Tucked away off a one-way brick street in the otherwise bustling neighborhood of Tremont is a surprising find—a one-acre functional urban farm. Owned by lifelong Cleveland resident Erich Hooper, this patch of land backs up to the Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail and has been home to both agricultural and educational endeavors since 1994.
Dubbed by Hooper as “Cleveland’s Oldest Urban Farm,” the early seeds of Hooper Farm were sown in the homegrown food of his youth. Growing up, Erich’s family grew most of their own food, preserving the bounty from apple and pear trees and canning tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables for the winter. “The foundation of a garden is to stabilize a family and community,” he says.
After leaving Ohio University, Erich took at vow of poverty. As a self-proclaimed poor kid from Cleveland, he strived to live within his means and value his upbringing. While he now works full time as a truck driver for a meat processing company, Erich’s passion for imparting the lessons and values of urban farming is unmistakable. “The greatest gift to give to society is to give back,” Hooper says.
To do so, Erich has spent more than two decades establishing his farm as a place for local residents to learn the ways of farming, cooking, and the economics of self-sustained living. Through his recruitment of neighborhood volunteers and word of mouth and referrals from local schools, Erich teaches area students about making soil from compost and creating works of art from cast-off supplies. Everyone has a place at Hooper Farm—students who are not interested in planting can decorate the wall or the fence surrounding the farm. Painted rain barrels and handmade walking sticks adorned with discarded bottle caps greet visitors to the farm, where everything is for sale. Erich believes that the skills learned on his farm can be applied anywhere to generate income. “You can take a piece of garbage and turn it into a piece of artwork,” he says.
Erich values his involvement in advocacy for urban farming, hosting a stop on the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association tour last year. He believes there is a generation that has grown up not learning how to cook, and he attempts to remedy the disconnection between the origin of food and eating a finished product. He cites the economics of farming, telling students that he can’t afford to let any plants go to waste when seeds are expensive. “Everybody’s gotta eat,” he says. “The common bond is food and water.”
Beyond his work on the farm, Erich provides prepared foods at a number of events, such as the Hessler Street Fair (planned for June 1–2 this year). At the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, Erich participates in a waste-reduction initiative, where some of the waste and compostables from the event are used to fertilize his farm. He values his ability to offer employment opportunities to others at these events. “Employing my friends at festivals has been a godsend,” he says. “They can get driver’s permits, clothing, etc.”
Erich is a cultivator of crops, curiosities, and community. The farmer’s goals to nurture and teach are far-reaching as he states, “I teach. I grow minds.”
Connect with Erich and Hooper Farm at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival from April 17–28 at Cleveland State University. This year’s Hessler Street Fair is June 1–2 in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood. Hooper Farm is located at 2835 W. 11th St. in Cleveland. For more information, call 216.861.5224 or visit Facebook.com/Hooper-Farm.