Once and Future Farmland

Cleveland agriculture, then and now

Urbanite: unofficial soil classification and inside joke among Cleveland gardeners. Anybody who has attempted to farm or garden in the city has come across it, the detritus mixed up in Cleveland’s soils—bricks, asphalt chunks, old sidewalks, foundation stones, rusting tools, bicycle parts.

Starting a new garden becomes its own archeological excavation, putting unwary gardeners, whether they like it or not, in touch with the past history of their site. Many gardeners bypass the whole process and just build raised beds, letting those fragments of past days stay locked away beneath the soil.

In 2009, I worked with Vel Scott and her University Circle Farm, Vel’s Purple Oasis, to build a small straw bale greenhouse. The greenhouse utilized straw bales harvested from a fifth-generation organic oat farm near Vermilion. And to prepare the ground for the greenhouse, I worked with urban farmer Maurice Small and a handful of students from the Jane Addams High School to dig a three-footdeep foundation trench, a task that seemed pretty simple and straightforward. That is, until we encountered the urbanite. Every few shovelfuls hit the resistance of remnants of the six houses that used to inhabit the one-acre site. The process involved an exhausting combination of shovels, pry bars and pickaxes to wrestle stubborn stones from the ground.

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In these moments, straining and digging and prying, I would start to think about the people who had lived here. Vel would tell stories as we worked, recalling the families, the gardens, grape arbors and mint patches in everyone’s yard—the mint tea sipped on porches to accompany sunsets and conversations.

She and her late husband, Don, operated Vel’s Place, a popular East Side nightclub and acquired the neighboring acre to build an overflow parking lot. The parking lot never got built and now the site is a farm, summoning the memory of the gardens and life that once thrived there but have since disappeared. Whole neighborhoods were ground up to become urbanite by the migration of more than half a million people out of Cleveland since the 1950s. Vel Scott is one of a growing number of urban visionaries who stretch their sight beyond the blight of neighborhoods to see gardens and urban farms as a way to reconnect neighbors, empower youth, improve access to nutritious foods and bring nature back into the city.

She participated in a market garden training program offered by City Fresh—a collaborative social enterprise operated by the New Agrarian Center (NAC) and founded in partnership with OSU Extension, the City of Cleveland Department of Public Health, Heifer International and the Ohio Farmers Union. City Fresh began as an initiative to improve local food access in urban neighborhoods throughout Cleveland, particularly those that lost grocery stores and had poor access to healthy foods. It leveraged two opportunities to improve local food access in the city: organization of a network of rural, mostly Amish, farmers to supply food directly to neighborhoods and development of a market garden training program to empower residents to utilize vacant lots in the city to grow food.

I recall preparing for that first market garden training in 2006. As we were beginning outreach for the training, Lynn Gregor, the community garden coordinator who co-founded City Fresh, and I were nervous about finding anyone who would want to take the class. The grant stipulated that at least 10 people would be trained that first year.

Turned out that was no problem, as more than 50 applications flooded in for that first season. The enthusiasm in the classroom was palpable and led to the formation of several new urban farm enterprises that ranged from individual for-profit ventures to nonprofit efforts that connected to social service goals of job training, mental health or youth education.

The names of the enterprises captured local spirit in Cleveland and included Blue Pike Farm, Wonder City Farm, Garden Boyz of Central, Tremont Urban Food System and Gather Round Farm. The urban farmers formed their own collaborative networks, coordinating food waste compost pickups from neighborhood restaurants and starting the Tremont Farmers Market.

Throughout the first couple of years of the market garden trainings, everyone felt motivated by a sense of entrepreneurship. We were creating something new in the city, turning years of disinvestment, out-migration and property deterioration into positive assets for neighborhoods. In many ways, we felt that we were pioneers, reinventing the city and bringing an agrarian aesthetic to a city long defined by heavy manufacturing and industry. However, as we began to dig into the history of Cleveland, we realized that—just like the urbanite—under the surface of Cleveland were the relics of a much richer agricultural history than most of us knew.

CSU Photo Archive Links to the Past

Barbara Strauss was a student of the first market garden class in 2005, who, along with her neighbor Margaret Baker, started Eco- Village Produce, a market garden located in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. A few years later, Barbara had an opportunity through her day job at the Cleveland State University library to dig through 500,000 historic Cleveland Press photos stewarded by the Special Collections Library. As a part of the Cleveland Memory Project, an initiative to digitize and make public these historic photos, she curated an exhibition at the Urban Affairs College titled “Feeding Cleveland,” which showed both historic and modern images of Cleveland’s rich agricultural history. Barbara recalled her fascination with these images which captured a history of Cleveland that she knew nothing about: “The story started fitting together from the early days into the Depression, then the victory gardens, and the school horticulture program, and pretty soon, the story was telling itself through the photos. The story is very big, and it’s very human.”

Realizing that Cleveland once had a capacity to feed itself provides inspiration for efforts today. Many neighborhoods in Cleveland are referred to now as food deserts, meaning that residents cannot access fruits and vegetables in their own neighborhood. They have seen a steady decline in income, an epidemic of home foreclosures and the basic loss of economic stability needed to support a neighborhood grocery store. As more urban gardens fill in the vacant spaces, however, residents find access to healthier foods and opportunities to increase the local food supply.

Depression Echoes Point the Way Forward

Leveraging urban agriculture as a response to a variety of social and economic challenges has long been a part of Cleveland’s history. In the 1930s, at the peak of the Great Depression, the city supported the development of “work relief gardens” as spaces that enabled unemployed residents to grow food and reduce pressure on strained public relief programs. Barbara recalls one photo “of the Harvard-Denison Bridge where it looked like a quilt with each garden like a patch of the quilt.”

