The nation’s largest urban farm

Cleveland, the city known for steel mills and a river that burned, wants to become an innovative center for fruit and produce production. This project is not just a few small plots outside of Cleveland. This is an aggregate of 20 acres of vegetables, herbs and fruits produced in the inner city.

Sarah Sampsell shows off some carrots produced at the Ohio City farm.

The 6-acre Ohio City Farms on the city’s near West Side is the largest urban farm in the U.S. Second place probably goes to San Francisco, which has a 4-acre urban farm within city limits.

There are a number of smaller plots – 3 or 4 acres each – around Cleveland. Two other major sites are a greenhouse development with 5 acres under glass and a slightly smaller farm in the East Side Kinsman neighborhood.

One of the challenges to growers has been to know their own limits. The commercial truck gardens run by the 20 growers involved in the project are not backyard patches.

“Be patient. Don’t try to grow too many things,” says Todd Alexander, grower with the Central Roots farm group. His partners are Sarah Sampsell and Matthew Pietro. They produce what Alexander terms Ohio specialty crops: beets, spinach and greens, carrots, beans and tomatoes.

“Grow fewer things but more of them,” Alexander says. That enables the growers to meet the demand of local buyers, and demand for local produce is strong.

“The highest and best use of land in our cities may be for agriculture,” maintains Andrew Watterson, chief of sustainability for the city of Cleveland.

Growers benefit, local foodies benefit, and the city benefits too. The key market focus is providing produce to local restaurants, and the city wins since buyers use vacant land that otherwise would be a blight.

The project is a joint effort of the USDA, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the city of Cleveland. Nearly $1 million is earmarked for the sustainability projects. The Cleveland project is the first urban project in the nation to receive such funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There is a lot of momentum around food … a lot of it is driven by restaurants and local entrepreneurs,” Watterson says. “This is a landmark project for growing produce and putting people to work. It has implications for better health and reducing our carbon footprint,” he adds.

Among those participating in Cleveland’s project, says Jenita McGowan, sustainability manager for the city, are gourmet restaurants like the Flying Fig, the Great Lakes Brewing Company, Ohio City Pasta, the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University.

The city figures that if growers produce only 10 percent of the area’s food locally, they would create a $350 million local food economy in Cleveland. It is not a new concept. There is a long and strong tradition of greenhouse and vegetable growing in the counties surrounding Cleveland.

What good is a farm if it does not make money? Don’t fret: this pilot is meant to be a for-profit project for about 10 inner-city residents – something that will provide their long-term income.

The city gets some in-kind money back, since it is spared the expense of maintaining sizable tracts of vacant land. Like all the other Great Lakes cities, Cleveland was hard hit by the recent recession. The mortgage loan crisis hit especially hard, leaving the city with a lower tax base and a higher acreage to maintain.

“This adds value to the properties that surround the farms, too,” Watterson says.

The real driver, however, is people and restaurants that subscribe to the “eat local” dictum. Having an interested market gave the program a real boost from the get-go.

Growing produce

Keep in mind that all the land used in these farms was, for 100 to 200 years, an urban cityscape. The first thing the city did was to run soil tests, not so much for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as for contaminants. The Ohio City Farms area had been residential for decades, and then sat vacant. It passed the toxic metals tests with flying colors.

The Central Roots group initially looked at a 2.5-acre plot in an industrial area. However, when that soil was tested for heavy metals the report might simply have recommended starting a lead mine on three-quarters of the land instead of a vegetable farm.

Then, Central Roots got a $20,000 grant to help them get established at Ohio City. “I think they felt bad that we had put a lot of time and energy into the center-city plot,” Alexander says. “We had to move. It was all rooted in the problem with the soil at the first site.”

Not all industrial sites are hopeless. The greenhouse operation is in an urban brownfield area. However, worries about the growing conditions are somewhat eased because all of the trays will be above a concrete floor on amended soil.

“There is something neat about going into a restaurant and seeing a salad made from Ohio City romaine,” Watterson says.

The 6-acre Ohio City Farms on Cleveland’s near West Side is the largest urban farm in the U.S

In 2011, Alexander, Sampsell and Pietro hope to sell more of their produce directly to nearby homeowners. Last year they had success selling to passersby and feel there is a good opportunity to expand sales to neighbors.

