A Brief History and Assessment of Urban Ag in Cleveland

Though Cleveland has had a long history of urban agriculture, most famously as the “greenhouse capital of the world” in the 1950’s, urban agriculture as we recognize it today in Cleveland is about 10 years old.  Thoroughly rooted as a response to the foreclosure crisis of the mid-2000’s, urban ag was conceived as an answer to re-purpose all these Landbank properties that were piling up in staggering numbers.

Accordingly, the city of Cleveland and civic groups did what they could to stimulate urban ag.  From 2007-2010, Cleveland passed a handful of mundane sounding zoning ordinances that legitimized urban farming.  Rules were changed to legally allow things like urban farms themselves, on-site farmstands, chickens, hoophouses, and taller fences on ag properties.  To spark this movement even more, Cleveland’s Economic Development department developed a grant program for urban farmers called Gardening for Greenbacks.

Meanwhile, Cuyahoga County’s Ohio State University Extension office started offering a 10-week Market Gardener Training Program that is still in existence today.  A coalition of non-profits, led by Neighborhood Progress Inc., developed a program called “Re-Imagining Cleveland” that spurred a variety of greening projects that included urban farms, community gardens, and vineyards.  Many urban farmers got started through the Re-Imagining grant.

In 2012, Cleveland caught the interest of the USDA’s NRCS because of all the funding, programming, and zoning in favor of urban agriculture.  This interest led to NRCS’s Cleveland High Tunnel Initiative which has funded 85 high tunnels in the Cleveland area to date.

Despite all these measures to promote urban agriculture in Cleveland, many farmers of this era struggled and came and subsequently went almost as quickly as the seasons.  There were many reasons for this, but it ultimately boiled down to extremely degraded soils.  The Landbank properties that were being promoted for ag had most of their topsoil scraped off and were filled with backfill.  At times, it was literally impossible to get a tiller in the ground in some places.  For the farmers that stuck it out, it meant tedious heavy labor digging out rocks, disposing of rocks, and bringing in organic matter and mineral amendments.  For a grassroots movement that prided itself on low barriers to entry, these soil issues proved insurmountable for some.

That being said, some farmers did stick it out and today are quite amazing growers.  Many have leveraged our proximity to Amish country for advice and affordable farm implements.  Others have supplemented their knowledge through out-of-county farm mentors.  Some have gone through the trials and tribulations route.  Whatever the learning curve was, Cleveland at this time has approximately 30-40 stable urban farmers, around 200 community gardens, and 31 farmers’ markets.  A few crown jewels of Cleveland urban ag include Mansfield Frazier’s Chateau Hough vineyard and the 3.5 acre hydroponic Green City Growers.  A few jewels with less panache include the two-sited Bay Branch Farm, Good Earth Farm, and Urban Goodness Farm.

It appears that urban ag is here to stay in Cleveland.  Sometimes farms and farmers come and go, but the interest in local foods has never been higher.  The general public in the last ten years have developed extremely discerning tastes for fresh and flavorful, which can only be met through the local foods movement or growing it yourself.  Work still needs to be done in terms of distribution and sales, but hopefully that’s the next step in this equation.

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