Urban farm plan reels in cash, tilapia

Gary Wozniak regards his domain with the enthusiasm of an evangelist. Where most people would look at these wide expanses of Detroit blight and see dark despair, he sees nothing but gleaming possibilities.

“This is the center of the farm,” he said, gazing over the corner of Warren and Grandy on Detroit's near east side at a vacant lot waving with overgrown grass on a windy spring day. Not long ago, it was where Northeastern High School stood. Today, it’s ground zero in an agreement Wozniak hopes to make with Detroit Public Schools and the city to convert it to one of the city’s most ambitious urban agriculture projects -- one that will eventually encompass everything from organic fruits and vegetables to an indoor tilapia farm in an abandoned municipal garage.

Yep, you read it. Fish, farmed, in a garage, in Detroit.

Wanna see more?

Hops growing on trellises surrounding an abandoned factory? Sure.

Plastic-wrapped hoop houses yielding fresh spinach in the midst of a Michigan winter? Why not?

And all of it to be run by recovering addicts -- providing stability, job training and income, in a self-sustaining model.

“The farming is really a small piece of the pie,” said Wozniak. “I’m really interested in food-system development.” That is, creating new, shorter lines between where food is grown and where it’s consumed, mitigating such related headaches as pollution and poor nutrition.

It’s almost insanely ambitious, but the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation of Bloomfield Hills recently announced a four-year, $1 million grant to RecoveryPark, the umbrella  organization for Wozniak’s plan. RecoveryPark is, technically, a redevelopment project, but what a redevelopment.

In a three-square-mile piece of one of the city’s most abandoned neighborhoods, Wozniak proposes taking it more or less full circle, bringing back not just farming, but 19th-century farming – labor-intensive, small parcels, minimal processing. Not giant combines and acres of soybeans, but food, healthy food, for people.

“This has really made me see the ‘power of we’ like never before,” Wozniak said.

Raising opportunities with the food

“Power of we” is a phrase from the recovery movement, something Wozniak knows well, having flushed his young adulthood away with cocaine and found his way back as an addiction counselor; he ran SHAR, Self Help Addiction Rehabilitation, an intensive residential treatment program for addicts, for many years. Rehab is a trail fraught with setbacks, and one of the biggest obstacles is finding meaningful work for clients, many of whom have other problems as thorny as their drug use.

“Most of them are over 40, they’re felons, functionally illiterate,” Wozniak said. “They’re not easy to place.”

But given the right structure, they could work in an environment with their peers, a type of sheltered workshop where they’d gain skills, new habits and produce something in demand in and out of the city. Wozniak wants to make them farmhands in the RecoveryPark urban agriculture experiment; he expects it to provide 15 to 17 jobs per acre, with 20-30 acres planted, winding through the RecoveryPark footprint “like an amoeba.” It will wind around and through the sparse remaining housing and few commercial buildings still left, making an unprecedented cityscape in the modern United States.

When Wozniak first proposed his idea to his board in 2008, “they wanted to drop me (to take) a urine test.” But perhaps because so few of the urban revitalization strategies imagined for Detroit over the years have come to anything -- and perhaps because the local-food movement has come on strong across the country -- the idea of converting the city’s vast open spaces into productive farmland doesn’t seem so crazy now.

“The city has land, buildings and water infrastructure,” said Wozniak, adding it also has a ready supply of unskilled, unemployed residents in need of job training.

It does have some policy hurdles to overcome, however. While the city abounds in gardens and truck patches -- a glance around the Eastern Market on a Saturday reveals many sellers of Detroit-grown produce -- it doesn’t have an ordinance regulating urban agriculture. Yet.

The term itself is undefined, said Kathryn Lynch Underwood, city planner. An urban agriculture work group recently drew up, after input from stakeholders across the board, a draft ordinance that will “legalize what’s already happening,” she said.

The problem has been that local ordinances are trumped by Michigan’s right-to-farm law, which was written to protect existing farms from nuisance suits filed by those living in encroaching suburbia. Urban agriculture hadn’t yet appeared on the radar when the bill was written in 1981. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is working on an exemption for larger cities’ urban-agriculture plans, which has given the work group the confidence it can move forward.

Underwood also is confident the city ordinance, once it passes the Detroit City Council (in early fall 2012, she hopes) will give the city’s farmers solid legal footing for next year’s growing season.

