Cycles of Life at Cleveland Crops

The growth of urban agriculture in Cleveland has shifted how we think about vacant land in the city. Not so long ago, weed-infested and litter-strewn vacant lots were just ticked off as bulleted items on a long list of indicators of urban blight. But today, a growing number of vacant lots have been converted to assets, such as growing food, connecting people, and even creating jobs. Cleveland Crops represents one among many examples of this. Having grown to include four farm sites, Cleveland Crops is a social enterprise supported by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities (CCBDD) that started five years ago at its first farm site: the Stanard Farm on Cleveland’s east side where Cleveland Crops is headquartered.

A stroll through the grounds of the Stanard Farm reveals the productive potential of urban agricultural land. It includes heated greenhouses for raising seedlings, hoop houses for season extension, cold storage, produce-washing facilities, and fields blossoming with flowers and an array of organically produced vegetables. The Stanard Farm operates under the nurturing presence of Nonni Casino, the Farm Mother for the operation—a title endearingly given to her by the workers.

For Nonni, her work at Cleveland Crops offers a natural extension of a lifetime of working with food. She operated a one-acre farm for 20 years, served as the executive chef and head gardener for former Governor Richard Celeste, and started Nonni’s Italian Eatery as the first farm-to-table restaurant in Columbus in the late 1980s.

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Referencing the field that she was exposed to as a child, Nonni recalls, “I’ve never left the field.” She grew up in an Italian immigrant family. Her grandfather farmed a vacant lot in Columbus, worked as a chef, and imparted to her knowledge of their culinary traditions. Her family never got into the processed foods or TV dinners that began to dominate America’s food landscape in the 1950s. Nonni joked about going to a friend’s house where they served processed tomato soup. “My father would always scold me when I got home, saying that I smelled like canned soup,” Nonni says.

About 12 years ago, Nonni relocated to Cleveland to be closer to her granddaughter. Leaving behind her strong social network, she recalls, “Here I was in Cleveland at age 55, starting over from scratch.”

It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the presence of Lake Erie and the beautiful architecture along Lake Avenue. She became a kitchen manager for the Root Café in Lakewood, where she connected to Cleveland’s vibrant farm-to-table scene.

From there, she connected with Cleveland Crops and found an opportunity to blend her love of growing and preparing food. She described the first year of work at the Stanard Farm as a challenge. Beginning with a barren landscape, she toiled with co-manager Gerry Gross and their team of workers to make the farm the prolific space that it is today.

Gerry and Nonni’s early work establishing the Stanard Farm did not come easily. In 2009, the old Stanard school building that had been empty for 35 years on the site was slowly dismantled to make way for the first Cleveland Crops farm. If slow food reconnects us with the cycles of nature, then the deconstruction of the Stanard School could be described as slow demolition. The stately brick and sandstone building, constructed in the late 1800s, was the oldest school standing in Cleveland. Avoiding landfills, most of the building was repurposed. Slate chalkboards and maple floorboards became high-end furniture. Bricks and foundation stones became raised beds and walkways lining the farm that took its place.

Having recently spearheaded an initiative that recognized Cleveland as one of the first major U.S. cities to develop zoning supportive of urban agriculture, Councilman Joe Cimperman described the Stanard Farm as getting back to Cleveland’s roots, literally. “Guess what it was before it was a school? On the Sanborn maps that go back before the school was built, it was a farm. There is something about getting back to who we are— it’s what the whole local-food movement is about,” Cimperman said. The farm became one of the first sites in Cleveland to be zoned as an urban farm under the legislation that Cimperman introduced to Cleveland City Council.

Cimperman’s initiative converged with Rich Hoban of the CCBDD who was exploring the potential for urban agriculture to provide new opportunities for the residents with whom he worked. The CCBDD provides training and job placement for adults facing a variety of developmental challenges, including autism, schizophrenia, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, or blindness.

The recession was especially hard on these adults. Many lost jobs and found traditional doorways to employment closed. Inspired by the urban agriculture initiatives in Cleveland, Hoban saw an opportunity to create jobs in an otherwise stubborn economy.

In a short span of fi ve years, Cleveland Crops has come a long way. An old gymnasium, the only portion of the school to be spared from demolition, now serves as a distribution hub for all of its urban farms where produce and cut flowers are cleaned and packaged for market. They employ 40 developmentally disabled adults across their operations and supply a number of markets, from low-income residents at the Gateway 105 Farmers Market to restaurants operated by Zack Bruell.

While Cleveland Crops focuses on job training for vulnerable Cleveland adults, Nonni also sees the therapeutic benefits of working with food. Just as her food traditions were intertwined with family and place, Cleveland Crops provides a nurturing space for people who are often poorly-treated in the workplace. She explains, “People like it here at the farm. It provides a caring, nurturing, earth-centered operation and a welcoming space for adults who are not always met with kindness in the larger world.”

Nonni introduced me to Tim, who had been working at the Stanard Farm since it began. Tim, who has cerebral palsy, describes the farm as an empowering place for him. “I feel more confident in myself and my capabilities. I speak up more now, not doubting myself as much. People here are treated as adults, not as people to be set aside somewhere,” he says.

Nonni emphasizes that they teach their employees how to meet the high standards of cleanliness and quality that the farm and kitchen demand. “We do not spoil them when they are here. Coaches and supervisors are strict and have rules to follow,” she says. But more important than teaching skills in the workplace, Nonni remarks on the deeper benefits of working with nature. “The farm provides a multi-sensory experience. They see, feel, and get exposure to the cycle of life. They plant seeds, see seedlings sprout into prolific plants, and reap a bountiful harvest. Then in the fall, we teach them to compost the plants that become next year’s growth,” she says.

Nonni’s description of the cycle of life also applies to the life of the Stanard Farm. A school building sitting neglected for 35 years was transformed into furniture and raised beds—its decline feeding a new cycle of growth.