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A lush green landscape, sheds, mini-greenhouses and compost bins look a tad out of place next to a soaring red brick Victorian across from a Wendy’s in Olde Towne East, only a dozen or so blocks outside downtown Columbus.
Since 2014 Jim Bruner and his husband, Rick, have cultivated and lived in the urban oasis that explores “the intersection between technology, culture, agriculture and our potential of helping people understand their relationship not only to themselves and health, but to food and the rest of the world and the emerging global implications of access to food, access to water and food deserts,” he said. “Here at Mezzacello Urban Farms, our mission is super simple – grow, maintain, sustain and explain.”
That simple four-word mission took on a new meaning last summer for middle schoolers who were able to come to Mezzacello and immerse themselves in weeklong camps that explored some of the seven ecosystems on one-third of an acre in the middle of an urban food desert.
“I was gifted the great opportunity through an Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation Youth Pathways grant to run a series of summer camps here. That really expanded my vision of what ‘grow, maintain, sustain and explain’ could actually be,” he said. “I work with young people in an educational, informal context all the time. One of the questions that we’re not encouraged to ask kids is what do you want to be when you grow up? However, the Youth Pathways grant reframed that context and allowed me to build programming around what they’re interested in and what that would look like as a career. So it’s a profoundly different thing to ask a kid, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ to ‘look at this, wasn’t this cool?’ When you encourage and empower young people to ask themselves questions that they never get the opportunity to ask, it’s really a surprising impact, and that was my favorite thing about the Youth Pathways grant from last summer.”
Bruner named his Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation’s Youth Pathway Grant project BioLEGO because he wanted this to be the first block in a chain of systems that bring the Mezzacello idea to other neighborhoods in need.
“It can be replicated. It’s designed to be modular. It comes with its own power system, its own water generation system, its own compost generation system and animals, plants and humans dedicated to working that garden in the appropriate time,” he said.
Bruner, who is hosting the middle school camps again this summer, is employed as Sultan of Systems at the PAST Foundation. That’s really his title, and looking at his professional past, it makes sense.
“I went into industrial design because I love why things work and how things work, and then I realized I didn’t want to work in industrial design because I’m not interested in designing a better yogurt maker. I’m interested in changing the world,” he said.
“At my job at the PAST Foundation I apply all my various disciplines and learning outcomes to helping young people understand how applied STEM really works, and what they’re going to need to change the world.”
“Food is really an important crisis point for me,” Bruner said, who has a medical condition that prevents him from being able to digest anything other than fresh, unprocessed food. “I need access to fresh food, and it just seemed like a no-brainer to create a facility to train and empower kids to learn how to grow food when there’s no food available.”
Along with the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation, he counts The Columbus Foundation, Scotts Miracle-Gro, and his neighbors in Olde Towne East as key partners. As well as Rick, of course, who is the chef in the family.
“You cannot be a castle, castles are not sustainable,” he said. “Siege them once and they’re done. It really needs to be a community, and it’s an ecosystem of people, ideas, agriculture and partners. So that’s what I really want you to walk away from knowing. This is not an isolated thing. I want you to take my ideas and use them all.”
Mezzacello’s 7 sustainable ecosystems
Jim Bruner, the self-proclaimed alpha predator of Mezzacello Urban Farms, has carefully planned and executed seven separate ecosystems on less than an acre of land in Olde Towne East, 10 blocks from the Statehouse in Columbus. Here he briefly explains the purpose of each one:
Formal Gardens: It just brings everybody joy. It brings me biomass. It’s green. There’s lots of leaves here. Lots of grass. It also attracts pollinators. So the various fountains attract pollinators, and I have the pollinator runway, which brings bees and butterflies and other birds and insects into my gardens to pollinate.
Aquatic: My pond is my aquatic ecosystem. It provides water in the winter and in the summer. It provides me plants, algae, fish for protein, because I eat them. It also creates humidity in my gardens.
Parterre Gardens: Medicinal herbs and culinary herbs help keep me healthy and flavor my food.
Potager Gardens: This is where I grow food and use compost to grow food more effectively.
Compost Generation Systems: Robotic systems that accelerate compost generation. I have tons of compost.
Main House: I bring food in and I bring waste out, and so it processes food for every one of these other ecosystems.
Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation’s Youth Pathways grants
Leveraging the resources of the Fisher Fund for Lifelong Learning, Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation launched a Youth Pathways initiative in 2018, focused on introducing students to and training them for careers in food, agricultural and environmental sciences. Each year, organizations throughout the state are invited to submit proposals for innovative projects that would help to address the need to attract more young people to careers in these fields.
Mezzacello Urban Farms was one of two 2021 recipients of the Youth Pathways for Careers in Agriculture Grants. A total of $100,000 was split between Mezzacello and the Noble Local School District.
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