While visions of urban agriculture have ranged from rooftop gardens to food-producing skyscrapers, a Cleveland business is pioneering its own model of farming in the city.

Taking Farming to Town

While visions of urban agriculture have ranged from rooftop gardens to food-producing skyscrapers, a Cleveland business is pioneering its own model of farming in the city.

Just off the main road, away from the asphalt and steel of industry, there’s a stillness at Green City Growers. In the sprawling greenhouse, the rows of plants appear endless.
This is economic development in the form of year-round, local produce, explained CEO Mary Donnell. At full capacity, the company, which opened earlier this year, will provide an annual haul of 300,000 pounds of herbs and 3 million heads of lettuce.

The fact that large-scale buyers have been quick to embrace the high-quality crop means a lot to the 28 employees who now work here.

As Donnell describes it, “The big vision is to transform lives and to transform neighborhoods.”

She’s referring to the mission of Evergreen Cooperatives, a Cleveland-based initiative to establish employee-owned, for-profit businesses that build the local economy. In addition to Green City Growers, the effort has also produced alternative energy and commercial laundry enterprises.

The idea is that as employees help grow the operation, they will share in the profits, establishing financial assets within the community. It’s that prospect that leads Donnell — who describes herself as “tough as nails” in business — to pause, her voice filling with emotion.

“I love horticulture and agriculture. I love fresh produce,” she said. “But I also want to change the face of poverty and hunger. And that’s what we are doing here.”
The employees, too, are invested well beyond their business stake. They’ve found plenty of pride in the process of growing food.

That’s clear as boisterous greetings of “How ya doin?” and “Welcome to Green City Growers!” come from a packaging line where they sort through the morning’s harvest.

“I love it. It’s my home away from home,” said Constance Suggs (below) while trimmingroots from a bundle of lettuce. “Just working together and seeing how we plant the seed and what it turns into and sharing it with our community.”

For Cleveland, it’s a promising sign. There’s as much as 3,000 acres of vacant ground that could be turned into productive plots. Donnell notes that even in an urban area, agriculture is sometimes the best of use of land. She has to look no farther than her own highly efficient hydroponic growing system that is 10 to 12 times as productive as field-grown crops.

It looks deceivingly simple. The seedlings are placed in trays that float in long shallow ponds. Their roots soak up nutrients from the water as they grow. The controlled environment results in pristine produce with a high focus on food safety.

It’s the type of product that metropolitan customers are clamoring for. It’s also part of the effort to increase access to fresh food in an underserved area. Green City Growers donates 1 percent of its harvest to be distributed to surrounding residents through the Cleveland Food Bank.

While this is the largest facility of its kind in a core urban area, it’s hard to say how much of the food demand will ultimately be met with such systems. But as the company continues to take root, it’s the local community where the impact is expected to be felt the most.

Every dollar generated by local food production tends to circulate in the economy two to three times, Donnell said. And she believes this model will change minds about the possibilities for the future of food.

“We can think about agriculture not only in the rural landscape,” she said. “But certainly in the urban landscape.”