Raising leafy greens is not the first thing that comes to mind when you want to resuscitate a city neighborhood, create good jobs, and give people a stake in a better future. But Green City Growers is no ordinary farm. Launched in December 2012, the 3.25-acre hydroponic greenhouse on Diamond Avenue at East 58th Street in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood is well on the way to achieving all three of these goals.
The scene is more futuristic than bucolic, but the sprawling space offers its own kind of beauty. A huge parcel of land that was formerly a collection of weedy lots and mostly boarded-up and derelict houses is now the site of a fully enclosed “float bed” growing system. Seedlings, started in tiny cubes of soil, are transplanted and nurtured to maturity, then suspended in a nutrient rich liquid bath. There are 13 ponds—plants start at one end and arrive at the other, 41–45 days later, ready for sale.
Of the 34 employees, eight have already become co-owners and all the others have the opportunity to be voted in and start earning equity after a year on the job. They harvest and pack picture-perfect heads of seven varieties of lettuce, watercress, baby bok choy, and basil. Then they sell to area wholesalers, restaurants, stores, and in the outdoor arcade at the West Side Market. Picked within 24 hours of order and delivery, the produce arrives in kitchens and on shelves at the peak of freshness, often with the roots still attached and dangling like kite tails. It is pesticide-free, non-GMO local food and it’s available year round. “This place,” says Jeremy Lisy, vice president of sales, “is like a candy store for chefs.”
Green City Growers, along with a commercial laundry and a company that designs, installs, and develops solar panel arrays, is part of a community wealth-building effort called the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative. Each is an independent enterprise, but they have a common purpose, vision, and ownership model. The co-op was formed under the auspices of the Greater University Circle Initiative, a collaborative redevelopment project for the district led by The Cleveland Foundation in partnership with the city, University Hospitals—a Green City Growers customer, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, and other key civic institutions and organizations.
Although this approach to urban revitalization is new, fostering a greenhouse industry in this part of Ohio is not. In 1937, according to some estimates, Northeast Ohio had the largest concentration of agricultural acreage under glass in the country. But the use of enriched water as the growing medium as well as many other features make things very different this time around.
“The design of this facility is based on one used successfully in Europe,” says Evergreen Cooperative’s CEO John McMicken, “but it has been modified and customized for our climate. It’s built with principles of conservation and sustainability in mind. Over 80% of the water we use is captured from rain, snow, and ice melt.” Roof sections open and close based on temperature and humidity and shade cloths help control exposure to direct sun for each variety.
Operating at full capacity, Green City Growers can produce three million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of basil and other greens annually. The challenge is to establish a big enough customer base for their products so they can be consistently profitable. In response to special requests and to broaden their offerings, Lisy, a former chef and dirt-under-his-fingernails farmer, has recently introduced 15 unusual micro green blends and a baby greens mix.
Their most unique item is a hybrid lettuce from Holland that they’ve named Cleveland Crisp. Green City Growers has exclusive rights to the seed in a region that extends from Detroit to Buffalo. Ideal for sandwiches and salads, it’s dark green with frilly edges, has the satisfying crunch of iceberg and the flavor and nutrition of leaf lettuce. It is the ideal mascot for this proactive, positive, hyper-local undertaking to improve the quality of what we eat, the place it comes from, and the lives of those who call Cleveland home.