Wonder where the fish are

Wozniak’s ideas really take off when he visits the abandoned municipal maintenance garage near the Eastern Market where he plans his fish farm. The graffiti-covered walls? They’ll be preserving those, with a coat of polyurethane. The roof? Not a problem -- fish don’t really like light, anyway. The tanks? Made from fiberglass, 13 feet high, each holding 35,000 fish, with a goal of 5 million pounds of fresh tilapia (a mild freshwater fish widely farmed around the world) to be sold throughout the region. The fish farm would be a joint venture with an Ohio company looking to expand in the Michigan market.

The product, he said, would be a fresher, healthier alternative to the frozen tilapia found in many grocery stores, much of it produced in Asia under conditions that landed it on the “avoid” list of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.  And the revenue would underwrite the rest of the farming operation, perhaps even encourage food-product entrepreneurs -- such as makers of small-batch cheeses and salsas -- in an incubator.

John Erb, president of the foundation that is seeding the farming operation, said the plan dovetails with the foundation’s interest in Great Lakes water quality.

“We don't see urban agriculture as curing all the needs Detroit has, but it's an added benefit to Detroit, or whatever community (where it’s practiced),” Erb said. “It's ridiculous that lettuce is grown in California and shipped cross-country. You can grow lettuce here 10 months out of the year, and don't have to have such a carbon footprint.”

Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corp., is interested in seeing how the plans work out.

“It's a big vision that breaks down into component parts. What I like about Gary is, if all the parts don't work, some do,” he said.

In the 19th century in this country, farm-hand work was a traditional trade for the unlettered and semi-skilled. In a way, RecoveryPark brings this neighborhood full circle, to a time before the industrial age transformed Southeast Michigan.

“The fish don’t care if you can’t read or write,” he said. “The fish don’t care if you have felonies.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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William C. Plumpe
Tue, 05/15/2012 - 8:53am
This is proof that there are always positive and inspiring things going on in the City of Detroit at any time. One more definitely positive thing is the groundbreaking for the Whole Foods store at Mack and John R. I attended and found it to be one of the most positive and uplifting events I've attended in Detroit in quite a while. What if Mr. Wozniak got together with Whole Foods and worked something out to grow organic produce???I'm sure there would be a demand for it and it wouldn't be real difficult to arrange. Just an idea.
Phil Anderson
Tue, 05/15/2012 - 8:55am
As a person in recovery I applaud this idea. Many of us need this opportunity to get our lives back togrther, to rebuild our self-esteem through productive work. Sure beats handing out money the way our welfare offices do.
Stephanie Everi...
Tue, 05/15/2012 - 8:57am
This is a heartening story; inspirational for sure. I hope it is a success. I believe in the idea for many places, and hope that there is money to support it, and people to buy the products. Looks like a great future vision.
Tue, 05/15/2012 - 9:08am
What a great read! Thanks for this article. I love the idea from the above comment about Whole Foods making a deal with Wozniak - something they supposedly do at each local store. The Erb's are visionary leaders in Southeastern Michigan. Wozniak is too.
Tue, 05/15/2012 - 9:22am
I think it all sounds great except the fish farmed in an old garage. I am afraid of eating fish grown out of their natural element. I am skeptical of what farmed fish are fed, anyway, and growing in a former garage sounds unhealthy.
Allan Blackburn
Tue, 05/15/2012 - 5:32pm
Great idea. I believe in the people in recovery.
Judy Kingsbury
Wed, 05/16/2012 - 3:27pm
Detroit used to be a major center for lettuce and rhubarb growing, before so much of our vegetable production shifted to California.
Thu, 05/17/2012 - 9:03am
With a community of recovering addicts, as the article states,
I would hope that some adult literacy programs, a community center, retraining, etc. will spring up. I think an effort should be made to allow these farm hands to continue to improve their situation beyond the farm, if they so desire. I would hate to see such a noble program fall prey to the almighty dollar and institute a system of feudal farming or share-cropping.
Thu, 05/17/2012 - 9:11am
As the article states, “Most of them are over 40, they’re felons, functionally illiterate,” Wozniak said. “They’re not easy to place.” With a community of recovering addicts, I would hope that some adult literacy programs, a community center, retraining, etc. will spring up. I think an effort should be made to allow these farm hands to continue to improve their situation beyond the farm, if they so desire. I would hate to see such a noble program fall prey to the almighty dollar and institute a system of feudal farming or share-cropping.
Thu, 06/27/2013 - 8:12pm
It's nice to see the entrepreneur spirit is starting to thrive in Detroit again. I raise tilapia in my garage in my aquaponics system. I plan on taking this to the next level like Wozniak is doing in Michigan. Here in Indiana we do not have access to cheap food that is good for you. That is why we need more people growing tilapia and veggies in their garages and wherever else so that we can begin to eat locally and quit adding carbon surcharges on our food. We need to support and expand our farmers markets.