By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor
In a former warehouse on Detroit’s northwest side, Jeffrey Adams is not only planting the seeds for the produce he grows in his vertical hydroponic farm, but also for the revitalization of his hard-hit neighborhood.
When he began Artesian Farms, which grows, packages and distributes vegetables such as lettuce, chard and kale, as well as herbs such as basil, he wanted to use the farm as a vehicle to create jobs and training programs to boost Brightmoor, a blighted area that has been wracked with crime and abandoned homes.
Artesian Farms offers several benefits to the community, he says. “No. 1, turn blighted space into something productive. Two, we hire from the neighborhood,” says Adams, who adds the community has a high rate of unemployment, especially among 18- to 30-year-olds. His first employee is from the neighborhood, a woman he has known since she was 12.
Vertical farming has gained a lot of attention over recent years and has been a growing movement around the country; in New Jersey, AeroFarms is constructing a 69,000-square-foot complex in a former steel mill that will become the world’s largest indoor vertical farm.
In Detroit, urban agriculture has been touted as a solution to activate the city’s large stock of vacant land. While there are scores of community gardens and urban agriculture enterprises, there weren’t many vertical farms in the Motor City until Artesian Farms began operations this year – Adams says it’s the only one in town.
His enterprise has been in the making for a few years. Adams and his wife moved to the northwest side of Detroit in 2003 after they went on a mission trip with their church.
“We figured if we could go to Brazil and work with kids who live on the street for a couple of weeks, we could do it in our own backyard,” he says.
With his entrepreneurial background, he started looking into ways he could help revitalize the community.
“If we want fresh food and we want to employ people year-round, we need to be able to do it in a controlled environment and not worry about weather,” he says.
He began looking into options and eventually his research led him to Green Spirit Farms in New Buffalo, Mich., on the west side of the state. The farm served as a model for Artesian Farms, which is housed in a former abandoned 6,000-square-foot warehouse that has been renovated. It now has five vertical growing systems (towers), soon to grow to 11. The towers – each about 15 feet high – house three or four layers of plants.
Seeds start off in the nursery. It germinates for 10 days and then they are planted in the tower. Nutrient-rich water is pumped into the system and drains from the top to the bottom. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used.
Adams says there are three secrets to making the operation highly efficient: water and nutrient mix, air flow and light.
The drawbacks to vertical farming is that it can be capital intensive starting out, he says. There’s also the cost of electricity. The cost to power one of the towers is $8 a day, which doesn’t seem like much at first but then multiply that by 30 days times 11 towers, and the bill escalates quickly.
But the financial return is “incredible,” he says. A tower, which is 36 square feet, can contain more than 1,000 plants. Every 21 days, about 70 pounds of food can be harvested. They can harvest 17 times a year compared to a surface farmer who might be able to harvest three times a year. He’s growing a few kinds of lettuces, kale, rainbow chard and basil.
Artesian Farm products are available at the local farmers market, local grocery stores, and a few local restaurants, and he’s looking to build on that.
Soon, Adams plans to add spinach, arugula, cylindrical beets, breakfast radishes, and bok choy. Eventually he’d like to build out the entire building to start growing flowering plants such as cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.
Even though the current space hasn’t been built out, he’s already eyeing a larger building, this time one that is 20,000 to 30,000 square feet to be able to employ even more locals and grow even more food.
While he has big plans, he’s also strategic. Unlike many of the urban gardens in the city, Adams doesn’t rely on grants because it’s not a sustainable funding source. He tapped into funds from foundations as well as his own personal money to raise the capital needed to transform the blighted warehouse space into the vertical farm.
He set up Artesian Farms as a social enterprise, so it’s much more than just growing food to eat – it’s a catalyst for change in his neighborhood while feeding the hunger for good food.
“There’s a huge growing demand for locally grown food, whether it be for chefs wanting to serve it on their menu (or) whether you want to eat more flavorful, nutritious food closer to the source from a consumer standpoint,” he says.