Detroit Volunteers Plant Roots for Nation's Largest Urban Tree Farm

When John Hantz first moved to Detroit over 20 years ago, the city was thriving. But, over the two decades since his arrival, Hantz witnessed a devastating decline in his adopted hometown while his financial services conglomerate, Hantz Group, was going gangbusters. So, Hantz decided to put some of his money where his heart is -- Detroit. 

Running the numbers, Hantz figured he could devote up to $30 million to purchase up to 10,000 blighted acres across the Motor City and plant them with mixed hardwood trees to create Hantz Farms. As a test, though, he set a more conservative goal of $5 million invested in 70,000 trees over first three years to plant the country's largest urban tree farm. According to Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms, while the project is a business venture, its primary purpose is "to make communities more livable, to improve quality of life in neighborhoods, and it's a long-term commitment that the Hantz Group is making to Detroit."

Score explains that their 10-year vision for taking over foreclosed properties "converts blight to beauty, creates jobs, and it strengthens the city's budget." Business-wise, Hantz and other companies view urban agriculture as both a global industry and an ethical investment with the two-pronged purpose of education and tourism.

As production at Hantz Farms continues, data will be gathered to gauge how the operation is affecting these four local assets:

  • Economic development
  • Environmental quality
  • Neighborhood stabilization
  • Consumer understanding of agriculture and natural resource management

Last month, more than 1,400 volunteers converged on a 20-acre area around the Indian Village neighborhood to help plant 15,000 oak tree saplings. The now-planted land is part of 150 acres Hantz Group bought for somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 last fall -- land that had been abandoned, neglected, and unwanted by everyone else in the city. The goal is to have the whole acreage cleared of dilapidated structures and debris by the end of 2014 -- which will cost another $500,000 -- with a second en-masse planting day planned for next year. In the meantime, Hantz will mow and maintain the lots and also pay property taxes to the tune of $60,000 each year.

While Hantz Farms is a for-profit venture, the corporate overlords are employing a wait-and-see attitude to the long tail of the business. Score said, “When the trust level [with neighbors] is higher, we can move toward orchards and Christmas trees and crops that require more intense management.” For now, the project cleans up neighborhoods, improves air quality, and boosts the city's revenues, so Detroit's leaders and residents see it as a win-win.

"This first part of the project gave a really good feel for the way this type of investment can transform neighborhoods in Detroit," Score notes. "There are a lot of people pulling for Detroit to become a new type of great place going forward. ... People have been genuinely grateful for the improvement this investment has made in the neighborhoods where they live."