Urban Renaissance Farms is helping city dwellers get back to their roots in Euclid

This October, Urban Renaissance Farms has been alive with visitors eager to find the perfect fall pumpkin, as well as others curious to learn more about this small urban oasis—which sits tucked away on East 279th Street in a neighborhood populated by multi-family housing, not far from Interstate 90.

Held over two weekends in October, the recent pumpkin patch events have been a coming-out party of sorts for
Urban Renaissance Farms to the Euclid community at large. Though the farm has been up and running since 2015, this is the first year they’ve been able to sell produce such as pumpkins, winter squash, and red raspberry jam and promote the farm as a destination.

It’s an exciting development for Josh Stephens and Jamie Smialek, the married couple that operates the farm alongside their five adopted children. The Euclid residents are leasing nearly three acres of previously vacant green space from the city to develop Urban Renaissance Farms, a concept that is aligned with their desire to cultivate an urban farm culture in Euclid and help urban dwellers get back to their roots, literally.

“We firmly believe that food can be grown here in meaningful ways,” says Stephens, who sees growing food locally as a means of building stronger, healthier communities—especially in urban settings where lifestyle and health issues like stress, poor food choices, and inactivity threaten well-being. “[Our hope is that the farm can help] urban residents connect with the land, and each other, in a way that benefits them physically and psychologically.”

In Euclid, Stephens and Smialek see an opportunity to reinvigorate a community by turning unused green space into productive, urban farmland; engaging residents in the growing process; and increasing the community’s access to high-quality nutritious food.

To get more young people thinking about urban farming as a possible career choice, Stephens launched an Urban Agriculture program at Euclid High School earlier this fall. The program gives students hands-on experience in plant and animal production, in addition to business, communication, and entrepreneurship skills. It is housed in the old Memorial School in Euclid, which is being converted into a mini-farm. (Stephens says the mini-farm is at about 50% of its planned capacity and should be fully ready
 by the start of the 2020-2021 school year.)

So far, the 16 students enrolled have built fencing and a compost bin, and installed a chicken coop. They’ve also planted an array of fall vegetables, including broccoli, kale, and spinach. They’re raising six chickens and breeding a pair of angora rabbits as wool producers. Stephens plans to eventually hire a few of the students as interns and employees to work on the farm.

Between Urban Renaissance Farms and the new school-based program, Stephens believes Euclid has the potential to position itself as a regionally important center of urban agriculture, and Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail is on board with their mission.

“Josh and Jamie are great examples of residents who are committed to our future and willing to work for it,” says Holzheimer Gail, adding that the farm provides a creative example of how a vacant property can be turned into an attractive community asset. “Their work demonstrates their commitment to a healthy and sustainable community, commitment to youth, and commitment to bringing the community together.”

Stephens and Smialek first met at Ohio State University, where they both earned master’s degrees (Stephens in environmental policy, and Smialek in environmental science). Their shared pursuit of societal improvement and environmental preservation was what attracted them, and later led them to adopt five children and return to Smialek’s hometown of Euclid, where they saw the opportunity to make a difference.

“We wanted to improve the community in which we work by doing as much social uplift as we can,” says Stephens. “Committing ourselves to urban education and urban farming is how we believe we can improve the mental and physical wellness of our community.”

The pair have worked at Euclid High School for 15 years—he as a government teacher, and she as a science teacher. The idea of Urban Renaissance Farms came to them six years ago, as a way to connect with the land and their children in a more meaningful manner by spending time and energy growing outdoors. Stephens is the primary farmer, and Smialek the family and farm manager.

Developing the farm has been both labor-intensive and time consuming, an all-out family affair. The entire family digs in, including the five children, Kristen, 22; Kendra, 18; Katelyn, 17; Aaron, 12; and Damon, 9. The kids do everything from planting, weeding, turning compost, and watering to cleaning and sanitizing the farm's beekeeping equipment.

The family also relies on volunteers, extended family, and friends to help clear land and move soil from the road to areas prepared for planting. They rent small farm equipment as needed, including a sod cutter and a heavy-duty tiller. They own a weed whacker and a tiller.

Though Urban Renaissance Farms is not certified as an organic farm, its farming techniques are free of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Instead, Stephens and his family use certified organic products and natural methods to nourish the soil and ward off pests and other critters.

To the water the land, the farm uses a 550-foot fire hose to access water from a nearby fire hydrant and fill five 350-gallon cisterns located on the farm. The water is retrieved from the cisterns in buckets and watering cans to water plants directly.

But this could soon change. The city plans to install a waterline next spring that would provide water service to Urban Renaissance Farms and potentially reinvigorate a community garden on East 279th Street, according to Mayor Holzheimer Gail. With the waterline, the farm will be able to expand the scope of what it grows.

Smialek sees even greater potential for the farm. She is presently working toward a degree in counseling and sees an opportunity to incorporate spending time outdoors working on an urban farm as part of a mental health and physical wellness plan.

Stephens, who holds a doctorate in urban education, says he is learning as he goes. He regularly participates in agricultural seminars and conferences, as well as federally subsidized programs that are doing more to support new farmers. But many of the best lessons have happened right there at Urban Renaissance Farms.

“Our largest lesson has been to always work with the land, and not against it,” says Stephens. “When the deer eat your thorn-less berries, then grow some with thorns. When the soil by the gate gets swampy, then bring in chunks of old concrete you pull out of Lake Erie to shore up the entrance. Take what lessons and materials the land provides and work with what you have.”

This article is part of our On the Ground - Euclid community reporting project in partnership with City of Euclid, Euclid City Schools, Tri-C, and Cuyahoga County Board of Health. Read the rest of our coverage here.