Food And Drinks

How Detroit’s Small Farms Are Coping With Coronavirus Restaurant Closures


It was an unusual start to spring for Fisheye Farms in Detroit. The Andrew Chae and Amy Eckert couple typically spent their time maintaining beds and delivering supplies to their small community of Detroit restaurant customers.

Instead, they spent the first two weeks of the spring season organizing a small courtyard stall on their Core City property: under normal circumstances, 90 percent of their produce would be sold direct to restaurants like Lady of the House, Selden Standard, and Rose’s fine dining. But when the novel coronavirus hit, Eckert and Chae had to rethink how they run their business to continue to supply the surrounding community.

Fisheye Farms is not alone. As many smallholders in the Detroit area find their sales to local restaurants are slowing due to food restrictions and temporary closings, as well as the closings of farmers’ markets due to the novel coronavirus, local farms now need to change not only their sales habits to customers, but also what they grow and how they reap it.

Anita Singh is the founder of Get Down Farm on the east side of Detroit. Singh and her partner had expected this to be their first season in the cut flower business on the east side of Detroit. The couple had plans to sell through the Michigan Flower Cooperative. However, due to the novel coronavirus epidemic in Detroit, Get Down Farm is creating a plan to grow food instead of investing in planting perennial flowers. Although there hasn’t been a serious food supply impact yet, Singh says they want to be prepared: “We’re switching to [growing food] in anticipation of potential food supply and supply chain problems. ”

Since it is very early in the growing season and quite cold, there is a limit to what local farmers like Singh can plant outside. Hearty greens like kale, spinach, and collards come first, followed by hot plants like tomatoes. While the cut flowers would have been an extra income for Singh and her partner, the products are offered for no profit to friends and neighbors in a Detroit community that struggled with poverty and food insecurity prior to the current public health crisis. It’s difficult to turn away from past sources of income like restaurant sales, but Singh sees it as an opportunity to prove the strength of the Detroit food community. “The local food system really has an opportunity to shine – to show that we can be more resilient and sustainable in times of crisis.”

Oakland Avenue Farm in the North End is developing a similar plan that focuses on providing direct food to Detroiters. “One thing we know for sure is that consumer demand for locally grown food should increase,” Oakland Avenue’s Jerry Hebron said in a statement to Eater. “We are confident that restaurants will be back online soon as we are helping to recycle some of their food supplies to reduce waste. We pray for the healing of our land and the safety of our churches. “

Courtesy Oakland Avenue Urban Farm

“This year so many people have asked me, ‘Can I get some extra compost? ‘”Says Greg Willerer, who with his wife Olivia Hubert owns Brother Nature Produce in North Corktown. Willerer believes the interest stems in part from people’s concerns about food stability. “In good times, that’s a good idea [to grow your own food]and during a pandemic, not protecting yourself is a stupid idea, ”he says. Willerer normally supplies lettuce to local restaurants, but says much of its recent crop is sown due to lack of demand.

In response to the request for compost, Willerer asked his supplier to bring a truckload once a week to be distributed to gardeners in need at a cost of $ 20 per yard. Brother Nature also offers its agricultural expertise and heavy equipment to help people set up their back lots faster and more successfully. In addition, Willerer is working with local growers to set up satellite farm stalls in the neighborhood so people can buy fresh groceries without going to a busy grocery store. “I think it’s healthier for people not to go into whole foods where people are touching things,” he says. Brother Nature recently held a booth in the Woodbridge neighborhood and attended Fisheye Farms on Friday afternoon.

For Coriander Kitchen & Farm, a catering company and farm with a restaurant under construction in Jefferson Chalmers, the novel coronavirus situation has created a variety of financial and logistical challenges. Before the pandemic, the cook Alison Heeres and her business partner Gwen Meyer supplied around 10 restaurant customers and also used their product for catering and events. Last month, however, Heeres and Meyer saw that their sources of income have dried up. Pop-ups, weddings, baby showers, cooking workshops: everything has been canceled, says Heeres, noting that business has only just picked up again after the slow winter season. “All of our work for the next two months is gone. The thirty thousand dollar work is gone in an instant. Poof, ”she says.

Now, Heeres and Meyer are fighting for tons of revenue on two fronts as they juggle the construction of their restaurant. “Our restaurant opened when it should, [around two months ago]We would have been dead in the water, ”says Heeres. However, she is still unsure about the future of the project and admits that she has already paid interest to the lenders on the job well done. On the day Eater spoke to Heeres, she had just answered a call from a contractor who said they couldn’t legally send carpenters to work on the restaurant in the former Fisherman’s Marina building. She’s not sure when the dine-in ban will be lifted and when business will normalize so that Coriander Kitchen & Farm can open. “You feel like you are in a black hole, as if you are in negative space and there are no more ups and downs.”

On the farm, Meyer is busy making planting decisions – something that largely depends on how the plants are used and who is buying them. “She wonders, ‘Am I going to grow 200 rows of coriander seeds now? Who am I going to sell it to? “Says Heeres, pointing out that every piece of work, every seed, every ounce of water generates costs. And there is still a chance that restaurants will return to normal shape and need products in the next two months. “I think most people hedge their bets on the idea that things will be reopened because we can’t fathom their existence, but it sure is a gamble.”

In lean times, large farms could plan to grow storage crops such as root vegetables. But smaller farms like cilantro usually focus on greens and other crops that they can charge more per pound for. Heeres recently heard that some farmers were starting to resort to warehouse crops, “which was kind of terrifying”. According to Heeres, a recent seed trial caused additional complications for growers.

“Every decision we make is a guess as to where we can find an income and what makes the most sense,” says Heeres. At Coriander, that means planting more grafts for sale to other growers – something Meyer had done in the past but moved away to focus on the restaurant and catering business. Heeres is also testing food delivery and the couple has launched a flower CSA. Heeres hopes that people who have not had income problems will continue to invest in the local businesses that bring them joy. “It’s really important to do that,” she says.

Back at Fisheye Farms it will certainly look different. The farm has stepped up its disinfection procedures and is now using gloves for harvesting. Where the farm used to rinse their stainless steel prep table with just water, the owners now use both bleach and soap.

Two weeks later, the farm stall, which is set up on Fridays from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. in Buchanan at 2334, offers products from various local farms such as Brother Nature, Rising Pheasant Farms and Detroit Mushroom Factory, as well as sourdough bread from Ocher Bakery. and scones and spreads from Brooklyn Street Local. Hand washing stations are set up in the area and a physical line shows customers how to stand a safe distance while they wait for their purchases. Customers pay with Venmo or cash and the winnings are returned to each manufacturer.

Despite the strange circumstances of the pandemic, Chae is modestly optimistic about the future of the farm and the sustainability of the farm estate. “Before the coronavirus, I felt like it was a bit of a shaky time for Detroit restaurants in general,” he says, recognizing the winter lockdown of long-running farm-to-table restaurants like Gold Cash Gold and others due to increased competition and the rescheduling of the North American International Auto Show. “Our sales have actually increased, but it’s also a lot more work than we’re used to.”

Chae says he hopes things will normalize in the local restaurant industry soon, and continues to plant like he’s still serving those customers. “I talked to some other farmers and I was just kidding: if things really went down I would probably change who I was or stop growing baby salad mixes. I would grow some things into seeds, ”he says. “But I’m not a doomsday prepper. In order to [I’m] I hope everything goes back to normal and we can continue to grow as we do. “

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Dusty Kennedy