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Urban agriculture in Ohio

By Tracy Turner • Updated Apr 11, 2019 at 8:47 AM

In the heart of the oldest neighborhood in Columbus sits a 2.5-acre farm that resulted in $50,000 worth of produce in 2017. The farm is spread across 12 sites throughout the city’s urban landscape.

Franklinton Farms — named after the neighborhood in which it sits — is a network of urban farming plots where traditional farming techniques and high and low tunnels are used to produce enough vegetables, fruits, and herbs to supply a 40-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

In 2019, the CSA plans to expand to 75 members, said Nick Stanich, executive director of the nonprofit operation. That’s in addition to the hundreds of pounds of produce the operation donates to area families and homeless centers in Franklinton.

“Our mission is simple: We grow food for the neighborhood,” he said.

Franklinton Farms is one of hundreds of urban farms that have sprouted up in recent years in formerly vacant lots in cities across Ohio, thanks in part to the efforts of OSU Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Through programs and workshops to train urban growers on how to start and fund urban farms, Extension has helped expand agriculture into urban areas.

The goal?

To help create or expand agriculture-related business opportunities for people who want to get into the urban food production industry.

“OSU Extension has always been a strong advocate and supporter of urban agriculture, with it being a land-grant university,” Stanich said. “OSU Extension does a great job in helping to market urban agriculture and in rallying people around the idea that urban agriculture can be a successful enterprises.

“OSU Extension's workshops and its Master Gardener Volunteer programing and training have inspired a lot of people to get involved with urban food production. Their programing in urban agriculture has been focused on building a network of farmers and potential farmers who want to grow food in urban areas.”

Agriculture is now a booming industry in many urban centers across Ohio and nationwide, said Mike Hogan, an OSU Extension agriculture and natural resources educator in Franklin County, who works to increase the number of urban farmers.

For example, Columbus was home to only five urban farms just four years ago, he said.

“Now, there are at least 30 urban farms throughout the city,” he said. “Not only have entrepreneurs been able to benefit from starting their own farm business in the heart of city neighborhoods, but people in the neighborhoods have benefited from having access to fresh, healthy foods grown nearly in their backyards.”

That is significant, considering that in Ohio, nearly 1 in 7 households experiences food insecurity, meaning the household cannot afford balanced meals on a regular basis. That rate is higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Urban agriculture and local food production are a growing phenomenon for several reasons, including to address food insecurity, as a means for an economic enterprise, for community building, and as job training for young people and others,” Hogan said.

Such is the case in Cleveland, which now has an estimated 45 urban farms, according to Margaret Fitzpatrick, an OSU Extension agriculture and natural resources educator in Cuyahoga County.

OSU Extension offers training and resources to help members of urban agriculture operations get their farms up and running, and then sell produce. Extension also works to establish and support community gardens, which are similar to urban agriculture operations, but instead of selling produce, members of community gardens take home or donate what they produce, Fitzpatrick said.

One such successful community garden is the Summer Sprout program, funded by the city of Cleveland and implemented by OSU Extension. In 2017 alone, there were 185 community gardens in Cleveland as part of the program, with 3,383 community gardeners who worked on 46.6 acres of garden areas, producing 17,393 pounds of produce.

Through the program, Extension offers the supplies, training, and technical assistance that people need to operate community gardens and urban farms. That includes the soil, seeds, plants, lumber, and other materials needed to create the gardens.

Extension also helps growers identify land for community gardens and perform soil testing to ensure that the soil is safe to grow on, Fitzpatrick said.

“Many of the plots are on vacant lots that were formerly homes or were used for industry,” she said. “So, we have to make sure that the soil is free of any lead or other contaminates that would make it unsafe to grown on.

“We help growers understand how they can move forward with the garden or urban farm in a safe way, whether it be through planting using raised beds or choosing another location for the farm or garden,” she said.

Extension also offers technical assistance for urban farmers, including how to plan an urban farm, how to control pests, and how to market and sell products.

“Urban agriculture is important and transformational in that it allows community members to have a visible, immediate impact on their communities,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s also incredibly empowering from a community well-being standpoint and an economic impact.”

One such enterprise is the Vineyards of Chateau Hough, created in 2010 in the same Hough neighborhood in Cleveland that was the site of the 1966 race riots that destroyed 25 percent of the inner-city neighborhood’s structures. The vineyards were built on the grounds of an abandoned house, complete with an urban biocellar and an underground winery. Several area workers are now employed there.

The Montgomery County office of OSU Extension also actively promotes and supports urban agriculture. Several programs—including a partnership with the city of Dayton to run Vacant to Vibrant—have resulted in transforming numerous vacant lots into vibrant, urban agriculture plots, said OSU Extension educator Suzanne Mills-Wasniak, who works with the program.

The latest in the Dayton area is the Shelter Farm, a partnership with the University of Dayton, St. Vincent de Paul Dayton, and OSU Extension. The farm, created last year, has already generated over 1,500 pounds of produce with a retail value of $2,400, Mills-Wasniak said.

For Marcie Todd, owner and operator of Freshtown Farm, urban farming is now her fulltime job. Her farm is situated on a plot of land that formerly housed three vacant homes in Vassor Village near South High School in Columbus.

She now grows at least 70 varieties of produce there, and on a larger plot in Pataskala, enough to sustain a 30-customer CSA business, as well as sell to several local restaurants and two farmer’s markets.

Todd also produces enough food to donate to local food banks as a way to “give back to the community,” she said.

“I find a lot of value farming in the neighborhood and working in the community in which I also live,” she said. “In addition to being able to earn a living and run my own business, part of the privilege of urban farming is being able to produce healthy foods for people that live here, too.”

Todd is one of several growers who has graduated from the Ohio Master Urban Farmer workshop series offered by OSU Extension.

The intensive course, which was developed by OSU Extension, teaches the basics of farming in an urban environment. Topics include soil testing for urban sites, choosing a farm location, basic plant science, marketing your produce, and most importantly, zoning and legal issues associated with farming in urban and residential areas.

Mark VanFleet, owner and operator of Harriet Gardens, is also a program graduate. His urban farm is situated on a formerly vacant lot in a residential neighborhood also on Columbus’ South Side.

His one-half acre plot produces row upon rows of vegetables, including lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, turnips, cucumbers, garlic, basil, dill, chard, and kale. The plot provides enough for the full-time urban farmer to sell his produce to 15 local restaurants and at least three farmers markets.

“I never thought I’d grow up to be a farmer – I’d never even gardened until my wife and I bought our house 10 years ago and planted a small plot in the backyard,” VanFleet said recently, as he harvested carrots out of his Merion Village farm. “It’s become my passion and, three years ago, my fulltime job.

“I like living in the city and didn’t want to move, so turning this vacant urban lot into a farm has been wonderful. Its small size is manageable for my experience and its location is close to home. Plus the neighbors love it.”

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