Mike Skinner knows that buying tomatoes in the wintertime can be a dreary, disappointing endeavor. With the consistency of a nerf ball and the taste of wet cardboard, they’re the bane of any vegetable lover's existence. But his new agrotechnology business promises luscious, summer-quality beauties year-round – grown hydroponically, no less.
Skinner and his partner, Bruce Ellwanger, a sales veteran from Clarkston, launched Oakland Urban Growers in October 2017 at the site of the former Ernst Greenhouse in Waterford. Skinner is a long-time entrepreneur who ran unsuccessfully for Royal Oak mayor in 2017, while Clarkston resident Ellwanger has spent his career in sales.
Oakland County Parks and Recreation acquired the five-acre parcel in 2009 with the idea of growing its own flowers and plants for the county. But the project just didn’t make economic sense, said Mike Donnellon, the department’s chief of park facilities, maintenance, and development.
“We did it for about five years, but we did not realize the cost savings we thought we would,” Donnellon said. “We even tried renting out plots for a community garden, but the economies of scale of heating a greenhouse in the winter weren’t there. We wanted to make a go of it, but the reality set in.”
So, the county mothballed the site’s 11 greenhouses and six outdoor hoop houses while deciding its next steps. “There was not a ton of interest” to a request for proposals to rent the facility, Donnellon said, and he figured the greenhouses would probably be sold and relocated to a new site.
Enter Oakland Urban Growers, which ultimately negotiated a 10-year lease with a 10-year option for the greenhouses and the residence on the site, The company reimburses the county for natural gas and electric costs.
Ellwanger, who had the idea of doing aquaponics on the site, was introduced to Skinner by a friend of a friend. After some research, the men decided that aquaponics – which involves raising fish and using their waste as nutrients for plants grown in water – was too risky. But hydroponics, in which plants are raised in water instead of soil, seemed feasible.
After spending more than $200,000 on an automated water system and complete climate control that monitors heat, light and humidity through their cell phones, the operation launched in October 2017.
“We planted everything – and everything grew,” said Skinner. “What’s been tough is figuring out which crops to do. We’re selling to restaurants, country clubs and stores that concentrate on high-quality fresh produce, so we showed them all sorts of stuff and are now down to 10 to 14 key items.”
Everything, Skinner said, is pesticide-free and grown from heirloom seeds, an idea he credits to longtime local chef Jake Abraham. That includes microgreens, herbs and cherry tomatoes, all grown hydroponically thanks to a high-tech plumbing system, and baby vegetables like beets, carrots and radishes grown in soil with sophisticated irrigation techniques.
“We don’t grow the typical stuff you see at the grocery store,” Skinner said, pointing to such items as butterhead speckled lettuce, dwarf pac choy, red scarlet kale, wasabi arugula and cherry tomatoes that are downright scrumptious.
“Good crops come from good seeds,” Skinner said, “and then you throw in the love and make sure you do the right things.”
Now that they’ve put down roots, Skinner said the biggest challenge is figuring out how to grow the business. “What has surprised me the most is that the demand for fresh, local produce is very high,” he said. “It’s surprising how much interest there is.”
The company, which employs about 10 people, will next turn its efforts to getting the outdoor hoop houses up and running – and heated. “We’re trying to get crops to come up every week or two weeks, so we have a constant supply for our customers,” Skinner said. “Our goal is to grow significantly.”
Keeping the price right, especially in the warm weather months when fresh produce is plentiful, is a challenge. “We need to be competitive so we try to stay reasonable,” Skinner said. “People won’t pay $5 for a head of lettuce, but they may pay $2.”
Rich King, the chef at Birmingham County Club, is all for it. He calls buying produce from Oakland Urban Growers “a no brainer.”
“Farm to table is almost an expectation now from my members, and this is almost hyper-local,” he said. “It’s such a neat and cool project, and their quality has been outstanding. Their prices are comparable, and I am offering a better product.”
Individuals can order produce from the Oakland Urban Growers website and have it delivered via van “the same day or within 24 hours,” Skinner said. “We will be talking to distributors as we get bigger.”
Other future plans include having classes from Oakland Schools tour the facility to learn about hydroponics, something conservation groups and students from Dorsey Culinary Academy have already done.
Oakland County’s Donnellon likes how things are going so far. “It’s exciting to know that we have fresh produce for our residents, our restaurants, and our businesses,” he said. “It is very rewarding to see this kind of thing happen, and we are happy to have them here.”
Joyce Wiswell is a Royal Oak-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and platforms.
Photos by Stephen Koss.