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US (MI): Former Detroit University students blossom in vertical farming

An indoor vertical farm in Detroit is celebrating a fresh start and new partnerships that will put salads on tables across the state, including at the University of Michigan. Planted Detroit relaunched in January after restructuring and streamlining its operations.

Founded by Ross School of Business alum Thomas Adamczyk, the company uses hydroponic technology to grow several types of lettuces, herbs, microgreens and edible flowers indoors. It sells ready-to-eat salad kits and greens in bulk.

After closing last summer amid financial challenges, Planted Detroit now has a network of partner companies that handle most of its non-core operations, such as salad kit assembly and delivery. Adamczyk said the new model has allowed the company to focus on what it does best: growing delicious, nutritious, high-quality food. "Our vision is a salad on every table," he said.

Adamczyk started Planted Detroit in 2018 with the belief that vertical farming is the future of agriculture. He converted a former warehouse in Detroit's Islandview neighborhood into a farm. The first two years were largely spent on developing and perfecting the grow process, said his sister, Colleen Miller, a fellow Ross alum who joined the company last year as director of partnership and sales.

Planted Detroit's initial customers were restaurants and chefs. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it shifted its focus to direct-to-consumer salad kits. However, the original business model — which involved Planted employees handling everything from farming to salad production and product delivery — proved to be unprofitable, leading to a temporary closure in August. Adamczyk and Miller decided to outsource most non-farming operations as part of a reorganization.

"Manufacturing, logistics and driving trucks around distracted us from our core competency," Miller said. "We are a sophisticated, high-tech farm good at growing delicious, nutrient-dense food. That's what we needed to focus on." Planted Detroit's new partners include Lipari Foods, JLM Manufacturing, Carmela Foods, Frog Holler, LaGrasso Bros. Produce, the delivery service FULFLLD and Cindy's Kitchen salad dressings.

With the restructuring, Planted Detroit was able to rehire eight of the roughly 60 employees who were laid off during the shutdown. Adamczyk hopes to bring back more people this spring.

The company also lowered the price of its salad kits from $14 to $10.50. It sells five varieties: Sweet & Savory, Protein Fusion, Pearled Couscous, Golden Sesame and Spicy Avocado. Customers can order them online for direct delivery or buy them at specialty shops across the state, including the small-format Meijer stores at Woodward Corners in Royal Oak and Rivertown Market in Detroit.

Planted Detroit salads will be available for purchase beginning March 6 on U-M's Ann Arbor campus at Eigen Cafe, Mujo Cafe, Maizie's Kitchen and Market and UMMA Cafe. After touring the farm in February, representatives from the U-M Environment, Health and Safety office approved Planted Detroit as an official university supplier in partnership with MDining.

"It's rewarding for the Planted team to have such a high-profile university with such a large health and safety department say they were impressed by the facility," Miller said.

Adamczyk added: "U-M is really important to us. It's not only our alma mater and where we started, but it has the next generation of people who are moving into their careers. It's an important place to start with establishing good habits for health and wellness."

Adamczyk and Miller said they're excited about fostering educational partnerships with units across the university, such as the schools of business, public health and environment and sustainability. In February, BOND, a U-M student consulting club, selected Planted Detroit as one of its clients. Club members will provide free consulting services around capacity planning, product line analysis and market research.

"It's a socially conscious brand, and they're having a great impact," Samantha Ritter, a sophomore data science major and project manager with the BOND Consulting Group, said. "We're really proud to be representing them, and we're extremely proud they'll be selling on campus, as well."

Club members toured the farm and sampled salads. Ritter said it was fascinating to learn how Planted Detroit worked with chefs to adjust the lighting color and intensity to optimize plant flavor. "I've never had such a well-designed salad," she said.

Adamczyk continues to look for ways to highlight the educational opportunities around vertical farming. He set up a small hydroponic growing system at the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences so sixth-graders there can learn first-hand about the benefits of growing produce indoors.

Inside Planted Detroit today, thousands of plants grow on tall metal shelves underneath LED lighting as nutrient-rich water flows into their roots. There is leafy romaine, kale, pak choi, golden and scarlet frills, and pea shoots for the salad kits, along with several varieties of edible flowers, microgreens and herbs.

"It's a biosecure, food-safe, controlled environment, with very hi-tech HVAC systems and water systems," Miller said. Miller explained that the company is laser-focused on both product safety and freshness. The greens are typically harvested every Friday. JLM Manufacturing assembles them into salad kits the following Monday.

"Because of this model, we're able to keep everything very fresh and turn it around to stores super quickly, and not lose any nutritional value or shelf life value in the transit," she said.

Looking ahead, Miller and Adamczyk are exploring ways to expand Planted Detroit. They're in the midst of finalizing a wholesale partnership that will allow wider distribution of the company's products to chefs and restaurants. Adamczyk said vertical farming has historically been uneconomical due to high upfront capital costs and low price points for produce — but that is changing.

"At the highest level, I believe our current food system is not sustainable, and that we need to think outside the box to marry technology and agriculture," he said. "Growing food indoors will become a necessity. … I also believe automation is essential to the commercialization of vertical farming."

Adamczyk, who grew up in Southgate, said he established Planted Detroit in Detroit because of the city's vibrant culinary scene and need for more locally sourced food. He said the layout of the city and its suburbs is the perfect setting for a hub-and-spoke distribution model of a farm-to-fork experience. Detroit has driven innovation and automation within the automotive industry for the last 100 years," he said, "so what better place to innovate on food production?"

For more information:
Tom Adamczyk, Founder and CEO
Planted Detroit
[email protected]

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