Sitting at the helm of a billion-dollar financial firm, with a personal net worth of more than $100 million, John Hantz isn't the Detroit everyman featured in newspaper stories about the decline of the Rustbelt. But neither has he fled the city, as more than one million of its residents have. An incurable businessman, Hantz is a staunch defender of both the private sector and capitalism's "invisible hand," and he's set to bring market forces to bear on an unlikely project: an urban garden. Or rather, the largest urban farm in the world.
Hantz realized not long ago that Detroit sprawl--much of it now blighted or abandoned--might be best dealt with through agriculture. He'd like to shrink the city by revitalizing population centers downtown and buying up massive tracts of land to raze and reshape as urban farm "pods." The resulting scarcity of land will create property value, he says, and the farms will provide local jobs (unemployment is more than 25%), fresh produce, and new tourist destinations. Hantz intends on using experimental, technology-intensive growing techniques, including hydro- and aeroponics, to create a replicable model of "vertical" cultivation. Apples, lettuce, and tomatoes are to be among the first crops.
With test plots being tilled this summer, Hantz Farms will operate as a for-profit venture, creating backlash from some residents and urban gardeners who worry that it's a glorified "land grab." But Hantz is prepared to lay tens of millions of dollars on the line to make the farms operational and hopes to see them in the black within five years. He spoke to The Atlantic about why shrinking the city is important and how a for-profit farm serves the public interest.


You've proposed taking a several hundred-acre swath of blighted homes and abandoned lots and turning it into a proving ground for large-scale urban agriculture. Not exactly your schoolyard or community garden.

You have to think about Detroit in a different way. A lot of times people think about urban farming and say, "There's not even an open piece of property within two hours of my house," or, "I don't want to lose that park." But this farm takes into account the reality of Detroit--it's a city with 200,000 tax-delinquent parcels, controlled by one of the state's three land banks, and upwards of 30,000 abandoned acres. Given the sheer size of Detroit, you could fit multiple big cities inside.

There's just an excess capacity of land. How do you come up with a positive way to dispose of it, but in a way that attracts people? The farm starts with that basic concept. Now it's not cows, pigs, and chickens. It's almost all produce. But it also isn't just tomatoes or lettuce--it includes forestry and different beautifying techniques.

It sounds like the goal is to shrink the city. Is Detroit simply too big for its own good?

The city government is going to have to wrestle with this issue because of its inability to provide quality services when residents are spread to this magnitude. If you have one trashcan to pick up per block in many of these areas--and that's what you have--it's tough, economically, to provide any service at all.

But most people can't make that leap. If they think of the city, they think in one way; and if they think of the country, they think in one way. I grew up in Romeo, 30 miles north of Detroit. Our neighborhood was nestled in a whole bunch of apple orchards. And the orchards just functioned around us. I think people forget that in Iowa and Illinois you can find agriculture going on around areas of average density. 

Now, you might have to tell people, "If you live in the outskirts of a city, you'll have a difference set of services," and you then provide them with a different tax rate. I think people would buy into that value equation. "I'll just take care of my trash myself." That's not unusual for people. Or maybe an area has a volunteer fire department. But density defines a city. If you don't have it, you don't have a city.   

Do you have a background in farming, or is this a plan that came out of left field?

I have a background in finance, and I've been a resident of the city for 20 years. My office is in the suburbs, so I do the opposite of most people--in the mornings, they're driving downtown and I'm driving out. (There's never any traffic, which is nice.) Every year for the last decade, I kept telling myself, "It's going to get better next year." But doesn't get better. It actually even shocks me and gets a little worse. So one day I'm driving and thinking, "What are we going to do as residents? How's this going to turn around?" I came up with this economic concept. I said, "We need scarcity. We have to figure out how to create positive scarcity so that people have a reason to take action."

Spoken like a true businessman.

Well, I wondered, "How could we create scarcity in a way that impacts everything else we're trying to fix, like reduced services?" With a farm, you can turn the sewage and the water off; it takes care of blight; it's actually cheap compared to other solutions, because once you've gotten down to the ground, you've succeeded. It's really the cheapest option you have.

So I came up with the farm and I wondered, "Who's going to do that?" And I thought, "No one. So if you think it'll work, why don't you try to do it?"

Once you hit on the idea, how'd you go about working out all the details and kinks?

I asked myself, "Who knows something about farming?" I started researching and came up with two places. The first agricultural school in America was founded at Michigan State, so I got on the phone and said, "Can I come up there? I have some questions." I did some more research and discovered that we have one the largest foundations in the world--and their whole mission is food. So I got in the car and drove to Kalamazoo and met with Kellogg. I just said, "I'm assuming you guys have forgotten more than I know. I'd like to talk to you about this concept, and ask you questions around food and get educated. You can lead me to things I should be reading; you can give me homework assignments!" That started my learning curve.

You're one of the wealthiest residents left in Detroit. Everyone else fled a long time ago, or at least moved to the suburbs. Are you an altruist, or just stubborn?

It's about quality of life. The way it's going here is not how it should go for anyone in America. It's not anything anyone would be proud of, and it starts with quality of life. Until there's quality of life, you may want to help Detroit, but you're not moving to Detroit. If your kids aren't safe, you're not moving there. If you don't believe in the education system, you're not moving there. That's not a suburban attitude; I'm not trying to be snide. At the end of the day, the people of the city are voting with their feet going to go where there's a better value equation. We're losing intellectual capital every day. We forget that cities are competitive like businesses: you've got to produce a value equation so that people want to stay.

Your critics in Detroit--especially those who run smaller, community-based urban gardens--like to point out that Hantz Farms is a for-profit outfit. Are you secretly in this to get filthy rich?

When it comes to farming, scale is crucial. Depending on what you start with, you have a range between three and seven years to become profitable and have cash flow. Now, I don't put the returns on the farm that I put on my normal business, but I expect it to be sustainable. People ask why it's a for-profit farm. There are two reasons. If you use the word sustainability, then something must pay for itself. Otherwise it's a contradiction in terms.

The second is that Detroit has a great not-for-profit sector; we're not short in that area. We're short of people paying taxes! We're short of the business sector. If we have a 25 percent unemployment rate, at some point we must attract business. I can move faster with it being private because I can accept different outcomes. If I want to pay more for beautification so that the farm is a showplace, I can decide to do that.

How long until you begin to till the first fields?

We have two locations I hope to get quick agreement on; I believe they're 95 percent there. Hopefully we'll have something going for this summer.

The first pods will be between 40 and 75 acres. Both will feature indoor growing systems, some higher end technologies that bring pizzazz to how people think about farming. There'll be the traditional methods, but there'll also be some exciting, forward-thinking ways about how to farm. I think if we want to be a showplace and center place for urban farming, we have to have those types of creative technologies.

I'd like to promote the idea that we need business as part of the plan in Detroit. We need jobs; we need entrepreneurialism. Those are ideas that aren't mainstay right now. But you can't build a tax base on all government and non-profits. It doesn't work. There needs to be a balance.

Image credit: Tony Buser/Flickr