Farming on the Fringe

With development pressure extending from 11 metropolitan areas, Ohio lost one-third of its farmland between 1950 and 2000.  As cities and suburbs continue to swell, farmers find themselves fighting traffic, answering to neighbors and struggling to maintain and afford productive land.

But even in Ohio’s three largest cities – Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati – farmers have learned to adapt.  They are blending rural living with urban amenities and finding new ways to give a fresh look to the concrete and asphalt that surrounds them.

Life in the “Greenhouse Center of America” has changed over the years for third-generation farmer Kim Rassi. She grew up helping her family grow greenhouse tomatoes in the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn Heights and is proud that her grandfather was one of the original builders of a style of greenhouse that became the standard for commercial greenhouse structures. The greenhouse industry was so successful that Brooklyn Heights once had more than 100 acres under glass.

Imports from other countries started to chip away at the Rassi family’s business and when her parents retired, she and her brother switched to a successful business of growing bedding plants and flowers during the 1980s. When the cost of natural gas skyrocketed eight years ago, Rassi’s brother retired early, leaving her the farm. Her daughter’s middle school science teacher inspired the next phase of her career – raising alpacas.

“I saw the teacher’s alpacas at school and thought to myself `This couldn’t be livestock.’ I did some research and went to an alpaca show in Columbus and came home and said `What have I been doing for the last 20 years? Why didn’t we close the greenhouses earlier?’ A light bulb went on,” said Rassi, a Cuyahoga County Farm Bureau member.

Today, Rassi has 60 female alpacas and 10 males that roam her 12-acre Vintage Alpaca farm located just 5 miles from the heart of downtown Cleveland. The alpacas are sold all over the country and spinners pay a premium price for fiber that is gray and brown. The animals have 24-hour access to a large industrial garage that was once used for packaging tropical plants. A chain link fence keeps the alpacas on the property and domestic dogs away from them.

“People are shocked when I tell them that I raise alpacas just outside Cleveland. When they come to see my operation, their jaws drop,” Rassi said.

Next door is the Rosby Companies, which has one of the few greenhouses still in operation in the area. Like Rassi and many farmers in urban and suburban areas, Farm Bureau member Bill Rosby has had to make changes to his family operation as “suburbia continues to creep in.” Brooklyn Heights is now mostly a community of residential property and light industry, and both Rassi and Rosby have felt pressure to sell their land for operations that generate more tax revenue.

The Rosby Companies offers a wide variety of services on its 70 acres: a full-service garden center, 16-acre berry farm, mulch and soil products and recycling center for both yard waste and construction debris. For more than three decades, Rosby’s pick-your-own strawberry operation was popular.

“It used to be that people would take a wagon out in the fields and pick 15 to 20 pounds of strawberries,” he said. “Now strawberries are available all year long in the grocery stores and a lot of people now go out only for one quart, more for entertainment.”

Rosby and his wife, Kathy, have shifted their focus to raspberries and said people are willing to drive farther to pick the fresh berries. The couple is using its old greenhouses to experiment with other antioxidant-rich small fruits such as blackberries and elderberries and unique vegetables such as edible pumpkins.

“We are always trying something new, always reinventing ourselves to find what people are interested in,” he said.

More than 100 miles to the southwest, just outside Columbus is Neall Weber’s corn, soybean, wheat and hay operation, which is spread out over 2,100 acres. Weber, a fourth-generation farmer and Franklin County Farm Bureau member, also has felt the pressure of Hilliard’s residential housing industry, which experienced huge growth in the early 1990s. Last year Hilliard opened its third high school, surrounded by one of Weber’s 500-acre farms. Ten years ago when the city’s second high school opened, it too was in the middle of a field. Today it is surrounded by development.

“When you build a new school, it makes sense to live near it and developers capitalize on that,” Weber said. “The Achilles heel of our operation is that there are several property owners that we rent land from and we could lose half our acreage at the signing of a slip of paper. It weighs heavy on your mind.”

Weber, who farms with his father and uncle, has started buying land in rural areas of Madison County in case he starts losing his prime Hilliard farmland. But his heart remains on staying in Hilliard and continuing the family farming tradition started by his German grandfather decades ago.

“I love where I live. It’s convenient. Everything is nearby and I can be in downtown Columbus for a hockey game in 15 minutes. I like the freedom of farming. I get to create my own schedule, although Mother Nature has a lot of say in that,” he laughed.

Weber is respectful of his suburban neighbors and tries to keep his heavy, slow moving equipment off the roads during the busy travel times. During the week, it can be a challenge avoiding the work commuters and school schedule; he has found 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. is the best time.

Having a farm in a suburban area is an excellent way to remind people where their food comes from and show them how today’s farms operate, Weber said.

“I’m proud knowing that I’m contributing to society by feeding people. We are fortunate that the United States provides the safest and least expensive food in the world,” he said. “I love going into a place where somebody doesn’t know me and when they find out I’m a farmer, they are intrigued and always ask a question or two. I always do my best to answer them and speak from the heart.”

In suburban Cincinnati, third-generation farmer David Motz welcomes an increase in residential housing because it means more potential business. He and his brother Daniel operate Motz Turf Farms Ltd., a turfgrass operation that is 10 miles east of the city’s downtown. The Hamilton County Farm Bureau members grow about 200 acres of fescue and Bluegrass. The turf is shipped within a 100-mile radius in the tri-state area and used for everything from athletic fields to golf courses to sewer restoration projects.

The turfgrass is planted in early fall and takes about a year to harvest. The Motz brothers try not to grow more turfgrass than is needed because “we hate to mow grass that has no home,” Motz said. Being in the middle of a suburb is ideal because the business doesn’t have to transport the sod as far and residents can easily stop by to pick up their own turfgrass.

“We try to advertise that we are open to the public and that you can come in and buy one piece of sod for your dog to do his business in the winter time or come in for a large semiload,” Motz said.

The strong market for sod in suburban areas has helped offset some of the cons of being so close to a large city. Motz said eminent domain remains a constant threat and that vandals over the past couple of years have caused thousands of dollars in damage by driving their cars through his fields.

In Cleveland, Rassi has had people throw plastic and other items into her pasture to see if the alpacas would eat them. But by being in the city, her alpacas are safe from coyotes and white tail deer, which carry a parasite that is dangerous to the animals. And Rassi loves being just minutes from Cleveland’s many cultural events.
“I don’t want to be in nowhere land. I’m too much of a city girl,” she said. “My property has sentimental value. I know every inch of it and could drive it with my eyes closed. It’s near and dear to my heart because it has been in my family for generations.”

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.

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