choice," says Hatinger. "We're offering a very niche agricultural skillset to people who don't necessarily have a good outlook for employment."

At full production, CDC Farm and Fishery will employ around a dozen neighborhood residents and will be open 18 hours per day for three six-hour shifts. Hatinger estimates workers will harvest an average of 100 fish per week, each fish yielding between 0.5 and 0.75 pounds of filet meat that will sell at between $7 and $8 per pound.

Currently, CDC Farm and Fishery's micro greens and herbs can be purchased at the Grown in Detroit stand on Saturdays at Eastern Market. CDC has also supplied pop-up chefs at Corktown's St. Cece's and Hamtramck's (revolver) restaurant.

CDC recently brought on Megan Husch as the Farm and Fishery's general manager. She is tasked with marketing and selling their products to local purchasers, which could include restaurants, hotels, and food distributors.

In June, CDC will harvest its first crop of fish.

On the west side of town…

The industrial park at the nexus of I-96 and the Southfield Freeway in northwest Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood is rather typical of any industrial park you'd find in Detroit. It's home to an assortment of small- to mid-sized manufacturers and light industrial businesses, such as Detroit Manufacturing Systems, a maker of automotive interiors whose CEO Andra Rush was invited to last year's State of the Union address as a guest of President Obama, as well as Kamps Inc., a company that manufactures wood pallets and recycles old pallets into wood mulch, and Brede Foods, a maker of horseradishes, mustards, and other sauces.

But the newest business to take up residence in this industrial park will specialize in a different form of production -- hydroponic agriculture.

Jeff Adams, a Brightmoor resident and board member of the Brightmoor Alliance, recently signed a lease for a 7,200 sq. ft. building in the industrial park where he plans to grow lettuce, kale, collards, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs using a novel, vertical hydroponic farming system.

When build-out is complete, Adams' building will house several towers with five tiers of growing trays. Most of the components will be purchased off-the-shelf at hardware stores, but Adams will source the grow lights and nutrient systems from Green Spirit Farms, a manufacturer based in New Buffalo, Mich. that sells its own patented growing system.

"We're buying into something equivalent to a McDonald's franchise," says Adams with a hint of irony.

Adams will utilize a reverse osmosis system that recirculates water to the plants and has a 95 percent recycle rate, using far less water than conventional, in-ground growing methods.

"We will need 0.6 gallons of water to grow one head of lettuce in this process," says Adams. "In California and Arizona, where most lettuce in the U.S. comes from, it takes 365 gallons of water to grow a single head."

Jeff Adams

According to Adams, the system has other advantages over traditional agriculture, including a lower susceptibility to pests and weather and  a higher frequency of harvests. It will only take Adams thirty days to grow a head of lettuce.

"We could custom grow orders for restaurants on relatively short notice," says Adams, whose potential customers include chefs, regional grocers, and food processors. He has already engaged Brede Foods, his neighbor in the industrial park, about potentially sourcing ingredients for its sauces.

But Adams' true goal, like that of CDC Farm and Fishery, is to create jobs for residents of Brightmoor -- his neighbors -- as well as to help steer the trajectory of the food system back towards sustainability.

"The goal of this is to employ people who will make $12-14 per hour with benefits, creating financial stability in families in Brightmoor," he says.

While by no means critical of urban gardening, Adams finds value in a more market-driven forms of urban agriculture.

"Gardening is important for developing communities and youth," says Adams, "but if you're tring to change a food system that so negatively affects the environment, you have to do things at a commercial level."

Jeff Adams recently obtained financing commitments fom two investors and will begin building out his facitlty as soon as the checks are in the bank.

Central Detroit Christian gives tours of its facilities every Monday at 2 p.m. Vistit CDC's website for details.

All photos © Marvin Shaouni Photo www.marvinshaouni.com

Matthew Lewis is Model D's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter.
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