Downtown on the Farm

Cleveland’s new way of life is its old way of life

The vision came to Tim Smith early last year. He and his wife Dani, both film buffs, were screening documentaries for the 2009 Cleveland International Film Festival. One of the films, Fresh, featured a large-scale, sustainable urban greenhouse project in Milwaukee called Growing Power. Founded by a former pro basketball player, it aims to teach people about healthy growing and eating, and to provide nutritious food to inner-city residents through a network of sites in Milwaukee and Chicago.

Fresh didn’t make the festival cut, but it did inspire Smith: “I want to do that here in Cleveland,” he told anyone who would listen.

Smith has conceived his “Cleveland Greenhouse Project” as a worker-owned, for-profit company that will be contained within a nonprofit company, which will own the actual facility. It will be located in a neighborhood with low access to fresh produce and will serve as a year-round healthy-food provider/employer/education-outreach resource for its home community. The ambitious scope of his plan is emblematic of how many in Cleveland are expanding their vision of urban farming beyond community and market gardens. And that expansion is related to changes in the way people here are thinking about food in general.

More than $3 billion is spent annually feeding the people of Cuyahoga County, according to the Cleveland Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition, a consortium of area governmental agencies, businesses, nonprofits, farmers, and educational institutions.

Most of that isn’t discretionary money; people may not need a new purse, after all — but they have to eat. And more people and organizations are thinking about, talking about, and working toward localism and sustainability in all aspects of living.

At the same time, interest in eating locally grown food is spiking. It’s evident in the rapid expansion of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, where participants buy weekly shares of produce grown by area farmers.

Two decades ago, chef Parker Bosley was virtually a lone voice promoting fresh ingredients farmed locally; now restaurants like Steve Schimoler’s Crop and Jonathon Sawyer’s Greenhouse Tavern, among many others, emphasize their relationships with local suppliers.

Eying the market — as well as the vacant land left behind by a shrinking population and waning industry — entrepreneurs like Smith sense opportunity. Small community gardens, where people grow produce for themselves and their neighbors, have been around since the Victory Gardens of World War II. More recently, small market gardens, growing crops for sale on a limited scale, have increased.

But now, some are sensing the potential to create viable businesses growing food in the city. It’s an awakening fueled by the farmers markets, CSAs, and forward-thinking restaurateurs, but also by the interest of supermarkets like Dave’s, Heinen’s, and Whole Foods in carrying and promoting locally grown produce. Since the idea is so new and untested, a variety of business plans are emerging.

The Ohio State University extension has been a pivotal player in promoting urban farming. A key resource for farmers and gardeners in the area, it has fueled community gardening for decades through programs like its Summer Sprout partnership with the City of Cleveland. Its annual 12-week winter program, started six years ago, teaches the business, growing, and marketing aspects of entrepreneurial urban agriculture: growing food in the city and making money off it. And it’s growing on students.

“Developing a training program for entrepreneurial urban agriculture was a natural outgrowth that built on the community gardening that was going on,” says Morgan Taggart, who runs OSU Extension’s urban agriculture program in Cuyahoga County. “I think Cleveland has put itself as a leader not only in the region, but nationally in terms of policies that support urban agriculture.”

If urban farming in Cleveland has a godfather, it would be Erich Hooper. Hooper Farms is nestled on a cul-de-sac in Tremont, off Clark Avenue, overlooking the Cuyahoga River Valley. Once you get past the bland row of cookie-cutter luxury townhouses under construction nearby, you feel like you’ve landed on a rural road in Kentucky or West Virginia. Hooper has plied his passion here for nearly 15 years, since the days when “urban agriculture” rolled off the tongue with the clang of an oxymoron.

“I’m not dreaming it, I’m doing it,” says Hooper, who proudly claims to be the only black-owned business in Tremont. He launched the farm in 1994 to pay for his daughter’s private-school education. A freelance chef, Hooper grew up in Tremont, where his family moved following the 1968 Hough riots and where he “learned to make pierogies from old ladies in church kitchens.”

