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Purple lettuce tightly packed together in a garden plot.
Fisheye Farms alongside many other local growers, has pivoted away from restaurant sales and is now primarily selling produce direct to city residents.
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How Detroit’s Urban Farming Community Is Coping With Coronavirus Restaurant Closures

As sales decline due to COVID-19, the city’s farms are changing what they’re growing and how they sell to customers

Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

It’s been an unusual start to the spring for Fisheye Farms in Detroit. Husband-and-wife team Andrew Chae and Amy Eckert would usually be spending their time tending beds and making deliveries to their small community of Detroit restaurant clients.

Instead, they’ve spent the first two weeks of the spring season helping organize a small farm stand on their property in Core City: Under normal circumstances, 90 percent of their produce would be sold directly to restaurants like Lady of the House, Selden Standard, and Rose’s Fine Food. But when the novel coronavirus hit, Eckert and Chae were forced to rethink how they operate their business to continue supplying the surrounding community.

Fisheye Farms isn’t alone. As many small growers in the Detroit area see their sales to local restaurants fade due to dine-in restrictions and temporary closures, as well as closures of farmers markets due to the novel coronavirus, local farms are now having to change not only how they sell to customers, but also what they’re growing and how they harvest it.

Anita Singh is the founder of Get Down Farm on Detroit’s east side. Singh and their partner had expected this to be their first season of cut flower business on Detroit’s east side. The pair had plans to sell through the Michigan Flower Cooperative. However, due to the novel coronavirus epidemic in Detroit, rather than invest in planting perennial flowers, Get Down Farm is creating a plan around growing food. While there haven’t yet been serious impacts on the food supply, Singh says they want to be prepared: “We’re shifting to [growing food] in anticipation of possible food supply and supply chain issues.”

Because it’s still very early in the growing season and quite cold, there’s a limit to what local farmers like Singh can plant outside. Hearty greens like kale, spinach, and collards will come first, followed by hot crops like tomatoes. While the cut flowers would have been a side income for Singh and their partner, the produce will be offered at no profit to friends and neighbors in a Detroit community that already struggled with poverty and food insecurity before the current public health crisis. It’s difficult to pivot away from former sources of income like restaurant sales, but Singh sees it as a chance to prove the Detroit food community’s mettle. “The local food system really has an opportunity to shine — to show that we’re able to be more resilient and sustainable in times of crisis.”

Oakland Avenue Farm in the North End is developing a similar plan focused on supplying food directly to Detroiters. “One thing we know for sure is there should be an increase in demand for local grown food from consumers,” Jerry Hebron of Oakland Avenue said in a statement to Eater. “We are hopeful the restaurants come back online soon as we are helping to recycle some of their food supply to reduce waste. We are praying for healing of our land and safety of our communities.”

Oakland Avenue Urban Farm founders, Billy and Jerry Hebron Courtesy of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm

“This year, there’s just been so many people asking me, ‘Can I get some extra compost?’” says Greg Willerer, who co-owns Brother Nature Produce in North Corktown with his wife, Olivia Hubert. Willerer believes that the interest is, in part, being driven by people’s concerns over the stability of the food supply. “During good times it’s a good idea [to grow your own food], and during a pandemic it’s a stupid idea not to protect yourself,” he says. Willerer usually supplies local restaurants with salad greens, but says that much of his recent crop is going to seed due to lack of demand.

In response to the requests for compost, Willerer asked his supplier to bring in a truckload once a week to be distributed at cost to gardeners in need, for $20 per yard. Brother Nature is also offering its farming expertise and heavy equipment to help people get their side lot gardens established more quickly and with more success. Additionally, Willerer is working with local growers to set up satellite farm stands in neighborhoods, so people can purchase fresh food without having to visit a highly trafficked grocery store. “I think it’s healthier for people to not go into Whole Foods where people are touching stuff,” he says. Brother Nature recently hosted a stand in the Woodbridge neighborhood and participated in Fisheye Farms on Friday afternoon.

For Coriander Kitchen & Farm, a catering business and farm with a restaurant under construction in Jefferson Chalmers, the novel coronavirus situation has created a variety of financial and logistical challenges. Prior to the pandemic, chef Alison Heeres and her business partner, Gwen Meyer, supplied roughly 10 restaurant clients, in addition to using their product for catering and events. Over the past month, though, Heeres and Meyer have seen their revenue streams dry up. Pop-ups, weddings, baby showers, cooking workshops: Everything has been canceled, Heeres says, noting that the business had just begun to pick up after the slow winter season. “All of our work for the next two months is gone. Thirty thousand dollars’ worth of work just gone in a moment. Poof,” she says.

