Cleveland wants us eating local by 2019. But is it doing enough to make that happen?

Buying the Farm 

Cleveland wants us eating local by 2019. But is it doing enough to make that happen?

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Bumper Crop of Roadblocks

I'm not clear on the goal, to be honest with you," admits Karen Small of Flying Fig, one of the region's first leaders in the local food movement. "It's an admirable goal, but I'm not sure what [25 percent] looks like. Is it getting [local food] into grocery stores? Is it getting it to people? Getting in to the schools would be admirable. Distribution would be a roadblock. Education would a roadblock."

Small's sentiments echo those of many observers. If the city's plan comes to fruition, Cleveland's future could look much like its distant past. But it's going to take more than urban farms and farmers markets to create a functional business model. It will take thousands of new farmers, who must be trained from the ground up. It will take massively pumped-up processing and distribution systems. All that will take lots and lots of financial investment.

Darwin Kelsey, executive director of the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, points out the realities: not six-acre urban farms, but 100,000 acres of land returned to agricultural use. To him, 25 percent is a pipe dream.

"If we get 5 percent, I'll be ecstatic," he says. "I think the goal is admirable. It's just that the reality of creating new farmers and new farm-related businesses will take longer. I came to the conclusion that the best-case scenario would [require] 8,000 new farmers. Creating people with the skills and resources to do that is going to take longer. We're a society that lacks almost all the skills and culture. We have to go through a culture change to support all the systems that will be required.

"When we talk about re-localizing the food system, there's a lot of impediments," says Kelsey. "Access is a problem — access to capital, access to production and business skill training, and then there's all the infrastructure, supplies, after-farm middlemen.

"For me, what's going on in the city is great, but it's primarily about awareness: building commitment to a changed system, rather than volume. Right now it's not as important to most people as it would have to be to change."

And it's all stuff that may be beyond the capacity of the city to address. While Sustainable Cleveland has raised awareness and educated more people about the value of producing and consuming food locally, it's merely dipping its toes in the water, serving primarily as a connector and educator among those most likely to actually accomplish something — from major institutions like Cleveland Clinic to deep-pocketed groups like the Gund and Cleveland Foundations.

Some, meanwhile, are skeptical of all the big talk and big organizations involved. One of those is urban farming pioneer Erich Hooper, who has run Hooper Farm off Clark Avenue in Ohio City since 1994.

"It seems like there's no inclusion," he says. "The city has this goal, but the people involved aren't the people that do what they need to do — people who produce the food. Is it just a bunch of people downtown sitting around a table throwing out ideas they're trying to implement? To get to 25 percent, they must invest in infrastructure — the mom-and-pop businesses in our community, before we can go to a larger scale."

Ben Bebenroth, the chef behind Spice of Life catering and the recently opened Spice restaurant in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, estimates that he sources as much as 80 percent of his food from local suppliers at the height of the harvest season.

But the Cleveland harvest season is one of several key concerns cited by those who question Sustainable Cleveland's viability.

"Let's face it. For restaurants and chefs to think they're going to be able to do it 100 percent — we have a very, very, very short growing season," says Tony Anselmo of Premier Produce, which sources as much of its food as possible from local growers. "Our biggest obstacle is probably the peaks and valleys of availability."

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