Innovations from Cleveland's urban farms are taking root around the world

One might not guess from its industrial past, but Cleveland has some surprising ties to the rise of urban farming in America. The national negative press surrounding the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 helped mobilize the environmental movement, and Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes was instrumental in lobbying for the Clean Water Act of 1972. It wasn’t in hip urban centers that urban farming rose in the seventies, but in hollowed-out, underserved neighborhoods like Cleveland’s.

Thanks in part to that trajectory, Cleveland was chosen as this year's host city for the Meeting of the Minds conference—which selects a different city each year to act as inspiration for a place experiencing significant transformative change. More than 350 thought leaders from around the world attended the event, which featured "workshop tours" of Cleveland's lakefront, Quicken Loans Arena, Nasa Glenn Research Center, and more.

Fresh Water attended the Innovations in Urban Agriculture workshop tour, which highlighted four of Cleveland's thriving urban farms that exemplify the movement’s roots in building communities and creating opportunities. Learn why the approaches at Chateau Hough, Green City Growers, Rid-All-Green Partnership, and Ohio City Farm are now serving as a blueprint for MOTM experts to apply in their own cities.

Rid-All Green Partnership

Randy McShepard is well aware of the common misconceptions about urban farming in Cleveland. “People say, ‘The soil’s contaminated! You can’t do it!’ or ‘There are just three months of good weather in Cleveland!’”

<span class="content-image-text">Super beets grown in the “black gold,” super nutritious soil at Rid-All</span>Super beets grown in the “black gold,” super nutritious soil at Rid-AllBut McShepard is proving them wrong. He’s a co-founder of the Rid-All Green Partnership, a thriving, three-acre green space in the struggling but strengthening Kinsman neighborhood.

Rid-All has found creative ways around typical urban agriculture obstacles. They grow cold-weather crops like collard greens and kale, harvesting 11 months out of the year. As for the soil, they make their own. Wood chips and food waste (of which they use up to 50,000 pounds a week during peak season) decompose for months to form Rid-All’s “Black Gold,” a profitable compost soil that ships all across the state.

McShepard describes the farm as “a showcase”—not just for what Black Gold can do, but for what’s possible in urban agriculture. “We really do believe this model should be replicated across the country,” he says.

The farm also plays an important placemaking role for the Kinsman neighborhood as a popular field trip destination for Cleveland schools; it has also hosted guest speakers and even some weddings.

“It’s a showcase,” says McShepard, “but also a neighborhood space.”

Vineyards and Biocellar of Château Hough

Located just down the street from historic League Park, the Vineyards and Biocellar of Château Hough are a rarity: an award-winning winery in the middle of the city.

Mansfield Frazier, the journalist and activist behind Chateau Hough, began the project in 2010 with three goals: reuse land and buildings (the lot was once occupied by a crack house), create green space, and generate more jobs in the region. “Our job is to solve poverty with paychecks,” Frazier says.

<span class="content-image-text">Mansfield Frazier of Vineyards of Chateau Hough</span>Mansfield Frazier of Vineyards of Chateau Hough

Long written off as a blighted neighborhood, Hough is best known in Cleveland for its 1966 riots. Residents like Frazier have worked hard for decades to revitalize it; in fact, he ran for City Council this year to represent Ward 7. As Frazier is fond of saying: “You shouldn’t have to move to live in a better neighborhood.”

It’s hard to imagine a vineyard surviving a Cleveland winter, but Frazier has chosen grape varieties that can stand temperatures of up to 40 below zero (such as Frontenac and Traminette). The vines—which currently number 294—even survived 2014’s infamous polar vortex.

With the vineyard receiving full certification to distribute last month, Chateau Hough is well on its way to becoming a self-sustaining operation. Cleveland oenophiles will soon able to buy the wine—which took a second-place ribbon at the Geauga County Fair its first year—directly from the Chateau, as well as from Heinen's stores and restaurants in University Circle.

Green City Growers

The constraints of urban farming can create innovation. Case in point: it takes 40 gallons of water to grow one head of lettuce in a field. At Green City Growers, it takes a gallon and a half.

Part of the city’s Evergreen Cooperative family of businesses (along with Evergreen Energy Solutions and Evergreen Cooperative Laundry), Green City Growers is a hydroponic greenhouse located just west of Rid-All on Kinsman Road. In their four years of existence, they’ve put up some impressive numbers—growing over three million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of basil a year. Their pesticide-free product is sold to restaurants and can be found at retailers like Marc’s, Dave’s, and even Wal-Mart.

It's much cheaper to grow produce in the country, says Vice President of Sales Jeremy Lisy, but some factors trump low overhead. According to Lisy, the organization’s goal is to “build wealth” for its employees. “Our platform is economic justice and equality,” he says.

To that end, Green City Growers is an employee-owned cooperative. “The ownership mentality changes” how things are done, says Lisy. “A 10-minute smoke breaks turn to nine-and-a-half minutes.”

Like Rid-All Green Partnership, Green City Growers grows essentially year-round, and it currently ranks as the country's largest food-production greenhouse in a core urban area. The cooperative currently employs 38 people, with a goal to expand to 50 employees soon. Lisy believes they are “one big customer away” from operating at that level.

Ohio City Farm

Perched on a hill atop the Cuyahoga River, the view from Ohio City Farm takes in downtown and, in particular, the Justice Center. The center provides not only a visual point of reference, but also a meaningful sight for Ohio City Farm workers—many of whom are employed via the Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program (REAP). When the time comes, they will cross the river, enter the justice center, and be sworn in as American citizens.

Executive director Patrick Kearns says refugees are the perfect employees for an urban farm. “You know what refugees call organic farming?” he asks. “Farming.”

<span class="content-image-text">Ohio City Farm’s workers from The Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program</span>Ohio City Farm’s workers from The Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program

REAP is an initiative of the Refugee Response, one of Ohio City Farm's founding partners along with Ohio City, Inc., Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, and Great Lakes Brewery. At six acres, the farm is considered one of the largest contiguous urban farms in the U.S.

Since 2009, Ohio City Farm has grown produce that Kearns terms "hyper-local." Their vegetables go daily to restaurants like Lola, Urban Farmer, and Fire without ever having seen the inside of a refrigerator. “Everything is right from the ground to the plate,” says Kearns. The farm has a partnership with Great Lakes Brewing Company, and they operate their farm stand every Friday and Saturday.

Kearns, who spent many years living abroad in Thailand, is a big believer in the organization’s mission. “Refugees have no one to speak for them,” he says. “[People] still have that vision of refugees as a political target. We’re pushing back against that narrative… I’m proud to work with these people.”

A Bright Future

Rid-All Green Partnership's Randy McShepard, who helped organize the tour, believes urban farming in Cleveland is here to stay. “It is creating jobs and converting neighborhoods,” he shared via email. “We will see more of it because we are a foodie town with restaurants that appreciate farm-to-table opportunities.”

During the tour, McShepard spoke of a slow workday when the Rid-All crew decided to pick up some trash in the area and uncovered a lost city street. Illegal dumping in the area had kept it hidden for years, but they found it. And this, perhaps, is the real power of urban agriculture: finding the potential for positive change right beneath our feet.

Check out this SciTech video for more on Rid-All Green Partnership: 

Billy Hallal
Billy Hallal

About the Author: Billy Hallal

Billy Hallal works as a freelance writer and an adult literacy advocate at Seeds of Literacy. You can find his writing on Northeast Ohio dining and culture at Thrillist and Cleveland Scene.