While sitting in a restaurant, ever ask yourself, "Where did all of this food actually come from?"
It's a seemingly simple question with an often complex answer. (The complexity of the contemporary food chain is explored in great detail in Michael Pollan's modern classic, "The Omnivore's Dilemna.") In Detroit, however, thanks to local restaurants' commitment to local sourcing and a growing movement of local farmers, it's getting significantly easier to trace the origin of your meal.
According to Jason Yates and Deveri Gifford, a husband-and-wife team that owns the Brooklyn Street Local
in Corktown, between 90 and 100 percent of the food you can order at their restaurant during the spring will be grown in the city of Detroit or the Detroit region. On a chalkboard near the rear of the diner, they proudly display their seasonal dishes and the farms from which they buy produce.
Yates and Gifford prefer doing business locally for a number of reasons, including the freshness and taste of local produce and the reduced environmental impact of local sourcing. And they can be confident in the produce's quality because they deal with the farmers directly. "It's important to speak to suppliers face-to-face," says Yates. "We want to build a network of local, like-minded people that our share values."
"For us, local means buying from a smaller farm," adds Gifford. "If there's a factory chicken farm up the street, we won't source from there. The practices need to be good."
A growing community of local food businesses
Eitan Sussman, co-director at Keep Growing Detroit
, an urban agriculture organization dedicated to food sovereignty in Detroit, has noted a steady increase in local food interest across the board in recent years. Membership in Keep Growing Detroit's programs -- the wholesale produce collective Grown in Detroit, classes and workshops on gardening, the Garden Resource Program -- are all on the rise.
"We've always had a robust food economy in Detroit," says Sussman, "but it's been exploding in recent years in no small part thanks to the expansion of local farmers. There's also been a parallel explosion of locally-minded food entrepreneurs because of an overwhelming public demand."
Eitan Sussman with his daughter Nava at the Plum Street Market Garden
One of Sussman's duties for Keep Growing Detroit is overseeing the Grown in Detroit
collective, which aggregates the produce from small farms that don't have the yield to support an entire stand at Eastern Market or regular wholesale deliveries to restaurants and grocery stores. Grown in Detroit supplies the infrastructure, the farmers supply the produce, but 100 percent of the profits are split between those same farmers.
"It's a ladder of opportunity," Sussman says of Grown in Detroit. "We want to see these farmers eventually branch out and learn to develop their own marketing, outreach, and systems that work for them."
One such example is Rising Pheasant Farm
, which is owned by partners Carolyn Leadley and Jack VanDyke. They've been growing microgreens since 2009 and participated in the Grown in Detroit collective. "The Detroit market wasn't really aware of micogreens," says Leadley, "so it was helpful to test out pricing and quantities without worrying about insurance and everything else."
Carolyn Leadley, co-owner of Rising Pheasant Farms
In 2011 Leadley and VanDyke acquired land in the near east side that allowed them to greatly increase the variety of produce they offer. Soon after they started a wholesale operation and an Eastern Market stand of their own. In addition to Mudgie's, Russell Street Deli, and the recently opened Selden Standard, one of the eight restaurants they make regular deliveries to is Brooklyn Street Local.
The main reason it was important for Leadley and VanDyke to branch out for themselves is because of their exceptional commitment to low-impact farming. They make all their deliveries by bicycle, intentionally limiting themselves to a hyper-local market. "We were looking to maximize productivity in an urban space," says Leadley. "We feel that's the most ecological. If you're working on a tractor-scale model, you'll necessarily be car-dependent."
As proof of the increased interest in local sourcing, in recent months Rising Pheasant has added three new restaurants to their list of clients.
Jack VanDyke delivers microgreens to Russell Street Deli in Eastern Market
What goes around comes around
After diners consume food, there are also composting options within Detroit, which help recycle nutrients and renew the local food loop. Brooklyn Street Local donates their waste to Detroit Dirt,
whose compost is often used by Detroit farmers to enrich their soil of Detroit farms.
Now that the local food culture is growing significantly, one major goal is to strengthen the community, tighten the loop, and encourage "co-op-itition," as Sussman coins it. ("The word is still growing on me," he admits.) He wants farmers to communicate and work together by sharing business models, strategies for extending the growing season, building plans for garden infrastructure, and more.
Leadley is a board member of Keep Growing Detroit for this very reason. "Being a farmer has its ups and downs and major risks no matter where you do it," she says. "We like to share our story and experiences with other folks looking to tackle the complicated nuances of being an urban farmer."
One reason Gifford and Yates moved to Detroit from Toronto was because of its tight-knit food community. They go to Eastern Market every Saturday, if only to stay in touch with farmers. "There exists a symbiotic relationship that I think is really unique here," says Gifford.
Eating local all year long
Plum Street Market Garden
Another major challenge to those committed to local sourcing is what to do during the winter months. While certain plants like potatoes, celery roots, and carrots are available locally year-round, it's difficult to base an entire menu around these items. "We strive to find a balance of what we want to present and what people expect from a restaurant," says Yates, citing tomatoes and salad greens as important ingredients that are difficult to get in cold climates. "We want to remain accessible to people by not charging $20 per plate."
But Detroit farmers have engineered some workarounds. Rising Pheasant, for example, operates its microgreen operation year-round through an indoor greenhouse.
"We're very focused on season extension," says Sussman. To that end, Keep Growing Detroit offers planning workshops to teach farmers both low and high-tech methods, from hoop houses to heated greenhouses, to continue farming in winter. "A lot of people not from Michigan think gardening season lasts six months," says Sussman. "With basic steps, it could be eight. And in reality, we're growing eleven and harvesting year-round."
As farmers expand the variety of produce they grow, so will restaurants with the dishes they cook, made from food grown right here in Detroit, at any time of the year. Ultimately this strengthened local food loop will result in better tasting, more creative food alternatives. In other words, happier Detroit diners.
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.
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer and improv comedian. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.