The idea of having a stand at the nearby West Side Market was considered but rejected, because the growers simply do not have the production volume to sell at the weeklong, year-round market.

The growers find that local people are respectful of what they do. Theft is nonexistent. Alexander notes that they stored a big stack of compost bags in plain view for a number of weeks and nobody touched them. The produce is not stolen, either. Part of that may be that beets, carrots and beans are not obvious targets for theft. That might not be the situation if tomato production is expanded. However, the growers feel that the locals know they are trying to do a good thing and respect that.

Growers protected

No grower will be interested in improving land based on a one-year lease, or if growing goods is in violation of local code. Recognizing that, the city set a five-year term for its leases, assuring the growers a return on their investment in improving the area. Leases are $1 per year, but cover the growers, legally, for what they do on the property.

In addition, the city passed what is referred to as its “Chickens and Bees” ordinance. Until now, much of the farming in Cleveland was a nonconforming land use. This ordinance codifies a zoning in otherwise residential areas that allows residents to raise chickens, doves, rabbits and up to two colonies of bees per lot. The animals can be used to produce eggs, meat, honey or other agricultural goods.

In return, growers feel more comfortable investing in land improvements. For instance, the growers at Ohio City Farms will create a permanent water connection in 2011. McGowan says she expects that the farmers will pay for that.

Currently, City Councilman Joe Simperman is working to create permanent-use ag zones in the city. “It is important to make this real, legally,” Watterson says. Zoning changes will also allow growers to set up market stands on their farm to sell direct to the public.

Not only is this key for the city itself, but it also changes the way federal government agencies, like Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sees land use in an urban area.

Each grower is eligible for a grant of up to $3,000 per farm, per year from the Economic Development program. Growers are expected to have solid business plans and to have a market contract in hand before they get a grant. The Ohio Cooperative Extension office will help with planning.

The feds are putting the lion’s share of the money into the project, to the tune of $780,000, funded through the USDA. The city and the Ohio Department of Agriculture each put up $100,000.

Long term, the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s funding might be in danger due to an administration change and tight budgets. “We will continue our commitments to the grants we have out there,” says Andy Ware, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Columbus.

“The new administration is taking a look at all of the department’s obligations, particularly what we are required to do by law. Then we’ll look at what other things we can do,” Ware continues. However, he notes that the new Republican administration faces a thin budget – “the worst budget crunch we have faced,” he terms it. Resolving the budget probably will not be completed until early summer.

The sustainable vegetable growing project is one of several that Cleveland has implemented. It includes several non-ag sustainability projects that range from a commercial laundry to solar development. The impetus came from a 2009 project under Mayor Frank Jackson. It should run for 10 years until 2019. Before the program was formalized, there was local interest in finding uses for abandoned or vacant land, but those never gathered much traction.

“I’m really proud of our local food efforts,” Watterson says. Next year will be the Year of Local Food in Cleveland. “We’re looking for new ways to do business, and to help existing businesses do things in a more sustainable way,” he adds.

Growing a Sideline

Necessity is the mother of invention. Growing produce in northern Ohio, Todd Alexander needed a warm, reliable structure to start seedlings and produce year-round crops.

The result is Tunnel Vision Hoops, a greenhouse structure that he designed.

“Small growers like me need a way to increase revenues,” Alexander says. “To make a living on these small plots, you have to have another job or a sideline.” The result is a line of 10-foot-tall modular greenhouse structures that start at 10 feet wide by 20 feet long and go as big as 24 feet wide and can be expanded to 72 or 96 feet long.

The size makes them perfect for use on urban farm plots and allows growers like Alexander to produce cold-hardy vegetables, like spinach and Asian greens, through the winter months.

“Limit the number of vegetables you produce to make it manageable,” Alexander advises other growers who are getting started in urban farming. This comes from a grower who tried to start with about 10 different types of crops, including vegetables and some herbs.

“You don’t want to bite off more than you can chew … and no matter what you do, you’ll find out that you are biting off more than you can chew,” he adds.

Alexander tells growers that they will have failures. “You may have stuff you can’t sell,” he says, noting that they were left with almost half of their tomato crop. “Expect that you will not be able to sell everything, but do your best,” he concludes.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio.