Cultivating The Land

Excerpts from Cleveland’s Urban Agriculture Movement

The “hinterlands” historically describe the remote countryside surrounding a city—an agrarian patchwork of farmsteads, wandering livestock, narrow roads, and woodlands. Reaching the hinterlands typically requires a halftank and an eventless passage through skylines and sprawl. But the rewards of fresh air, greenery, roadside stands, and the sound of open streams, birds, and crickets often motivate the trip away from the congestion of the city.

In Cleveland nowadays, open agrarian spaces are not quite so remote. A short stroll or bike ride away from just about any point in the city may reveal vacant lots, side yards, parks, or school grounds offering a bounty of fruits, vegetables, bees, or livestock. And Cleveland’s urban farms produce more than just food. They cultivate links between neighbors who otherwise might not talk to each other. They bring together and tap the greatest strength of the city—the diversity of its residents and the breadth of their skills and experiences. They create patches of biological diversity, drawing pollinators and birds back into the city.

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Each garden presents a microcosm of its surrounding neighborhood and a wellspring of life experiences and aspirations brought by the neighbors who provide support. These gardeners represent the latest iteration in an urban agriculture tradition that is as old as Cleveland itself. Across Cleveland’s rich history, gardens have been a part of the city during both booms and busts. Public school gardens, victory gardens of World War II, the work-relief gardens of the Great Depression, and a once-vibrant greenhouse industry all point to the importance of a robust urban agriculture system to the health and resilience of the city.

The three stories that follow show how this legacy of urban agriculture shapes the city today, connecting threads between the experiences of a senior gardener, a recent immigrant, and a beginning urban farmer, each working their own patch of ground to make the city a stronger and more compassionate place to live.

A Giving Place: Rockefeller Park Garden

“It’s a love for me,” said Robert Franks, describing the hard work of tilling the soil at the Rockefeller Park Garden. Like many of Cleveland’s gardens, you have to poke around a bit to find it. On a bluff overlooking Martin Luther King Boulevard north of University Circle sits the Rockefeller Park Greenhouse, a cityowned greenhouse and botanical facility that cultivates a variety of specialty plants and flowers. Just past a labyrinthine display of irises of every imaginable hue, Robert and his fellow gardeners cultivate their secret world of vegetables and flowers in a series of elliptical growing beds.

At age 86, Robert is not unusual among Cleveland’s network of urban farmers, the bulk of whom are seniors. Erin Richardson, a staff member of Ohio State University Extension’s Cuyahoga County office, said, “It’s mostly seniors who are gardening [in Cleveland]. And that’s an overall trend in agriculture. One of the reasons that I got into agriculture is because we have this wealth of knowledge from our elders, and my fear is that information is not going to be transmitted and disseminated to younger generations.”

Erin coordinates the Summer Sprout program, a collaboration between the OSU Extension and the City of Cleveland. Summer Sprout provides technical services, seeds, seedlings, and garden materials to support Cleveland’s gardeners. Robert’s site is just one of a network of over 190 community gardens scattered evenly throughout Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs. Summer Sprout gardens typically grow food for self-consumption or for donation to surrounding neighbors. In Robert’s case, all of the vegetables grown at the Rockefeller garden are given away through his church network, to residents who stroll into the garden with empty shopping bags, or to people who might not be reached by food banks.

“There are some pockets that [food banks] don’t reach. I can reach those. The little neighborhoods where the old lady can’t get out, the old man is stuck up on the porch. I walk over and give him or her a bunch of collards or greens or tomatoes. In a minute you’ve made a happy person,” Robert said.

Robert’s garden has consistently distributed more than 3,000 pounds of vegetables annually over the past several years. Robert looks forward each year to cultivating the land and advancing his vision for a space that grows in its ability to serve his neighbors. And like many of Cleveland’s seniors, gardening contributes to his longevity. According to Erin, the physical labor, camaraderie, and access to healthy fruits and vegetables help to contribute to a happy, healthy, long life in the city.

Ohio City Farm: Digging Roots in an Immigrant City

Cleveland’s urban gardening elders are not the only ones with a wealth of knowledge about gardening. Recently resettled refugees who often escaped conflict and danger in other parts of the world—including Afghanistan, Burma, and Bhutan—also bring a wealth of farming knowledge.

Overlooking the Cuyahoga River and the downtown Cleveland skyline, the Ohio City Farm hosts several community-based farming initiatives, including Refugee Response, a market farming enterprise that hires refugees to work its fields, while providing life skills and social connections. The refugees work about three acres of cultivated fields, high-tunnel greenhouses, and at a bright purple shipping container that serves as a roadside produce stand.

Maggie Fitzpatrick, the director of the Refugee Response farm, notes that about 80% of the refugees she works with have an agricultural background. “There’s this incredible skill set coming into Cleveland,” she explained. “Our idea was how can we use that as a place for people to start in the United States and really thrive and contribute to their communities.”

The Ohio City Farm provides an important community anchor for these refugees. Their families often come out to the farm, finding it to be a welcoming point of entry into the city. Their growing skills enable them to contribute immediately to the supply of locally grown foods sought by numerous restaurants in Ohio City.

“One of its biggest buyers (Great Lakes Brewing Co.) purchases a business-scale share in the farm—an up-front payment for about an acre’s worth of produce and hops,” said Maggie, describing how their business partnerships contribute to the success of their operation.

The impacts of Refugee Response extend beyond the borders of Ohio City Farm. A satellite operation at the Urban Community School plays a crucial role in raising the next generation of food-literate urban gardeners. Located a couple of miles from Ohio City, the school provides education to mostly low-income residents around Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. Recently, the school developed a learning garden and market farm on the edge of its campus and established a partnership with Refugee Response to help oversee the garden, particularly during summer, when school is not in session. Mohammad Noormal, a former U.S. Army interpreter, spearheads the school garden operation.

Noormal grew up in a small farming village in a remote part of Afghanistan, where organic agriculture was not such a novelty. Like many geographically remote areas, chemical inputs and machinery are difficult to access and have limited use. Noormal recalls, “In Afghanistan, we are all organic, but don’t call it that there. It’s just the way things are done and have been for generations.” When he first came to Ohio, Noormal developed an early affinity for the Amish farmers in the outskirts of Cleveland, where he found them using a lot of familiar techniques, such as animal traction, hand labor, and low inputs.

Noormal enjoys imparting his farming knowledge to the school children. He chuckles as he recalls the astonishment on their faces when the students realized that food comes from farms, not from the corner store. Indeed, the neighborhood faces challenges from a lack of access to healthy food. The impetus for the garden came about following a visioning workshop where students were asked what they would want to see in their community.

Maggie recalled students expressing “that they would want a better gas station because the good gas stations have the better food.”

“That was a shocking moment for the teachers and faculty,” she said. “That was really the moment when they thought about [the need for] something to connect students to fresh food and think about food and nutrition differently.”

The learning garden features a whimsical layout that mixes playground elements and growing spaces, including twisting slides embedded in mounded hills, greenhouses, an outdoor classroom, a willow tunnel, berry patches, and a composting station. The space merges environmental learning with nutrition and health, following a design developed with input from parents, students, and faculty at the school. Brandon Traud, the Healthy Lifestyles Coordinator for the school, links the garden to the school curriculum, coordinating class activities and after-school programs.

The garden taps the deeper roots of Cleveland history when the public school district operated an extensive school gardening program that served as an international model. Established in the early 1900s and active until budget cuts forced its closure in 1977, the school gardening program provided an important pathway for students to apply lessons of science and citizenship to the operation of their own garden tracts on school yards. Many of Cleveland’s older gardeners will recall their experiences as young children managing their school garden plots and learning lessons that carried forward throughout their lives. The establishment of the learning garden at Urban Community School returns to some of these earlier sentiments and provides a good model for how schools today can restore this historical tradition through creative community partnerships.