He’s created a ramshackle growing space on a narrow slope behind the 100-year-old house he owns. There he grows a dizzying array of produce, sometimes doing three or four plantings a season in the same space. House and yard are bursting with the scavenged finds that he recycles, the rain barrels he resells, and a small plastic greenhouse he bought with $1,000 he got from the Cleveland Foundation’s Neighborhood Connections grant program. A large wooden box he found by the side of the road contains tomatoes and strawberries; a shaded patch is strewn with mushroom-growing logs. Like almost all the newer urban farmers, Hooper Farms is chemical-free.

“I was a founding member of five farmers markets,” claims Hooper, who sells his harvest at area markets like the one in Tremont’s Lincoln Park on Tuesdays. He also puts his cooking skills to use, producing tasty treats like vegetable lasagna for events like University Circle’s Wade Oval Wednesdays, where he sets up a stand each week throughout the summer.

But Hooper is perhaps most passionate about his role as an ambassador for urban farming and sustainability. He teaches classes and hosts youth groups at his farm. He hopes that his 19-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter catch the bug, and that he can pass the farm on to them. But he admits that as a one-man operation, assisted only by his kids, neighbors, and volunteers, profitability so far has eluded him.

The challenges of solo farming didn’t deter Carl Skalak, who was looking for a career change after decades as a journalist, photographer, marketer, and most recently manager of instructional technology at Tri-C West. In early 2006, he took the OSU Extension market gardening course, and by that summer he was in business.

Skalak’s quest for a suitable location led him to a piece of abandoned land on East 72nd Street, a half-mile south of the Shoreway. He had it tested to ensure the soil was safe and negotiated with the private owner. He plowed and planted the first season at Blue Pike Farm in 2006, across the street from a broken line of rundown apartment buildings. Now, his acre is overflowing with peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, beans, and herbs. Cucumbers have overtaken 220 linear feet of chain-link fence. Crops are planted in recycled olive oil barrels and auto-parts shipping containers.

Skalak is big on such “adaptive reuse.” He mostly financed the project through personal savings, although he also obtained a couple of small grants. Cash flow covers costs, but he’s pretty much a one-man operation, hiring seasonal help and with volunteers pitching in as needed. “I live frugally. I keep expenses low,” he says.

And he's learned by doing. "I've been a backyard grower and participated in some community gardens, but scaling it up was a challenge," he says. "There is an incredibly complicated series of events you have to orchestrate. You have to figure out how to get crops to ripen at once and to ripen at different times. I've had too many tomatoes in August, not enough in June and July. The trick is to get an early, steady supply. You can't put it back into inventory. You do some varieties that mature quickly, some in a medium time frame, some in a longer time frame. You do staggered planting to avoid a glut."

Skalak sets up a market on site every Thursday throughout the harvest season, but he relies on his community-supported agriculture (CSA) program — where people sign up and pre-pay for weekly shares of produce — to keep things rolling. He's got about 30 such regulars who've learned about his program through fliers at coffee shops and foodie websites.

"If people are interested in supporting local growers, the CSA is the No. 1 way," he says. "It gives you predictability. When you order seeds in January, you make different decisions than if you are growing on speculation."

including its community-development nonprofit the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation, the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, the nonprofit Refugee Response, and Great Lakes Brewing Company. In conversations with area stakeholders, many of whom already had an interest in the sustainable-food movement, Ohio City Farm developed a plan early this year to turn six acres behind the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority's Riverview Towers on West 25th Street into farmland. The Riverview Terrace homes that once stood there were razed in 1999, and the land's instability made it unsuitable for building.

Thanks to a $20,000 grant from the local nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc., Ohio City Farm was able to break ground this year, albeit late. Because of bureaucratic hurdles from CMHA, whose board adopted the proposal unanimously at its June meeting, it didn't get started until the end of June. On a sunny day in early July, tractors were still plowing the land while flats of onion sets, peppers, melons, eggplants, and heirloom tomatoes — which had been stashed in greenhouses and backyards around Northeast Ohio — sat by the fence, awaiting planting.

"Our idea is to make Ohio City the local food hub for the region," says project manager Graham Veysey, pointing to the nearby West Side Market and Great Lakes Brewing Company, both renowned for their dedication to sustainability. Veysey is a Cleveland native who returned after college and several years as a political operative and filmmaker primarily focusing on sustainability issues. He's now Ohio City Near West's creative director.