The work relief gardens came on line very quickly, with the first committee meeting of Cleveland Mayor Raymond Miller taking place in February 1933 and the first gardens planted that May.

Nearly 80 years later, Cleveland witnessed a similar speed in the establishment of the Ohio City Fresh Food Collaborative Farm in 2011. The six-acre farm just north of the West Side Market overlooks downtown Cleveland. Facilitated by the Ohio Near West Development Corporation, the farm went from conceptualization in early 2011 to planting that same summer. By June an Amish farmer from Middleburg brought a team of horses to prepare the ground for the urban farm that includes a mix of community gardens and market gardens.

The Ohio City Farm, unlike the work relief gardens that focused just on unemployed adults, provides opportunities for diverse socio-economic groups, including residents of the adjacent public housing units, college graduates, recent immigrants and chronically unemployed adults. Rich Hoban with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities (CCBDD) partners with the Ohio City Farm to provide jobs in urban farming to the developmentally disabled adults that he works with. Many of his clients suffer from mental retardation, cerebral palsy or various forms of autism.

Hoban observes that “people with developmental disabilities have one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country.” Typically, the CCBDD would place clients in positions with manufacturing or other institutions that directly employ people. But with the impacts of a struggling economy in the greater Cleveland area, his clients are among the first people to be laid off. Hoban sees urban farming as “one of the most direct ways that we could become a creator of jobs ourselves and create new work opportunities.”

In addition to the Ohio City Farm, the CCBDD operates two other urban farm sites and has a goal of initiating 10 urban farms in Cuyahoga County that, along with a food-processing initiative, could employ up to 100 adults. They operate the farms under Cleveland Crops, an independent social enterprise that pays the wages of its farmworkers through the sale of crops to markets around Cleveland.

Battling Winter Through the Years

Many people question urban agriculture as a reliable means of feeding Cleveland due to the short growing season and Lake Effect snows that blanket the city for a good part of the year.

Here again, history can be a guide. Barb Strauss went back to one of her favorite pictures showing several acres of greenhouse tops. By 1937, greenhouses covered more than 238 acres in Cleveland. Barb remarks, “That’s huge! Cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes available year round—I think the eating must have been good here off-season.”

Cleveland historically has been a major innovator in greenhouse production. In fact, Northeast Ohio, during much of the 20th century, had the highest amount of per capita production under glass of any region in the United States.

And the epicenter of that production was Schaaf Road from Old Brooklyn and Olmstead Falls. The proliferation of greenhouses in Old Brooklyn can be attributed to the innovation of Martin Ruetenik, who constructed a 550-square-foot greenhouse for his farm. Following his example, almost every farmer along Schaaf Road constructed greenhouses—eventually leading to about 100 acres under glass.

But the prospects of year-round production began to fade in Cleveland in the 1970s, as the cost of energy, pollution and a flood of cheap food imports converged to undermine the industry. Rosby’s greenhouse farm remains one of the farms still operating from this era, but most others have been reduced to skeletal remains overgrown by 30-year old trees throughout the West Side neighborhood.

Everything Old is New Again

Until recently, that is. As history continues to return to us again, greenhouses once more are making a resurgence in Cleveland as an essential means of extending the growing season for urban farms. Carlton Jackson, Mike Walton and Todd Alexander are three urban farmers who are leading the way with their company Tunnel Vision Hoops. Their hoop houses feature metal poles fabricated in Cleveland and several unique features, including retractable end walls and rainwater capture for irrigation that make extended-seasons more affordable for small growers.

Green City Growers began construction of a five-acre greenhouse system in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. The greenhouse is being formed as a worker-owned cooperative and employees will all have an opportunity to become co-owners of the facility and share in profits and decision-making. The greenhouse will offer “hydroponic” greens, vegetables and herbs that grow in a bath of nutrient-rich water.

Unlike the greenhouses common in Cleveland’s past, these will incorporate wind-powered electrical generation, energy-efficient enclosures and use of hydroponic systems that require a fraction of the heat. The facility plans to employ between 35 and 40 local residents once it is operating at full capacity.

In addition to market gardening, Cleveland has a long history of community gardening, where individual residents operate small plots of land to grow food for themselves. According to OSU Extension, the 225 community gardens in Cuyahoga County occupy about 56 acres and yield $2.6 million worth of fresh fruits and vegetables each year. While not sold, this food helps many individuals stretch their limited budgets by reducing their food costs and boosting nutrition.

Many of the community gardens in Cleveland have their origins in an extensive history of urban gardening that began back in 1907 when the Home Gardening Association sought to support gardening as a way to improve the appearance of yards and vacant lots in the city.

The Home Gardening Association developed gardens at schools as a way to teach both youth and adults. Some of today’s larger community gardens, including the Ben Franklin Garden in Old Brooklyn, are remnants of this Cleveland Public School horticulture program. Gardening activities and curriculum were taught from kindergarten to 12th grade, with every school in the system having an area set aside for gardening activities.

Recalling a photo of the victory garden on the mall near Cleveland City Hall, Barb reflects on the history of urban agriculture in Cleveland: “It enriches life and gives something that Clevelanders can be really proud of.”

Recent garden district zoning to permanently protect gardens and urban farms in the city passed with the strong support of the many Clevelanders who have been involved with backyard gardens, community gardens, urban farms, farmers markets or restaurants favoring local food. Perhaps more than supporting the latest trend in environmental sustainability, the garden zoning reflects a deeper appreciation for the history of urban farming in Cleveland and the ways that it has humanized the city, keeping people connected to nature, economic well-being, health and each other.

Urbanite: Those city dwellers who know that the bricks that grate against their shovels with a screech are a connection to the many generations of Clevelanders who came before them and who found a much deeper sense of place through their urban agriculture.