Hydroponics—The Future of Farming in Detroit?

June  2, 2016

In partnership with the Triscuit Maker Fund and Indiegogo, we're spotlighting (and celebrating!) the stories of five on-the-rise, spirited food businesses across the U.S.

One in five people in Detroit, Michigan faces hunger or lack of food. Kimberly Buffington, one of 3 co-founders of Eden Urban Farms, is working to change that.

Today's a good day to fund a farm! Become a pioneer today! Click link in bio. #letsgrowdetroit #Detroit #farming #urbanfarm

A photo posted by Eden Urban Farms (@edenurbanfarms) on

Kimberly's aha moment came in South America, during a trip focused on food distribution. She'd helped to get food into the hands of thousands of people, but she realized she’d gone a long way to do so, when there was work to be done locally, too. It was then that she founded the nonprofit mercyworks which has provided food to 300,000 families in Detroit over the past 8 years through a partnership with Trader Joe’s.

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But while Detroit might have outgrown its reputation as a food desert, Kimberly's firsthand experience showed her that there was still a problem with access to even the most basic fresh ingredients. With her car, she could get fresh produce—even though she was driving out of the city to get it—but many people in her community couldn't, either due to the cuts in the bus routes or because they didn’t own a car.

So how could she increase her community's ability to access fresh produce? By growing it right in the city.

Detroit stretches for 139 square miles, and a 2009 survey found that about one-third of residential pr​operties are vacant. But, despite the availability of land, Kimberly's farm is indoors—she and her fellow co-founders believe that hydroponics have the power to help “revolutionize the way food is grown and distributed around the world.” She decided on going the hydroponic route for many reasons, from factors like sustainability and compactness to its replicability around Detroit and beyond.

Hearing that Kimberly spent almost 20 years in the pastorate makes the transition to co-founder of a hydroponic farm seem like a significant career change, but it isn't quite as surprising once you learn that both of her grandparents farmed in Kansas. And seeing their experiences planting in a “dust bowl,” as Kimberly puts it, clearly had an impact on her. She shares that it takes 9 gallons of water to grow one head of lettuce in California and more than triple that (28 gallons) in Arizona, but only .3 gallons to grow one hydroponically. ​So it’s important to her that they’re using a sustainable agricultural model, one that “takes into consideration the impact on the planet and natural resources that are available.”

Growing indoors makes the growing season year-round—this makes an especially big difference in a climate like Michigan's. The output is further increased because every square foot is maximized indoors: Growing systems are stacked and a few inches difference in how a light is set up can mean fitting in dozens more trays. This thoughtful engineering of space results in up to quadruple the harvest output of growing outdoors.

Eden Urban Farms is growing lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, and basil this year. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Eden Urban Farms is selling their produce (this year they’ll be growing lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, and basil) to local restaurants and wholesalers—putting money back into the Detroit community—and are donating 10% of the produce they grow directly to families who need it.

And they have big plans for the future: Eventually, they’d like to move to a larger place in Detroit—more growing space would make it possible for them to sell produce regionally—and they’d like to expand into other cities as well. They’re thinking small, though, too: They plan on developing a program to help others start small hydroponic farms in Detroit, further giving back to the community by not only providing jobs with a living wage but opportunities for business ownership​.

Hydroponic growing systems can be scaled up or down (they can even be set up inside of a shipping container and taken anywhere in the world!) and Kimberly sees that flexibility and portability as key indicators of why hydroponics can help end hunger globally. Eden Urban Farms is already well on its way of being part of that solution.

TRISCUIT supports makers and food business owners who take inspiration from simple ingredients. That's why they teamed up with Indiegogo to create the Triscuit Maker Fund, a special event supporting 55 food projects, big and small, in need of funding. See all of the projects here.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lazyretirementgirl
  • admccue
  • Direct Compost
    Direct Compost
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.


Lazyretirementgirl March 24, 2017
I am curious about the nutrition of hydroponically grown produce. Does anyone have data on that?
admccue July 24, 2016
Lagrasso Bro's Produce wholesaler is also doing great work bring in hydroponic greens to Detroit. Only difference is they grow out of a shipping container...

Farm on, Detroit!
Direct C. June 4, 2016
Great Post!!!