Cultivating chickens, tomatoes, green alleys in Detroit

DETROIT—In a city with nearly 105,000 vacant lots on more than 13,000 acres, Jeff Klein and Andy Ray are making a bold play to cultivate that land with pure urban style. They recently celebrated their first anniversary as co-owners of Detroit Farm and Garden, a store that sells everything from goat feed to rain barrels.

This spring they began selling some of their vintage garden furniture, gloves and animal feed from a booth at Eastern Market, along with 144 varieties of seeds from High Mowing.

“We’re selling Detroit Farm and Garden, letting people know we are here,” said Klein. They keep adding merchandise to their free-standing store, spanning 14,000 square feet indoors and out, next to the Mercado building in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. Saturdays finds throngs of people seeking rakes, seeds, tomato plants and a little advice.

The landscaping duo host monthly concerts on straw bales and biweekly classes on a host of topics, from landscaping to composting. The owners know what they are talking about. Ray and Klein have run Classic Landscape for 14 years. They designed raised beds for MGM Casino downtown, small gardens on the Dequindre Cut on the near east side and greenery around the Green Alley in Midtown.

“We have a great collaboration with Detroit Farm and Garden. We are glad when we can buy locally from our Detroit neighbors,” said Trish Hubbell, marketing director of Greening of Detroit. She recalls Klein was a prime movement in the Detroit Agricultural Network that helped inspire the Detroit City Council to enact a community garden ordinance. She believes there are 2,500 community gardens in Detroit today.

“Food is sovereignty, you are feeding your own destiny,” said Hubbell.

Klein and Ray found the building three years ago when they learned Southwest Solutions was seeking tenants for a former police station and garage on Vernor. The challenge was taking down the chain link holding cells for prisoners and painted over the yellow lines earmarked for police cars. Then, instead of a billboard on the roof, they started planting trees and flowers.

“We’re doing work we are absolutely passionate about and we’re helping reclaim Detroit,” said Klein, 39, who lives in Corktown. He has a degree in landscape design from Michigan State University and carved a reputation for developing sustainable designs that used Michigan plants and stones.

His partner, Ray, 37, lives in Hazel Park. He can build anything from reclaimed materials and give it a fresh, interesting look. The pair expects to ramp up to 11 employees in spring and summer. They plan community garage sales at the store so people can sell and exchange gardening equipment.

Their landlord, John Van Camp, president and CEO of Southwest Solutions said his agency was happy to rent to Klein and his partner.

“Jeff lives in Corktown and works all over the region. He saw a growing interest in doing business in Detroit and needed a home. It was an honor to provide one for him,” Van Camp said. “Jeff will add much to the vibrancy of the neighborhood.”

With Van Camp’s help, the pair has solicited grants from several organizations including the Erb Foundation, to help launch their company. Currently their landscape firm subsidizes the retail operation, a form of sustainability.

“Sustainability” is an ongoing quest for all students of planning, design and construction at Michigan State University says Scott Whitter, its director. “We’re all about creating spaces where people want to live and develop. One interesting trend is urban farming, because people haven’t had access to fresh, high quality food. “

“Sustainability is near and dear to the core of the profession,” Whitter added. Indeed Klein took notes. He sells vintage porch furniture, boulders made from milled curbs and logs chopped from discarded cottonwood trees.

Art is equally important to Klein and Ray. Each month they feature a local artisan. Currently they display Cheryl English, an east side potter who produces cards with photos of her native Michigan plants and containers for growing anew.

Klein and Ray say it is all about community building. “Our goal to serve as a hub where people and organizations can gather, exchange valuable information, share opportunities for education, leadership and skills through shared networks of support,” Klein said.

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