Mark Fentress purchased a small plot of land, and then another. Now he grows and sells organic produce in the heart of Detroit.
DETROIT, Mich.—The Virginia Park neighborhood sits just south of its iconic Boston Edison neighbor, nestled between 100-year-old homes on Virginia Park Street and the Rosa Parks Boulevard pavement that’s seen better days in Detroit. West Grand and Chicago Boulevards border the small historic neighborhood that’s just a stone’s throw away from the famed Motown Museum.
This is home to CWO Farms, a small, urban farm that cranks out more than its fair share of fresh produce for Michigan’s families.
Mark Fentress, founder and owner of the farm, says he prefers to be known simply as a farmer. He suspects that a farming gene must have been passed down through his bloodline, helping him to cultivate the land that’s a short drive from one of the area’s busiest freeways.
“It probably goes back to my great-grandfather,” Fentress told The ‘Gander. “The way I got into [farming], I’ve always had a hankering for it and I said to myself that I’m just going to start and I’m going to see what happens.”
He purchased a plot of land and began to try his hand at growing vegetables. He remembers being “pleased with the results.”
From there, he decided to try his hand at farming full-time, hoping to earn 100% of his income from his produce. Fentress says the labor-intensive work includes sowing seeds, looking after plants, harvesting, and making deliveries—a full day’s work.
On the rare occasion he’s not doing physical labor, Fentress says he’s always trying to figure out better growing systems or composting options to keep the Detroit farm’s growth cycles going strong.
Earning Profits, Giving Goods
Before the pandemic, CWO Farms sold produce at local farmers markets like Eastern Market and the Wayne State University farmers market. As the coronavirus began to shut businesses down, Fentress found ways to pivot his delivery methods so he could still reach his customers.
“[Business] went fairly well,” he said of the early days of the pandemic. “Even though the normal distribution options were shut down, what we found was that the people still wanted the produce.”
Fentress found a way to get it to them.
During the summer, he erected a farmstand on his property so customers could still have access to his products.
“We get customers who are interested in organically grown, locally sourced produce and they’re from all over the metropolitan Detroit area.”
He also secured a grant that connected him with local restaurants in need of new sourcing channels for produce. The new relationships could lead to long-term partnerships.
CWO Farms—which is a for-profit business—grows and sells food to nearby and surrounding communities, but Fentress doesn’t want to stop there; he’s on his way to launching a nonprofit arm of the farm to handle its charitable and food donations.
Growing the Growth Process
Michigan weather can help or dissipate a farm’s growing season. Fentress secured a loan through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the USDA, to build a greenhouse on the property. Grant recipients must promise to grow food year-round in their greenhouses.
“I was inspired to do [build a greenhouse] when I saw one,” he said. “I can’t say, ‘oh, gee, the challenges of the urban Black farmer,’ because we’ve been doing fairly well.”
Ultimately, he says that he and his wife love the farm and its role in providing for Michigan households and businesses alike.
“I love what I do,” Fentress said. “I’d do it every day for free if my needs were met.”
The farm is located at 2070 Virginia Park, Detroit, MI 48206. The farmstand is open daily from 3-7 p.m., with gardening and farming classes to come with the launch of its nonprofit.
Michigan’s Agritourism Month
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer officially declared October as Michigan Agritourism Month. The month-long celebration recognizes the economic and social benefits merging the state’s agriculture and tourism sectors, bringing together farms and communities statewide.
“Agritourism is a great opportunity to enjoy all that Pure Michigan has to offer, and as we head into fall in our state, I want to encourage everyone who takes part in things like corn mazes and wagon rides to do so safely,” Gov. Whitmer said. “When you combine agriculture and tourism, you not only get fresh apples, pumpkins and baked goods, but you also get the experiences and lifelong memories that goes along with them.”
The ‘Gander chose to highlight Black farmers in commemoration of the celebration. Be sure toget to know our other farmers and the ways to visit their farms in this three-part series.