You don’t have to move to warmer climates (South Beach, anyone?) to enjoy the benefits of locally grown lettuce, herbs and other fresh produce in Cleveland during the winter.
With help from Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), Cleveland Crops — an urban farming program run by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities (CCBDD) — is defying the region’s usually cold winters to expand the growing season and keep people employed year-round.
At the program’s Stanard Farm — located in Cleveland’s east side on the former site of an elementary school — farm manager Gerry Gross and his staff are using a variety of season-extension techniques, such as high tunnels and low tunnels, to grow as many things as possible for as long as possible.
Lettuce, beets and carrots in December and January. Parsley and other herbs throughout most of the winter.
“They actually earn a living working here,” said Gross of his “consumers,” the term he and his colleagues use to refer to people with disabilities assisted by CCBDD. “The No. 1 reason we started this program is to create jobs. The main objective is to decrease the amount of revenue that taxpayers are paying. There are some consumers who have already been removed from the taxpayer’s roll and are living on their own from the wages that they earn here. It helps to get them out of the home, gives them more freedom and the satisfaction of having a job.”
Cleveland Crops began in 2010 at the 1.1-acre Stanard location with the goal of providing new job opportunities to a segment of the population that typically lacks them. Since then, the program has added acreage by committing to several other sites throughout Cleveland, including in Ohio City, the East 105th-St. Clair area, and South Euclid.
Extending the season
While the program has been successful in its main drive to employ people with developmental disabilities, it was quickly realized that the farming off-season would pose a problem for these workers. “We didn’t want to lay them off during the winter,” Gross said. “I love pushing the envelope and believe it is possible to have fresh produce available in Cleveland during the winter.”
So Gross — combining his personal experience growing food in the much-harsher North Dakota weather conditions and technical advice from Ohio State horticultural and agricultural engineering experts — began experimenting with season-extension techniques that are becoming popular among gardeners and farmers alike throughout the country.
Stanard Farm now has two high tunnels — plastic-covered, metal-frame structures that look like greenhouses but are much cheaper to build and operate. Inside, a variety of crops grow in raised beds erected from the bricks of the old school and further protected from frost by fabric row covers. Gross is also experimenting with low tunnels — three-foot-high bent-conduit structures positioned along raised beds and covered with plastic, and which the consumers themselves build at the farm’s shop with assistance from staff. The low tunnels cost only one-tenth as much as the high tunnels, Gross said.
“Thanks to these efforts, this winter we have eight to 10 staff fully employed, and 20 to 25 consumers employed part-time,” Gross said. “We plan to have even more people employed in the coming year.”
Vicky Hamm, a job coach, is a new member of the staff at Stanard Farm. While washing Jerusalem artichokes (the root of a type of sunflower plant) with frigid water, she explained she found out about this program while looking for urban farming opportunities. “I love working with the consumers; they are really fun, they do their work and they do it well,” Hamm said. “I also like getting to go to the different restaurants that use our crops and seeing them on the menu.”
Cleveland Crops’ main customers are area restaurants that like to incorporate local foods in their menus and like to experiment with “unique produce,” as Gross puts it. Some retail stores also purchase produce from Cleveland Crops, including Nature’s Bin, an upscale natural and organic products store in Lakewood. While not certified organic, all of Cleveland Crops’ fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
“Their produce is better than anything I can get in the entire city, without spending a lot of money. I can get great vegetables, great quality and great diversity,” said Jack Ahern, chef de cuisine at L’Albatros Brasserie and Bar in Cleveland, who in January was buying lettuce, Swiss chard and beets from Stanard Farm. “I’d love to have more produce available as this project grows. We are ready to grow with them. It’s a win-win, a best-case scenario for the city. It speaks to what we are striving to accomplish for Cleveland.”
Kidron Shavers, a young man with developmental disabilities who has been employed at Stanard Farm since the beginning of the project, is enthusiastic about his work. He attended an 8-week training session offered by OSU Extension’s master gardeners in 2010 and has been honing a variety of skills ever since, whether laying brick to construct raised beds or tending the crops. He also grows a vegetable garden at his home.
“I like helping the other consumers, teaching them how to do stuff,” Shavers said. “And I enjoy growing food that I know is healthy because it doesn’t have any chemicals in it.”
A partner from the very beginning of the program, OSU Extension has trained all of the consumers and staff who are now working for Cleveland Crops. “Extension also assisted the administrators here who didn’t have any farming experience or knowledge about how to actually start a farming program, and provides a lot of technical advice on crop selection, pest control, marketing,” Gross said. This relationship is set to expand even further, as the Cuyahoga County office of OSU Extension will be moving to a building on the Stanard site once it’s renovated.
Cleveland Crops is only one of several urban gardening or farming initiatives supported by OSU Extension in Cuyahoga County. “So far we have generated 49 new local foods microenterprises through our educational training programs,” said Marie Barni, director of the county’s OSU Extension office.
Next for Cleveland Crops is the construction of a greenhouse to boost year-round production of fruits and vegetables, and to add high-value crops such as flowers. OARDC has been providing technical advice for that endeavor. And while neighbors come by to buy produce from Stanard Farm during the year, Gross said he would like to have a more established farmer’s market and sell prepared foods and other packaged items to increase profit and employ even more people.
With plenty of land available due to decades of manufacturing and population decline, Cleveland is quickly becoming a national leader in urban agriculture –an emerging sector that Gross and Barni hope will help revitalize communities and generate much-needed jobs. A 2010 study sponsored by several nonprofit organizations found that if northeast Ohio met 25 percent of its food demand with local food production, it would create 27,000 new jobs, increase annual regional output by $4.2 billion, and boost the tax base by $126 million.
OSU Extension and OARDC are the outreach and research arms, respectively, of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.