Detroit News features Detroit Farm and Garden at the revitalized Third Precinct

January 23rd, 2013
Jeff Klein tends to the green roof atop Detroit Farm and Garden. Sales at the store are expected to increase as more Detroit residents are allowed to use vacant land to raise farm animals and harvest crops. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Farm, garden store plows new Detroit ground

By Maureen McDonald

Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — The ground is frozen, but business is sprouting for the two owners of Detroit Farm and Garden in southwest Detroit who forged the first landscape supply store in central Detroit this year with the help of loans and civic organizations.

“We’re doing work we are absolutely passionate about, and we’re helping reclaim Detroit,” said Jeff Klein, 39, of Detroit. He and partner Andy Ray of Hazel Park opened in April the 14,000-square-foot store and perimeter with straw bales, goat feed and vintage patio furniture occupying the former 3rd Precinct garage of the Detroit Police Department.

Within a year or two, they hope to be profitable. For now, they oversee two employees with help from grants, loans and a subsidy from their 13-year-old business, Classic Landscape Ltd. They wouldn’t give any other financial information.

The landlord, Southwest Solutions, helped rough out the space, add drywall and remove the chain-link jail cells in the 4,300-square-foot interior. They stack straw bales for eclectic music concerts and garden/farm classes. Customers — especially those with animals and mini farms in the Brightmoor and Mexicantown neighborhoods — buy seeds, stones, topsoil and grain.

“Everything grows in Detroit,” said Klein, an active player in the Detroit Agriculture Network that helps people find affordable, healthy and nutritious food and teaches gardening skills. Monthly classes educate people about organic gardening without pesticides, methods of making raised beds and growing medicinal herbs.

“Gardens are a way of rebuilding local economies,” Klein said. Efforts are under way to legalize goats, chicken and bees in the city. Meanwhile, he sells goat, chicken and rabbit feed to immigrants and urban farmers. His biggest revenue source is Classic Landscape, which does business in Oakland County and the city.

Sales are steady and expected to grow in the spring when planting season resumes. In the meantime, Detroit Farm has a patient landlord. The business plan Klein and Ray worked up persuaded John Van Kamp, president and CEO of Southwest Solutions, to rent Klein and his partner space in the building that includes the 555 Art Gallery and Studios.

“Jeff saw a growing interest in doing business in Detroit and needed a home. It was an honor to provide one for him,” Van Camp said. “… Jeff will add much to the vibrancy of the neighborhood.”

Among other projects, Classic Landscape was involved in building the Green Alley between Motor City Brew Works and the Green Garage in Midtown and developed a training garden for volunteers working with the Greening of Detroit on Plum Street in Detroit.

The need for bed rock, mulch and compost was quickly apparent to Klein, who lives in Corktown. He couldn’t find anything close by. He and his partner often drove to Southfield for the nearest landscape supply, tacking an hour or two onto every urban job.

Klein and Ray said they secured a $50,000 start-up grant from Enterprise Detroit.

Then the Erb Foundation gave $75,000 to Southwest Solutions to purchase supplies and hire Classic Landscape to put a green roof atop the old precinct and garage and added cisterns, rain barrels and permeable pavers. Klein plans to erect a hill on the roof.

They’re optimistic the business will grow because Ford Motor Co.’s charitable arm is investing $10 million to create a community center next door in the empty Mercado building. The hope is visitors to the center will come over to shop at Farm and Garden.

One of the keys for the company is creating a bigger market for animal feed, and that effort depends in part on enabling Detroit residents to buy some of the city’s abundant vacant land and raise animals or plant crops. The Detroit Planning Commission is reviewing a proposed urban agriculture ordinance that makes it legal for residents and block clubs to purchase vacant land.

Detroit has 104,795 vacant lots spanning 13,690 acres, said Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit. There are an estimated 2,500 gardens in the city.

Farm animals exist around Detroit’s open spaces, especially goats for munching lawns and chickens for laying eggs, Klein said. Numerous urban farmers grow products they sell at Detroit Eastern Market on Saturday.

Gardens help stabilize neighborhoods and beautify vacant lots, Klein and Ray argue, and they hope their business can be a catalyst not only for better sales but a better community.

“We have tons of wonderful people here that want to make great things happen,” Klein said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, obviously. Our goal is to double our sales and keep building our service as a valuable asset.”

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