Now, Heeres and Meyer are fighting for every bit of revenue on two fronts while juggling the construction of their restaurant. “Had our restaurant opened when it was supposed to, [around two months ago], we would have been dead in the water,” Heeres says. But she’s still uncertain of the future of the project, acknowledging that she was already paying interest to lenders on the work that was done. On the day Eater spoke with Heeres, she had just fielded a call from a contractor telling her they were unable to legally send carpenters out to work on the restaurant in the former Fisherman’s Marina building. She’s unsure both of when the dine-in ban will be lifted and when business will normalize enough that Coriander Kitchen & Farm can open. “You feel like you’re in a black hole, like you’re in negative space and there’s no up or down anymore.”

On the farm side, Meyer is busy trying to make planting decisions — something that’s largely dependent on how the crops are used and who is purchasing them. “She’s wondering, ‘Am I going to grow 200 rows of cilantro seed right now? Who am I going to sell it to?’” Heeres says, pointing out that every bit of labor, every seed, every ounce of water has a cost. And there’s still a possibility that restaurants could return to some form of normal in the next two months and need product. “I think most people are hedging their bets on the idea that things are going to reopen because we can’t fathom an existence of them not, but it’s a gamble for sure.”

In leaner times, large farms might plan to grow storage crops like root vegetables. But smaller farms like Coriander typically focus on greens and other crops that they can charge more for per pound. Recently, Heeres has heard that some farmers are starting to revert to storage crops, “which was kind of terrifying.” A recent run on seeds has created additional complications for growers, according to Heeres.

“Every decision we’re making right now is guessing about where we can find some income and what makes the most sense,” Heeres says. At Coriander, that means planting more transplants for sale to other growers — something Meyer had done in the past, but moved away from in order to focus on their restaurant and catering business. Heeres is also testing out meal delivery, and the pair have launched a flower CSA. Heeres hopes that people who haven’t had disruptions in their income will continue to invest in the local businesses that bring them joy. “Doing that is really important,” she says.

Back at Fisheye Farms, things are different for sure. The farm has stepped up its sanitizing procedures and now uses gloves for harvesting. Where the farm used to get by just rinsing off its stainless steel prep table with water, the owners now use both bleach and soap.

Two weeks in, the farm stand — which sets up at 2334 Buchanan from noon to 3 p.m. on Fridays — features produce from several local farms including Brother Nature, Rising Pheasant Farms, and Detroit Mushroom Factory, as well as sourdough bread from Ochre Bakery, and scones and spreads from Brooklyn Street Local. Handwashing stations are set up around the area and a physical line shows customers how to stand at a safe distance while waiting to make their purchases. Customers pay using Venmo or cash, and the profits are returned to each producer.

Despite the strange circumstances of the pandemic, Chae is feeling modestly optimistic about the future of the farm and the sustainability of the farm stand. “Before the coronavirus, I feel like it was a bit of a shaky time for Detroit restaurants in general,” he says, acknowledging the winter closures of longtime farm-to-table restaurants like Gold Cash Gold and others due to increased competition and the rescheduling of the North American International Auto Show. “So, actually, our sales have been up, but it’s also a lot more work than we’re used to.”

Chae says that he’s hopeful that things will start to normalize in the local restaurant industry soon and is continuing to plant as if he’s still serving those customers. “I talked to some other farmers, just kind of joking around: If things were to really collapse, then I would probably change how I was or I wouldn’t be growing baby salad mixes anymore. I’d be growing some things out to seed,” he says. “But I’m not a doomsday-prepper kind of person. So [I’m] hoping that everything goes back to normal and we can continue growing the way we do.”

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The Brooklyn Street Local

1266 Michigan Ave, Detroit, MI 48226 (313) 262-6547 Visit Website

Gold Cash Gold

2100 Michigan Avenue, , MI 48216 (313) 242-0770 Visit Website

Ochre Bakery

4884 Grand River Avenue, , MI 48208 (313) 686-5694 Visit Website

Lady of the House

1426 Bagley Street, , MI 48216 (313) 818-0218 Visit Website

Selden Standard

3921 2nd Avenue, , MI 48201 (313) 438-5055 Visit Website

Rose's Fine Food

10551 East Jefferson Avenue, , MI 48214 (313) 822-2729 Visit Website

Fisheye Farms

1815 Van Dyke, , MI 48214 (313) 649-7026 Visit Website