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Charting a new course for Detroit's farm-to-table movement

Friends of Detroit Potato Chips

Mike Wimberley, owner of Friends of Detroit Potato Chips

Dawn DeMuyt, owner of Labrosse Farms

Josh Stockton, chef at Gold Cash Gold

Patrons of Gold Cash Gold sit below jars of preserves

Dawn DeMuyt of Labrosse Farms labels jars of ketchup

Dawn DeMuyt of Labrosse Farms at work in the kitchen

Eastern Market's Community Kitchen, where Dawn DeMuyt processes her produce

Dawn DeMuyt of Labrosse Farms making ketchup

             
Like many people in Detroit, Dawn DeMuyt is intrigued by the possibilities of using vacant land to grow food. Unlike many people, she is trying to make a full-time job of it, a struggle that could result in a new model for urban food production. I recently met her and Chef Josh Stockton at Gold Cash Gold in Corktown to discuss a month-old partnership between Dawn's business, Labrosse Farm, fellow grower Gwen Meyer's Delicata Sunshine Farm, and the restaurant.
 
When it comes to working with farmers, Stockton appreciates these partnerships in a way that transcends mere optics. The perception of value in local food usually revolves around notions of quality and sustainability – eaters often feel that local foods taste better and they like the idea of supporting local farmers. But Stockton sees an economic advantage to sourcing as much as he can from a single farm and using every part of what is produced there whenever possible. "That's why I buy a whole pig instead of just buying pork chops," he says. "It's cheaper."
 
Josh Stockton, chef at Gold Cash GoldHe also mentions the educational advantage of working with a small farmer. Understanding the seasonality of local agriculture drives the menu. "I don't feel like I'm guessing as much on what's going to be available," he says. Summer offerings at Gold Cash Gold are half vegetarian and a third vegan, whereas the winter menu is heavier on meat to coincide with fall and winter butchering. "If you're working directly with a farm, they should be dictating what's going on your menu," says Stockton.
 
Preservation is also a part of the local food partnership. A colorful array of fermented vegetables decks the restaurant's walls and matches the stained glass. While these are not for eating, they represent an important part of Stockton's plan for making the most of the harvest. In the restaurant's basement he is fermenting around 200 gallons of vegetables.

Jars of preserves line the walls of Gold Cash Gold
 
Together, food processing and innovative marketing and selling strategies could make a big difference in the way farmers make money in the city.
 
Dawn DeMuyt, owner of Labrosse FarmsWhen asked what percentage of produce that she brings to market is actually sold, Dawn DeMuyt can't say specifically. "It's erratic," she says. Of course some of this unsold produce could be rolled into other sales and processing, but this can still be a lot of food to harvest, wash, and transport, only to have it remain unsold at the end of the day. One solution that farmers have come up with to deal with this is the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, practiced by the likes of City Commons in Detroit; another is selling directly to markets and restaurants like Dawn is doing. "Our first option is restaurants," she says. Although the margin for wholesale accounts is usually lower than for CSAs or farmers markets, it only requires one point of contact and can make a big difference when a chef like Josh Stockton is willing to buy most of the produce and incorporate even unusual parts of the plants­–he's using carrot tops in pesto–into dishes and ferments.
 
In addition to buying food from Dawn and Gwen, Gold Cash Gold is also providing them with the land to farm on in North Corktown and paying for various improvements, including building up the soil with compost. This represents a new model, at least for Detroit, that Dawn could see going in a number of directions. "I love the idea that it's a creation that has a flow where others could step in," she says. This could involve inviting additional growers into her and Gwen's cooperative and even bringing on additional restaurants to collectively increase the market for local food and its availability.
 
Across town, Michael Wimberley, the owner of Friends of Detroit Potato Chips and Yoda of the east side, is talking about another model for food distribution, one that he says began with trying to shift his mindset. "This neighborhood is surrounded by opportunities to consume, and it's filled with people who do nothing but consume," he says. "We need to figure out a way to produce. Because we can't consume our way out of economic misery."

Mike Wimberley, owner of Friends of Detroit Potato Chips
 
For years Wimberley has worked as a community organizer, trying to help his neighbors gain access to health care, good food, jobs, and hope. This has been a frustrating endeavor. "We thought the cavalry was gonna come and help us," he says. "One of them was gonna come and see how hard we were working and come to our rescue. And so we called and we called and we called all these different agencies and all these different people and finally the cavalry came out, and guess what the cavalry said? 'We got your call and we came out as a courtesy visit to let you know that cavalry ain't coming to help." After he says this, he lets out a big laugh, probably because he doesn't want to go crazy. What he's referencing is specifically his involvement with the Kilpatrick administration, but more generally, the disinvestment of business and government in his community and the need to start generating some industry to create jobs and restore a sense of possibility.
 
His solution is potato chips.
 
Among other things, Wimberley is really good at seeing opportunities where others don't. He realized that with Better Made, the East Side of Detroit had a tradition of making potato chips and that he and other farmers and gardeners were producing a lot of potatoes in the city. This set him on a five year course of trying to develop a potato chip that was distinctive, but that people would want to eat. The result is a product that is heartier than your average chip. It's thick and filling and feels closer to "real food" than the thin pieces of fried air you get at the gas station or party store.

Friends of Detroit Potato Chips

 
In a sense, this is niche marketing, a product that is likely to appeal to a small but enthusiastic group. But Wimberley isn't looking to settle for a small niche.
 
"We have to be dedicated to going big," he says. "I mean just saying I wanna be happy, I wanna be manageable – you know, that type of stuff sounds good, but Detroit is still reeling from economic disinvestment, white flight, brain drain. I think that we have to be aggressive and we have to be bold and think big." With the size of the problems around him and the opportunities presented by his business, he doesn't want to settle for a small market. He is currently seeking national distributors and business partnerships to help him scale his operation. "I think that for the food economy to take off. It's going to need to have a dedicated consumer base," he says, a thought that leads back to DeMuyt and Gold Cash Gold.
 
What Gold Cash Gold and Friends Chips are doing could potentially stabilize the market for urban farms and food businesses in the city, shifting these enterprises from being talking points and sources of supplemental income for their owners to becoming a more foundational part of the food economy. If these folks are able to develop viable business models, then we may see a shift in how things are sourced and sold.
 
"Josh is not the only Chef that would love to have their own gardener," says DeMuyt. Someday soon it may become the norm for a restaurant goer to ask a chef who their farmer is and expect her to have an answer.
 
Disclosure: Brian Boyle, co-founder and co-CEO of Issue Media Group, Model D's parent company, is a partner in Gold Cash Gold.
 
Support for this series on food and agriculture in Southeast Michigan is provided in part by the Detroit Food and Agriculture Network. See other stories in this series here.
 
Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.
 
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.
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