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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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RecoveryPark Urban Farm Launches, Employs Recovering Detroiters

October 6, 2014 |

Image courtesy of RecoveryPark

Image courtesy of RecoveryPark

“Detroit has too much vacant lands, and too few jobs,” reads a statement on RecoveryPark’s website.  “We have a solution to both.”

The Motor City-based nonprofit venture seeks to use urban agriculture to revitalize neighborhoods and create jobs for recovering addicts and others with barriers to employment

Founded by former financial consultant Gary Wozniak, the initiative has big ambitions: an urban farm, a food processing center and possibly an indoor fish farm. Originally pitched as a network of gardens stretching out over a 2,475-acre area on on the city’s east side, the farming zone has since been scaled down to a  narrower 110-acre footprint. Plans call for a hybrid season with plants growing in the ground, in high tunnels for season extension and inside a hydroponic system. Construction is expected to take five years.

Right now, these plans are still in seed form. Current farming efforts are taking place in a 30′ x 144″ high tunnel that houses 66 raised bed gardens. The 4,300-square-foot structure sits in a parking lot of a 77,000-square-foot former food processing building located on Detroit’s east side. Donated last year, the building itself is now being used as a testing site for vertical hydroponic growing.

RecoveryPark started as a side project of SHAR (Self Help Addiction Rehabilitation, Inc.),  a nonprofit that provide services to people struggling with substance abuse. Wozniak, himself a recovering addict, has been the guiding hand since its genesis in 2008. Launched with philanthropic money from groups like the Erb Family Foundation, it has plans to spin off parts of its operations into worker-owned cooperatives connected to the larger collaborative. 

While Wozniak believes RecoveryPark can eventually create 1,080 jobs through growing, value-added food processing and distribution efforts, the present staffing situation is a bit more restrained. The farming side of operations is currently handled by full-time farmer Michelle Lutz, who has 20 years experience as a certified organic grower, and a part-time associate from SHAR with additional support coming from another staffer.

According to Lutz, their crops now include “a lot of specialty varieties of peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, beans, peas, herbs, greens, carrots, radishes,” selected to meet the needs of prospective restaurant clients.

RecoveryPark workers built their pilot high tunnel over a 48-hour period this past April, taking about two weeks to fill them out after construction. Simultaneously, seedlings were started in the vestibule of RP’s main office and later planted inside the high tunnel along with directly seeded crops. Successive generations have utilized both methods depending on the plant. Lutz plans to switch in new crops as soon as possible after harvesting.

“Some of the first crops to harvest were greens like Chinese cabbage, bok choy, lettuce, peas, swiss chard, and radishes,” she says. “Since the pilot is not done, I do not have a total amount of pounds produced yet, but that will be available. I would say that the beds needed to be deeper to allow for better trellising of some of the crop, but all in all it’s been a great growing season.”

As for employing a member of the recovering community, Lutz said it is working out.

“In full disclosure we had one set back, but he is now back on track and very happy to be back on the farm,” she says, “I truly believe having employment, a sense of purpose, is what people in recovery need.”

This season RecoveryPark is selling a mix of 30 different vegetables and edible flowers grown in the tunnel and microgreens grown in their four-tier 4’ x 8’ hydroponic facility. According to Wozniak, business has been good this year, considering the program is still in its pilot phase.

“Sales are under $30,000 for the season—well above what similar spaces command in rural settings,” he says. “The purpose of the pilot was to test the market for our curated product mix, validate our growing methods, demonstrate our ability to market to high end restaurants and validate our pricing strategy.”

Since RecoveryPark is still evolving, plans for worker-ownership elements are still very much works in progress. The company will review the successes and challenges of their initial run this winter as they prepare for expansion next spring.

The organization is now working with Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration to acquire a 40 acres of land to allow operations to grow. Wozniak hopes to have commitments on a deal by Oct. 1 and leasing or purchase contracts signed by the end of December. In the meantime, local chefs seem to be very hungry for what RecoveryPark is offering.

“Not having enough space to grow for the demand has been frustrating,” says Lutz, “but has proven the Detroit local food movement is hot, and chefs and restaurants want to support local growers.”

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