Hough: An Urban Oasis

School children are not the only ones to gain agricultural skills through interactions with skilled farmers in their neighborhoods. Cleveland has a host of “beginning farmers”—aspiring adults who lack farming backgrounds, but who want to cultivate small farm enterprises on vacant lots in the city. The Hough neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side provides one such example.

Situated at the terminus of a dead-end road, the Village Family Farms meanders across several city lots. Along the road, a small picket fence encloses a community garden where neighbors maintain small plots among a babbling fountain and a sculpted wooden ankh. Beyond this space, a series of greenhouses and growing fields support a market garden operation.

Jamel Rahkeera operates the farm with neighborhood friends. He laughs as he recalls the harrowing work of establishing an urban farm on old city lots that once contained several houses and an apartment building. “We have a slogan—urban farming and agriculture is not for the weak. A lot of times, when you’re dealing with a lot of vacant land, especially where a lot of houses or buildings were torn down before the late ’90s, they put a lot of that debris back in the ground. It’s an extensive process to get the land back to where you can grow things on it,” he said.

Equal doses of resilience and persistence have transformed this site into an urban oasis. Jamel cites the many benefits that result from the relentlessly hard work of urban farming: hearing water, listening to birds, feeling the early morning sun on his face, and seeing his bees flitting among the flowers.

“This is one of the last things that I ever thought I would be doing,” Jamel joked. “I always thought I would want to own my own business, but I never thought it would be in agriculture.”

He sells his produce at area farmers markets and a small road stand at the farm. He also is planning new lines of value-added products that utilize some of the farm’s produce. Jamel’s foray into farming began in his late 20s when he realized the need to make a radical lifestyle change.

“I had always been athletic, and I was used to running up and down the basketball court dunking and doing all this crazy stuff,” he said. “I couldn’t do those things anymore, and it was solely based on my lifestyle, what I was eating. I did a 360 and changed all of that—eating more fruits and vegetables. And that’s not something we grew up with.”

Like the students at the Urban Community School, Jamel relied often on the corner store where his diet consisted of a mix of chips, soda, and hot dogs. Jamel likes to extend his own learning and vocational choice as a model to young people in his neighborhood.

“Whenever I see young men walking by, I talk to them. ‘You want to get your hands dirty?’ And they’re very receptive,” he said. “And I’m talking about the young men who people would probably cross the street and wouldn’t turn around and wouldn’t say hi to. But those are the ones that we need to be reaching out to, and that’s what I’m here for.”

Jamel’s outreach crossed both ends of the generational spectrum in his neighborhood. When first beginning at the farm, he tapped into the wellspring of knowledge among the elders in his neighborhood, many of whom migrated to Cleveland from the Deep South during a period known as the Great Migration. Seeking opportunities in the industrial economies of cities like Cleveland, many African Americans left the South between 1910 and 1970, bringing a wealth of farming knowledge with them.

One neighbor who Jamel tapped was Mr. Leroy, who grew up in Virginia cotton farming. He helped Jamel get his footing as an aspiring young farmer in the neighborhood. Jamel recalled, “I’ve taken a lot of classes, I’ve read a lot of books, but nothing beats hands-on training from someone who has the experience.”

Jamel’s work at the Village Family Farms provides a glimpse into the network of neighborhood connections that support these operations across the city. As gardening becomes more widespread, the City of Cleveland has taken some steps to make it easier for urban farms and gardens to be established in the city. Over the past several years, the city’s planning office has updated its zoning code to allow parcels in the city to be zoned for agricultural usage. This opens up possibilities for roadside stands, urban livestock, and composting while protecting urban garden spaces from development.

Cleveland planning director Freddie Collier Jr. echoed Jamel’s experience as he discussed the importance of urban agriculture to the long-term resilience of Cleveland. “When I think about my ancestors in the Deep South, they were resilient, they were sustainable. They knew how to grow their own food and to survive. People living in the city should have that option,” he said.

The interviews referenced in this story are part of the Cleveland Growing Strong oral history collection curated by StoryLenz. To see extended interviews from this story, or other oral histories, visit