Food And Drinks

How Hydroponic Microgreen Farm Planted Detroit Pivoted During the Pandemic

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In March, after Megan Burritt had supplied microgreens to local restaurants through Planted Detroit for two years, Megan Burritt saw the writing on the wall. Planted was once a major yard-to-table supplier to local restaurants. Planted’s customer list declined due to COVID-19 and the lack of personal service. The establishments that remained open had changed their offerings so Planted’s products on their menus were out of date, while places like Magnet were permanently closed. As a result, Planted’s wholesale demand for baby greens and micro basil, grown in a vertical hydroponic facility in Islandview, sank to near zero. As managing partner, Burritt knew that if she was to save jobs and survive the pandemic, she would have to completely rethink her business plan.

“The people of Detroit have always tried to grow for themselves [food]and we tried to feed the unusual situation of COVID-19 with the same energy, ”says Burritt. “We don’t want to take away this really important source of food for Detroiters.”

The upheaval in the restaurant industry forced the Burritt team to move from wholesale restaurant to retail. The Planted team has been able to come together and continue to produce food at full capacity, as well as creating jobs for those who need it by moving to direct sales to consumers. By preparing meal sets and posting them on its website, Planted has been able to create a new customer base and maintain a profitable business by connecting with private chefs and meal preparation caterers like Thyme & Honey.

“We know this kind of farming is more than just a job. It’s a skill that you can bring home, take on in other jobs and hopefully make a career out of it.”

Agriculture is not a new concept, and it is not new especially in the city of Detroit, but Planted is building something that has never been done with a controlled environment. This form of agriculture uses technology to control the growing environment and, in theory, create a closed, sustainable food system year-round.

The workers scrub the vertical farm, making the environment as clean as possible for the product and employees. The producers wear protective clothing at all times within the facility. It is a fully controlled space that filters both air and water to reduce contamination from human pathogens or otherwise. Here the team harvests everything they grow and is divided into three broad categories: baby greens, herbs and microgreens.

Working with Eastern Market and other distributors for salad dressings, including local Drench company, Planted’s salad kits have been a linear success since early summer – on par with the pre-pandemic revenue Planted brought in. “We are on target with our sales targets for this year,” she adds. This is a particularly impressive feat given that Planted is operating in a much smaller space due to construction on its site amid an economic downturn. However, selling ready-made meals to consumers is a far cry from selling to a chef in a restaurant. If you’re used to wholesaling a specialty product to commercial customers, “the price of everything shifts to a completely different scale,” says Burritt.

Planted’s entire space is in a laboratory-like setting, with workers scrubbing into the vertical farm and wearing protective clothing. Alicia Gbur / Planted Detroit

Red, daikon and purple radish microgreens fan out on a yellow background.

Before the pandemic, Planted mainly sold microgreens to local restaurants, but business had to turn as operations closed or menus changed. Alicia Gbur / Planted Detroit

It is also important for Burritt to find out how this particular type of farm education can be offered to Detroiters. Some incoming employees already have knowledge that can be beneficial to the process. However, a green thumb is not required to join the Planted team. They take pride in training potential team members, even if they are new to farming. “One of the things we’ve heard from our community is that many Detroiters care about growing their own food, and hydroponics is a great way to grow year-round – whether you like it doing it on a large scale it does a company like Planted, or at home in your basement for fun and family, ”she says.

Planted hopes to expand his team in the future. The construction work for two large add-on rooms in the 22,000 square meter facility is almost complete. This enables Planted to increase productivity and welcome wholesale customers back while continuing to provide a sustainable, direct-to-consumer service for meals. Planted currently has 11 employees, but the farm plans to add an additional five to twelve when construction is complete on their new farm. “One of our cornerstones at Planted Detroit is community, and we’re very anxious to reach out to our neighborhood community in Islandview in different ways,” says Burritt. “We know this kind of farming is more than just a job. It’s a skill that you can bring home, take on in other jobs and hopefully make a career.”

• How Detroit’s urban farming community is dealing with coronavirus restaurant closings [ED]
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