Ohio City Farm is collaborating with Great Lakes, Ohio City Pasta, and other neighborhood restaurateurs to compost their waste and buy their output. The restaurants will be able to help choose what's grown and slash harvest-to-table time to virtually nothing. The farm's output will also be available to the public at the West Side Market, just a block away.

"Great Lakes pre-purchased an entire tract of produce, and yesterday we delivered basil, rosemary, and peppers," says Veysey. "Within half an hour, we cut the food, walked it over, and it was already in the frying pan. The chef was so excited. He cut the lemon thyme and lemon basil, and you could smell it five feet away."

At the fields, workers are learning the proper way to drop tomato plants into freshly plowed beds. They came from the Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program of Refugee Response, a local nonprofit that helps refugees become self-supporting. This group fled political oppression in Burma and resettled in Cleveland; many were farmers in their native country and are learning to adapt their skills to a new climate. The hope is that they will move on to start their own farms or to work in other areas of food production and distribution, springboarding off what they learned to become self-supporting and to spread the fresh local food gospel.

Frank Kidd had no elaborate

plans. He simply started a traditional business and grew it. For years, the 75-year-old Kidd — a 45-year resident of the Cedar Homes housing project — has done janitorial, landscaping, and moving for CMHA. He says he's had $3.5 million worth of contracts since 1999 and owns over $1 million in equipment. Over the years, he's spearheaded community gardens, a prototype CSA program, and a farm stand at a city-owned lot on the corner of East 30th and Cedar.

But this year that lot — which until April was overgrown and strewn with rocks and debris — is filled with raised beds, rose bushes, and a half-dozen hoop houses, simplified greenhouses that extend the growing season. On any given morning, teams of workers — most from the nearby projects — are tending the crops. Across the street, in a CMHA community room lined with publicity shots of neighborhood resident Frank Jackson as councilman, council president, and mayor, local women are sorting collard leaves and packing green tomatoes to sell at area Dave's Supermarkets and at a farm stand on the corner of the lot.

Kidd's concept is both practical and altruistic. He bids for contracts, he makes money, and he hires and trains CMHA residents whose job prospects would otherwise be dim. He points to a convicted felon who is now one of his best crew leaders.

"The only way to be part of the process beyond Wendy's and McDonald's and mediocre jobs like that is to train people," he says. "If you're poor and black, you have a real hard time, particularly if you have no education. If we don't have some kind of hope, the impact on the area will be severe — killings, muggings, drugs. But I can't tell a person to stop selling reefer if I've got nothing for them. I had to create something for them."

He expects to have trained and employed 200 workers by the end of the season. He's in ongoing discussions with Dave's about their needs and his potential to supply an increasing amount of their produce. And he's negotiating with the city for another site at East 55th and Woodland, where he plans to put another 29 hoop houses to grow food year-round.

Tim Smith's Cleveland Greenhouse Project, meanwhile, has unfolded more slowly, driven primarily by Smith's bullheaded, catalytic personality. Eighteen months after first bouncing the idea off friends and acquaintances, he now appears poised to acquire an inner-city property from a private owner, after exploring sites all over the city, both privately and publicly owned.

Smith had been a graphic designer until his employer went out of business last year. But even before that, as he reached his mid-forties, he'd been looking for something he believed in to devote his life to. Providing locally grown food to urban residents living in so-called "food deserts" fit both his belief system and the zeitgeist. He turned his unemployment into an asset of sorts, fielding an endless stream of meetings with a growing constellation of supporters and contributors — experts in business, aquaponics, and fundraising, among others.

"Dani always jokes that I'm the sun of Cleveland because I seem to attract people who orbit around me," says Smith. "I'm a magnet for people. I know a ton of people through all the things I've done in my life. I've met a ton of interesting, creative, intelligent people with a myriad of skills."

His goal is to build a year-round, solar-heated and wind-powered greenhouse that incorporates a worm-composting facility, a fish farm, and classrooms to educate children about food choices and where food comes from. He plans to locate it in an inner-city food desert where neighborhood residents will be hired, not just to give them jobs, but to make them local ambassadors for healthier eating. He's tweaked his business plan, formed a board, applied for nonprofit status, and met with potential funders. He hopes to have the site finalized and work begun by September.

