green acres: urban farms continue to sprout in cleveland

By shifting one quarter of Northeast Ohio's food-buying needs from out-of-state sources to local food producers -- a paradigm known as "the 25-percent shift" -- we can put one out of eight unemployed people in the region back to work. That's 27,664 new jobs, an increase in annual regional output by $4.2 billion, and $126 million in added state and local tax collections.

Granted, that "shift" is no simple nudge. It requires overcoming numerous obstacles, from increasing available credit to motivating more consumers to buy local.

But Cleveland and Northeast Ohio are better positioned than most regions at accomplishing the goal. Cleveland was recently ranked the second best city in the United States for local food thanks to our farmers markets, community gardens, and local food-loving restaurants and diners.

As co-author of the 25-percent shift, Brad Masi fully comprehends the importance of local urban agriculture. The Oberlin College grad co-founded City Fresh, a region-wide partnership focused on linking farmers with urban neighborhoods and institutions. As a leader in the field, Masi consults on virtually every urban garden in the region, and he says that current Cleveland projects are attracting attention.

"People come to Cleveland from Akron, Youngstown, Elyria and other places to learn from what urban gardeners are doing."

By utilizing open-air gardens, hoop houses and greenhouses, today's urban farms are able to produce food year round, Masi explains. And unlike community gardens, they can actually sell their products thanks to recently enacted city zoning laws.

Ben Shapiro is living proof that the phrase "urban agriculture" is no longer an oxymoron in Cleveland.

On a windy, wet March afternoon, Shapiro is leading a composting workshop behind St. George, the former Catholic Church at E. 69th and Superior. The property is now home to the Community Greenhouse Partners (CGP), one of a growing number of urban farming operations in various stages of development in and around the city.

As a handful of volunteers gather, Shapiro and farm manager Hank Habermann assemble donated shipping skids into the first compost bin. Shapiro explains how a pile of veggie scraps, fallen leaves and manure collected from the stables of Cleveland's mounted police represents a valuable asset. Transformed by time and temperature, the unsavory stew will become rich loam to be used as soil in the farm's hoop house.

"We can put those things together basically for free then turn it into a fantastic soil that will be the real engine driving our whole agricultural project," says Shapiro.

This effort to develop and operate a large-scale, fully sustainable commercial greenhouse complex has been underway for several years. The brainchild of executive director Timothy Smith, CGP aims to raise thousands of pounds of fruits, vegetables and fish that it will sell through the Visiting Nurse Association, City Fresh, and an online marketplace.

When fully operational, CGP plans to hire and train 15 local residents, paying them a living wage with benefits. Staffers project approximately $1 million in taxable wages and $2.5 million in sales revenue annually.

For now, though, they are simply trying to clean and revive the 1920's church and schoolhouse that will host CGP's offices, classrooms for educational programs, kitchen and retail facilities. Tired but satisfied with the day's work, Smith unwinds on a rescued church pew and reflects on the progress of his fledgling urban farm.

"Building this compost bin is a significant step forward," Smith declares. "We will grow all of our plants in compost, so it's integral to our entire project."

On another blustery March day, in a different part of town, cold rain is pelting a plastic-sheeted hoop house. Inside, Rudy Moyer tends to the tiny, burgeoning plants taking root at Stanard Farm, with strawberries, onions, chives, radishes, peas and lettuces all growing skyward.

Earlier that week, Moyer, a master gardener from Stark County, started his job as Stanard's farm operations supervisor. Each day, he makes an hour-and-fifteen-minute commute to and from work -- a time and distance that doesn't bother him a bit.

"How far would you drive for your dream job?" he asks rhetorically.

Located at E. 53rd and Stanard, this farm is part of a larger network of urban farms run by Cleveland Crops. Launched by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities (CCBDD), the agricultural training program was created to provide career choices for people with disabilities.

"Over the next three to five years we want to have about 10 farms going, and we want to employ about 100 people," says Rich Hoban, CCBDD's director of economic development. Plans call for more hoop houses and greenhouses, with a food market and processing facility in the works.

Perhaps the most notable of Cleveland's urban agriculture operations is Ohio City Fresh Food, a collaborative that includes a farm, retail farm stand, and community kitchen. Located just north of the West Side Market, the nearly 6-acre parcel is the largest contiguous urban farm in America.

The collaborative was founded by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority in partnership with Great Lakes Brewing Co. and Refugee Response, a job training program for resettled refugees. Ohio City Farm provides low-cost land, shared facilities, and technical assistance to support these agricultural entrepreneurs.

Only a year old, the young farm already has accomplished a surprising amount, supplying produce to local chefs and restaurants. A new roadside farm stand will open this season, and tenant farmers, including those from Refugee Response, will soon construct hoop houses to extend their growing season.

Standing in Ohio City Farm one might as well be in the middle of a Wayne County cornfield. Look to the east, however, and the Cleveland skyline rises above the Cuyahoga River, merging agriculture with the city's titans of business.

"If you take a picture, you don't have to alter it in any way," observes Amanda Dempsey, staffer with Ohio City Near West Development, which manages the farm. "You see all of those things together, which is pretty impressive."

Watch this video to learn more about the Ohio City Farm.

Read more about the 25-Percent Shift here.

Photos by Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1 - 9: Stanard Farm
*photo 1: operations manager Rudy Moyer 
   *photos 3&4: Tunnel Vision Hoops
   *photo 9: farm manager Gerry Gross and regional employment manager Dan Nolen

Christopher Johnston
Christopher Johnston

About the Author: Christopher Johnston

Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor,, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at Cleveland State University. He wrote The Way I Saw It, the memoirs of Marc Wyse, co-founder of Wyse Advertising. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) will be published in February 2018.