Seeds of Change

Urban farming reverses unsustainable practices and cultivates community resources

Apr 9, 2014 at 12:39 am
click to enlarge Our Harvest Cooperative
Our Harvest Cooperative

Agriculture made the first cities possible — urban agriculture dates back to the first cities formed in Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. —  so it’s fitting that this ancient concept is now shaping urban areas of the future. In Cincinnati, locals from city planners to community groups are furthering the cause, forming progressive partnerships to plant food in the city as part of a growing movement to grow food on urban land.

Less than two percent of the food we buy is locally grown, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most supermarket sales still come through industrial supply chains, which involve prepping crops to withstand long truck hauls and even longer shelf lives. Quality and taste take a back seat to the numbers game.

But food conditions are changing rapidly. People are pushing back against pesticides and poor-quality food while supermarkets are pulling out of low-income neighborhoods. Those with the means to seek out quality food are doing so in increasing numbers, while low-income residents — who suffer disproportionately from nutrition-related health issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — find few options besides corner stores and gas stations.

One solution? Plant seeds.

“Growing food is in its biggest resurgence since World War II,” says Braden Trauth, adjunct professor of urban agriculture at the University of Cincinnati. “As fossil fuel prices rose in 2008, food prices rose. People started to see that our food supply is unstable.” 

As recently as 1943, people planted Victory Gardens in backyards, empty lots and rooftops to supplement food rationing and shortages during World War II, growing 41 percent of all the fresh produce Americans ate. Only after the rise of synthetic fertilizers and cheap fossil fuel did city residents stop growing their own food.

“The new wave of Victory Gardens has emerged,” says Peter Huttinger, community gardens coordinator at the Civic Garden Center in Walnut Hills.

For some, this burgeoning interest in growing food represents a victory over unsustainable practices embedded in our food supply — sterile monoculture fields, inorganic chemical fertilizers and crops transported thousands of miles. 

“Knowing where your food comes from is very important now,” Huttinger says. “People are concerned not just with pesticides, but with food standards and the ways animals are treated.”

For others, the new agrarianism strikes a blow for health equity and access.

Sixty-nine percent of Cincinnati residents live 1.5 miles or more from a mainstream grocery store, according to the Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group. That figure jumps to 82 percent for African-American residents.

The 25,000 households in Cincinnati without cars face even greater difficulty. Without easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, these people are at higher risk for hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and many preventable illnesses. 

In Avondale, where no grocery stores or sit-down restaurants exist, the only place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables is Gabriel’s Place, a nonprofit greenhouse-to-grocer that raises its own produce using a hoop house to start seeds and cold frames to grow kale and Brussels sprouts in winter months. The organization also helps people learn how to prepare food and hosts a community dinner every Tuesday, drawing Avondale residents together to share meals artfully prepared with fresh produce.

“We take the issue of food access seriously,” says Myrita Craig, Gabriel’s Place executive director. “People forget how basic and truly personal food is.”

Residents of Madisonville, Bond Hill, Spring Grove Village and Winton Hills face the food gap by taking matters into their own hands. 

These communities raise their own produce on several small urban farms with help from the Cincinnati Health Department. For these growers, planting a seed means staking a claim for a better life for themselves and their families.  

“The farms have a no-barriers policy,” says Tevis Foreman, director of the Health Department’s urban farming program. “Anyone can take food at any time, regardless of whether they helped grow it.”

Throughout Hamilton County, community plots grow food for more than 60,000 people whose average income is 25 percent below the federal poverty level, according to the CDC. This includes children who might not otherwise know how a ripe strawberry or a fresh tomato tastes. 

“We have a whole generation raised on processed food,” Huttinger says. “The community garden is a wonderful way to introduce them to real food. Through the dynamics of the group, children are excited to try new things.” 

* * *

Local agriculture supports more than personal health. It keeps money close to home, creating new jobs and reinvesting money into the local economy.

Oxfam America, an international organization dedicated to fighting poverty, hunger and injustice, estimates that for every dollar spent with a local farmer, three dollars go back into the community.

“We could keep $49 million in the regional economy if 10 percent of the population shifted just 10 percent of their food budget to locally produced food,” says Robin Henderson, program manager in Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability.

Local food also makes Cincinnati greener, reducing CO2 emissions by 3,000 tons a year. It opens up community space and puts blighted lots to better use.

The city of Cincinnati realizes this. Through its Urban Agriculture Program, the city leases 11 city-owned parcels for small-scale food production, providing seeds, compost, water taps and education to help farmers build healthy soil and grow sustainably. The sites can be used either for community gardens or as market farms to sell produce, Henderson says.

Ryan Doan cultivates his community-supported agriculture (CSA) business on a city plot in the East End. Doan, a former financial analyst, was inspired by a man he met in Mount Washington who grew 90 percent of his family’s food in his backyard. With a group of like-minded people, Doan formed Urban Greens, a mini-farm that produces food for its CSA members, downtown business workers and nearby restaurants like the BrewRiver GastroPub.

For Doan, Urban Greens is not just a business but also a means to honest food.

“Food that’s not sprayed with chemicals should be the norm, not the exception,” he says. “People should ask only one question about their produce: ‘When was it picked?’ If it was picked that day, it’s fresh. If it’s been sitting in a warehouse or on a truck for weeks, it’s dead.” 

* * *

Doan is among many locals forging new lives through farming. 

“More young people are choosing farming as a vocation,” Huttinger says. “They’re looking for meaningful work.”

Xavier University offers a degree in Land, Farming and Community that includes courses in agroecology and fieldwork in community gardens and farms; The University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati State award certificates in urban and sustainable agriculture. 

Findlay Market also trains new farmers. One of 16 programs supported by a USDA Community Food Projects grant, the Findlay Market Farms program teaches apprentices how to grow food commercially and sell it.

“We started this program to guarantee Findlay Market will have local foods to sell,” says Karen Kahle, Findlay Market’s resource development director.

“Apprentice farmers start seeds, grow plants and sell produce directly at Findlay Market and farmers’ markets,” she continues. “They keep the income from their sales, so they see what it’s like to run a small business.”

Permaganic, a nonprofit organization that promotes organic practices and low-maintenance, high-yield permaculture techniques, trains teenage farmers on its three-acre tract in Over-the-Rhine.

“We want kids to be able to grow their own food,” says Luke Ebner, Permaganic’s executive director.

“We also want them to think about the future, so we teach them how to compost and build soil,” Ebner says. “If they take care of the soil, the soil will take care of the food.” 

* * *

For Cincinnati to grow more food, more land must be committed to sustainable production and more farmers need to be trained. Our Harvest, a worker-owned cooperative in College Hill, recently began an incubator farm to work toward that goal.

Last year, Our Harvest grew 45,000 pounds of produce on land it leased in Wooden Shoe Hollow and at the 30-acre Bahr Farm in College Hill, feeding 200 CSA members and supplying fresh vegetables to a variety of retail outlets. In March, it leased 100 more acres to grow food in Morrow.

“Within four years, we expect to have 600 acres under production, which means 200 more jobs in the community,” says Kristen Barker, president of the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI), which created Our Harvest.

In December, the Green Umbrella Regional Sustainability Alliance assessed the state of local food in the Central Ohio River Valley and set a goal of doubling the percentage of local fruits and vegetables consumed in the region by 2020. The Green Umbrella report noted that despite its many community gardens, farmers’ markets, CSAs and urban farms, the region has just begun tapping the benefits of a strong local food network.

But the seeds have been sown.

“Growing food and supporting local farmers are the best things we can do for our future,” Trauth says. “If you don’t agree with the system, the most revolutionary thing you can do is plant a garden.” ©