Other projects are in the early stages. Over in University Circle, Evergreen Cooperatives, which already has a laundry facility and solar-panel installation business, plans by next year to launch Green City Growers Cooperative, a worker-owned operation growing lettuce year-round in an energy-efficient greenhouse. "Our site is being determined," says project manager Mary Donnell, who hopes to have it up and running by spring.

Even the mostly empty Galleria on East Ninth Street houses a growing project: Gardens Under Glass, spearheaded by the mall's marketing director, Vicky Poole. Oversized hydroponic planters are sprouting lettuce and herbs under the Galleria's glass roof. The Stone Oven outlet in the mall's food court buys basil and tarragon; Café Sausalito upstairs takes the lettuce.

"We're still in prototype," says Poole. "It's a work in progress we're learning from. This is a demonstration model in some respects. Ultimately, we'd like to attract green businesses with a sustainable message. I'm trying to locate and talk to restaurants more and find out what they want and if they can get it from us."

OSU's Morgan Taggart says that interest in its annual market gardening class has grown. The first class trained 20 people, including Carl Skalak. Since then, they've had 25 to 30 students a year, selected from 60 or more applicants. Taggart says that of the program's 125 graduates, 34 new farming enterprises have been launched in Cleveland and beyond.

"Others become farmers market managers or work on farms or manage Fresh Stops [CSAs]," she says. "So they are engaging in the local food economy in a lot of different ways."

She points to year-round agriculture — as Smith and Kidd are planning — as a next step.

"Season extension with greenhouses and hoop houses is an important part of small producers' business model," she says. "If you're working on an acre, you need to figure out how to maximize that land year-round. An important part of the business strategy is to work with a customer base year-round. Part of that is getting access to land, the terms of the lease, developing capital to purchase [greenhouses and hoop houses], and put those onsite."

Season extension would clearly fuel the market.

"We buy a ton of product locally — I'll bet close to half this time of year," says Terry Romp, produce buyer for Heinen's, the Warrensville Heights supermarket chain that has 17 outlets in Northeast Ohio. "We've got eight homegrown suppliers of peaches right now. We've got sweet corn that's picked in the morning and sold in the afternoon. And the blackberries — in the winter, we get blackberries from Mexico, and they're good, but they're nothing like the ones we're getting now."

Much of Heinen's produce comes from auctions in Amish country, but they're got suppliers closer to home, including an Asian-owned grower of bean and alfalfa sprouts.

"It is a lot more work, but the benefits are worth it," he says. "We're able to offer our customers produce that is more healthy, nutritious, delicious, and fresh."

Despite the area's daunting obesity statistics — or maybe because of them — Taggart says that Cleveland is proving to be fertile ground for locally grown food.

"We created the first urban-garden zoning district in the country," she says. "We amended the code to allow farm animals and bees citywide in any zoning district. There are other zoning changes pending. There's been leadership at all levels of the city; [councilman] Joe Cimperman has been a champion for years."

Smith, too, cites Cimperman's work in shepherding agriculture-friendly zoning legislation through Cleveland City Council and says he's cautiously optimistic about the city's ultimate buy-in to the idea of urban farming.

"I believe we can count on them as an ally now, rather than just another government office we have to go through," he says, noting the contributions of Andrew Watterson, the city's manager of sustainability projects.

"He really gets it. What we are trying to do is what he's trying to do citywide — something that can support itself in a way that's clean and doesn't burn up resources."

The biggest stumbling block, Smith says, is re-envisioning land use. Properties held by the county's land bank — which acquires derelict properties for reuse — are appropriate for smaller, seasonal market gardens, but don't fit the needs of his Cleveland Greenhouse Project because the land bank issues only five-year leases, making building permanent structures like a large-scale greenhouse impractical. And he points to one promising site — the former Midland Steel off Berea Road, near West 117th Street — where they were told that there was no interest unless they were bringing in 20 jobs per acre, which were needed to recoup the cost of brownfield remediation.

"The definition of 'best use' puts agriculture at the bottom of the heap," says Smith. "There's this hope that manufacturing will somehow rise again as an engine of economic support, that all of the jobs will come back and all of the people will come back. As much as light industry and manufacturing did to build this town, we can't rely on it anymore."

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