Meet the Farmers
It wasn’t until they each moved to Chicago to attend DePaul University that Andy Chae and Amy Eckert became enamored with urban agriculture and the opportunity it presents to positively impact the world. They each pursued volunteer and apprenticeship opportunities throughout their studies and, after graduating, traveled to Brazil to work on an organic farm. They eventually returned to Andy’s home in Detroit, and where many others saw vacant lots, Andy and Amy saw a farming future. Thanks to family in the neighboring Kimbrough Dry Cleaners, the pair broke ground on their first site in the West Village in 2015 and started producing vegetables and edible flowers on less than one-tenth of an acre of borrowed land. They made $10,000 in the first year, and the success spurred the purchase of land in Pontiac to expand the project in 2016. Andy and Amy were married on the site in September of 2018, a reminder that in addition to growing good food, nurturing strong community and providing space for inspiration and celebration are equally important aspects of Fisheye Farm’s mission.
After a successful first season demonstrated high market demand, they utilized Steward funding to purchase nine connected, previously vacant lots from the City of Detroit in Core City—amending soil, installing irrigation, and building hoop houses to support the growth of their business. This 0.89 acre farm is now their main production site, while the Pontiac site is dedicated to low-maintenance garlic production.
COVID-19 has certainly affected Fisheye's revenue streams. Their income from restaurant sales has been reduced to 30% of their gross sales, and instead, Fisheye has been focused on marketing their produce through their (usually sold out!) CSA, as well as at their new farm stand at their Core City site.
Fisheye is a Certified Naturally Grown farm, with hopes of becoming USDA Certified Organic by 2022. They practice regenerative no-till production and support community members and neighbors with tools, skills, and jobs. Being an urban farm allows Fisheye to keep food miles low, and to explore and implement creative uses of waste and materials.
Unlike many urban farms that produce a limited range of specialty products, Fisheye Farms cultivates a wide variety of vegetables, greens, herbs, garlic, and more. These offerings find their way into so many restaurants throughout Detroit that customers often tell Andy and Amy, “I see Fisheye Farms everywhere in the city!”
With a focus on producing restaurant-quality produce, taste is the guiding factor of Fisheye Farms’ plantings. Their gardens feature heirloom and Asian vegetable varieties, the quality of which has become well-known in their neighborhood and the Detroit culinary scene.
The transition from seed to crop yield is one of the great value-adds in any economic setting, but in the modern industrial agriculture system, low commodity prices and dozens of middlemen eat up farmer profits. In 1975, 40¢ of every dollar spent on food went back to the farm. In 2018, the farm share accounted for only 14.6¢ of every food dollar—the lowest number since the USDA began keeping track. This loss of value limits farmers’ ability to reinvest in the stewardship of their land, which ultimately degrades the quality of the produce they bring to market and the farmers’ quality of life.
Fisheye Farms bucks this trend by raising high-quality produce right within the Detroit city limits and selling this food directly to customers.
Food from Fisheye Farms never crosses the county. At times it barely crosses the block. This means Fisheye’s produce is fresher, emissions are minimized, and customers get to taste food as it was meant to be eaten—full of flavor and nutrition. From a business standpoint, it also means more of that food dollar is captured and returned to the farm, ensuring the financial viability of quality urban food production.
Few farms provide a better case study on the value of diversified sales outlets and responsive management than Fisheye. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant sales comprised nearly 90% of Fisheye’s sales. When demand dropped suddenly in the spring of 2020, the team pivoted to direct-to-consumer pre-sales. They rolled out their first CSA, which more than made up for the diminished restaurant sales, and in the process, built an entirely new sales platform.
Andy and Amy have become friends with many of the chefs they support, and they often collaborate directly—restaurants’ needs shape Fisheye’s planting and Fisheye’s products influence seasonal menus throughout the city. At the start of 2020, Fisheye Farms was servicing 25 different Detroit restaurants, demand that fueled the farm’s growth in previous years.
