Detroit's Other Industry: Food and Agriculture in the Motor City

Posted on April 22, 2014

Photos by Marvin Shaouni


For nearly a century, Detroit has been painted as a one industry town. What if we were to tell you that this characterization is simply unfair?

Since before Henry Ford left his parents’ Greenfield Township farm for Detroit, agriculture has been an economic driver in this region. Long before Model Ts began rolling off an assembly line, Detroit was the hub of a diverse regional food economy. And things are no different today.

In a matter of weeks, 200,000 people from around the region will flock to Flower Day (May 8) at the Eastern Market, a tradition that has brought joy to Detroiters for the last 48 years and serves as the unofficial kickoff date for farmers market season in Southeast Michigan.

Soon thereafter, Michigan-grown produce will fill the stalls of farmers markets in cities like Detroit, Royal Oak, Mount Clemens, and Pontiac, as well as roadside stands in rural parts of our region like Armada and Macomb. Metro Detroiters will enjoy the diverse bounty of crops grown in the region well into the fall, when local tomatoes give way to local apples and asparagus.

Yet it’s worth noting that Metro Detroit’s food and agriculture sector doesn’t shut down for the winter. There’s a lot happening when snow blankets the fields and city lots where local farmers raise the crops we all enjoy during the warm months.

The wholesale markets at the Detroit Produce Terminal and Eastern Market function year round, supplying the region’s independent grocers, chefs, and food entrepreneurs with the produce and ingredients they need at competitive prices. The region’s food processors, picklers, and produce canners know no end to their work.

Even Michigan’s farmers and food entrepreneurs — in the city and its hinterlands — are busy during the winter, exploring ways to extend the growing season for certain crops with the help of aquaponics and hoop houses.

No matter the time of the year, there’s always something going on in Michigan’s food and agriculture industry, be it planting, harvesting, canning, or curing.

Diversity is key

We take it for granted, but Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture in the United States (second only to California). According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan’s food and agriculture industry contributes $91.4 billion to the state’s economy each year and employs 22 percent of the state’s workforce.

Agricultural diversity is what helped draw Jess Daniel to Detroit.

“I grew up in California. The agriculture there is for the most part very corporate,” she says. “We have some of that in Michigan, but there are also lots of small, diversified farms and an overall diverse food system.”

Daniel is the director of FoodLab Detroit, a community of food businesses that works to connect its members with Detroit’s broader good food movement.

“I moved to Detroit because it has lots of regional food infrastructure. At the time, I was really interested in food distribution. In Detroit there is this interesting opportunity because we are a part of a rich agricultural network, yet we see people all around us suffering from food insecurity.”

Daniel has witnessed firsthand a marked growth in Detroiters’ interest in food entrepreneurship.

“There are lots of conversations about job creation in Detroit,” she says, “but not as much about jobs that are fulfilling to us as humans. A lot of food entrepreneurs are seeking that fulfillment. Food is such an elemental part of our humanity.”

Daniel’s colleague Devita Davison, community kitchen coordinator for the Eastern Market Corporation and a FoodLab member, shares similar sentiments about the power of food, both economically and socially.

“Just being a part of a food hub like Eastern Market that has so much legacy is exciting,” says Davison, who works to connect food entrepreneurs with resources like access to commercial kitchen space and help getting their businesses licensed.

“It’s great to work at the intersection between farmers and consumers. I’m grateful to be in the city of Detroit and see how urban agriculture is being used to grow produce and grow neighborhoods and communities.”

A focus on food and agriculture

In the coming months, Model D looks forward to diving deep into various aspects of Detroit’s regional food and agriculture economy. We will explore what it takes to start a food business in the city of Detroit and peek in on what is happening at Eastern Market in the predawn hours. We’ll talk with chefs, food entrepreneurs, farmers, and food processors to help you, our readers, develop a greater appreciation for why food is so important to our region.

“It’s vital that we begin to tell our stories,” says Devita Davison. “This is what we do. We live and breathe it. Whenever we can get out and evangelize how important food is to the region, we do it.”