There aren’t many people like Jeff Adams.
For 28 years he worked out of Dayton, Ohio, as a sales rep at Reynolds and Reynolds, a company that develops software for automotive dealerships. But after going on an inspiring mission to Brazil and getting laid off from his job, Adams and his wife decided to change their life trajectories.
Today, Adams owns Artesian Farms, a hydroponic farm located in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood where he and his wife have lived since 2003.
On the surface, Brightmoor would seem to be one of the clearest examples of abandonment in the city. Vacancy is so high that, in 2014, The Detroit Blight Authority targeted 14-and-21-block sections of the neighborhood for mass demolition. Because of all the empty space, it’s a common destination for illegal dumping.
But that vacant land has also led to the creation of numerous urban farms. And it has some of the strongest community organizations in the city ‒ both Neighbors Building Brightmoor and the Brightmoor Alliance, of which Adams is a board member, are active in securing grants and mobilizing residents.
“The people here have a grit about them and see opportunity where others wouldn’t,” says Adams. “It’s a different lifestyle here ‒ a simpler way of living that’s attracted a unique group of people that support one another.”
For years, Adams had admired the farms in Brightmoor. The way they connected people to the biological processes and could be used as a development tool for young adults. But he wanted to go in a slightly different direction.
“They were all nonprofits,” Adams says. “I figured, there’s gotta be a way we can create enterprise that takes blighted structures in the community, working with young people that need career opportunity, and find a way to make it profitable.”
With funding from traditional investors and foundation loans, he rehabbed a 7,500-square-foot building on Artesian Street and set up his unique grow operation.
Hydroponic farming is based on maintaining a controlled environment. One thousand- gallon tanks pump water continuously through four-and-five-story towers containing racks of produce. The water, which is checked every morning to maintain consistent pH and nutrient levels, flows back into those same tanks for reuse. A 45,000 CFM fan ‒ “In other words, a big ass fan” ‒ maintains consistent airflow and temperature inside the windowless warehouse. LED lights emit a glow that paints everything in the farm purple. A seed nursery in an adjacent room houses delicate seedlings whose roots are taking hold in the rockwool ‒ essentially the soil used by Artesian Farms, made from basalt but with much higher levels of water retention.
The regulated environment results in high yields. For starters, Artesian Farms can grow year-round. That, according to Adams, allows him to harvest greens 17 times a year, compared to about two times for a surface farm.
“In 32 square feet, we can have the same amount of plants as a surface farm that’s 3,700 square feet,” he says. “Eleven towers yield the equivalent to an acre of land.”
This process also results in very little waste.
“We can control everything from seed to sale,” says Adams. “We cut it right off the buds and into packaging. What we harvest here today is in stores tomorrow. Whereas when you buy lettuce from California, it’s been in a warehouse, then it drives across the country, and then it sits on a shelf. By the time you buy it 10 to 14 days later, the flavor’s practically gone.”
Only 2 percent of Artesian Farms’s produce goes to waste. All this is done without the use of pesticides or unnatural nutrients. (Artesian Farms is technically not organic because their produce isn’t grown in soil.)
Artesian Farms has a niche, high-volume model, only growing plants for three products: kale, basil, and a spring mix. The basil, whose leaves grow to the size of an adult hand, has been a big seller.
“Nobody can replicate our basil,” says Adams. “It’s in hot demand. We can’t grow enough of it right now.”
That’s why the farm is building more towers dedicated only to basil. When completed, Adams will harvest approximately 100 pounds of basil per week.
Adams has a background in sales, and it shows. Artesian Farms is already selling to several boutique markets, like Busch’s, Westborn, and Papa Joe’s; plus City Market and The Farmer’s Hand in Detroit. Restaurants like Gold Cash Gold and Rose’s Fine Foods have also bought his produce.
It’s especially gratifying to Adams that he has three employees, all from Brightmoor: “I could buy expensive, automatic equipment, but I’d much rather hire young people from the neighborhood,” he says. “I’ve known a couple of these kids since they were 10, 12 years old.”
While surface farming will be the primary means of growing produce for the foreseeable future, hydroponic operations like Artesian Farms might one day be an important facet of the world’s food economy. A 69,000-square-foot aeroponics farm ‒ which sprays the plants with water mist ‒ opened last year in New Jersey.
Adams certainly thinks he’s onto something.
“In the long term, this method will be important to farming,” Adams says. “Consumers are increasingly focused on healthy, sustainable eating, a movement that was spurred by the culinary industry. And I don’t see that going away anytime soon.”