The quality that Fisheye delivers and the relationships developed in this sector have stayed strong even in the midst of 2020’s disruptions. Throughout the pandemic, Fisheye still sold $4-6,000 in product each month to local restaurants. This market will continue to drive growth as businesses reopen and demand increases in 2021 and beyond.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
The newly-minted CSA currently provides two offerings: a small share for $400 and a large share for $700. Each share is purchased at the beginning of the growing season and delivered in 20 weekly installments from June–October. The upfront investment guarantees a market for Fisheye’s product, and in return, customers receive a generous and diverse produce box (~$30-45 retail). The 2020 CSA included 78 members, which the Fisheye team plans to grow to 100+ in 2021. Future CSA shares will include partnerships with other producers (local bakeries, meat farmers, mushroom growers, etc) as Fisheye works to deliver a full-diet CSA.
Fisheye Farms previously participated in multiple Detroit farmer’s markets, but the local markets didn’t yield a high enough sales return to justify the investment of time and effort. To create a higher-value sales outlet, the Fisheye team built an on-farm produce stand. Fisheye sells directly to neighborhood customers on Fridays and recruits additional farms to utilize the space in partnership, increasing traffic and interest.
The farm stand cuts out losses of time and travel and returns 2-3x more sales revenue than the best days at local markets. In 2021 the Fisheye team plans to expand farm stand sales to include Saturdays and is seeking farmer’s market status to be able to accept food stamps and participate in the “Double your Dollar” program.
Fisheye Farms currently brings produce to market through three unique offerings:
CSA Shares: Members purchase a percentage of the overall harvest before the season begins. Mixed produce boxes are delivered weekly from June–October.
Wholesale: Restaurants directly purchase wholesale quantities of vegetables and herbs to feature in prepared dishes.
Direct Produce: Customers can purchase individual produce products at the on-site farm stand once a week.
Each product offering meets the needs of a different customer base, and the Fisheye Farms team is committed to serving a diverse community:
CSA Members: CSA boxes are perfect for Fisheye customers that want to participate in the local food system on a long-term basis. The upfront payment covers a large portion of seasonal operating costs, and in exchange, CSA customers receive significantly more produce than they would if purchasing item-by-item.
Restaurants: While Fisheye has now developed additional sales outlets, partnerships with restaurants will remain a foundational element of the business. Restaurants pay premium prices for heirloom vegetables, greens, and specialty crops while also providing valuable, free advertising in the local market.
Neighbors: Engaging the community has been part of Fisheye Farms’ mission since day one. If you spend time on the farm you’ll notice neighbors cutting through as they run errands, or stopping for a moment to charge their phones or fill a water bottle.The small-scale nature of urban farming requires a focus on producing crops that fetch premium prices, but the reality is, not every member of Core City can afford these.
As Fisheye expands, cultivating more land will allow them to add affordable produce crops, like potatoes and onions, into their rotation, accommodating the requests of immediate neighbors and in this way building a truly sustainable food system. Achieving farmer’s market status to accept food stamps and participate in supporting programs is another step towards achieving this core missional goal.
A Model for Future Farms
There are currently 2.05 million farms in the US, a drastic reduction from a peak of 6.8 million in 1935. Of those 2 million, over half (1 million+ farms) are considered “very small farms” by the USDA. These farms record less than $10,000 in annual sales and their producers receive most of their income from off farm jobs. In order to realize the benefits of regenerative agriculture—carbon sequestration, higher nutrient foods, increased biodiversity, recharged aquifers—the US food system needs a drastic increase in the number of farms, hands on the land, and acreage under regenerative management.
Fisheye Farms’ partnership with Steward perfectly demonstrates how capital building and business support can activate those 50% of US farms to restore degraded lands, provide much-needed produce to communities, and build resilient and profitable businesses doing so.
At the beginning of their journey, Fisheye started small, took on the risk of building from the ground up, and established a successful foundation. After three profitable years on the land, in which they have consistently met revenue benchmarks, it is time to transition the initial development loan to permanent, stabilized financing. This reinvestment will bring down their overall cost of capital, freeing the Fisheye team to make further investments in this and future land.