The Urban Farming Revolution Comes To Cincinnati

Urban farming isn't easy. Soils are rock-hard and contaminated, markets are tough to develop and space for crops is limited. In fact, farming is tough enough in rural areas. So why do it in the city?

Ask Megan Hill, 26, one of Cincinnati's newest urban farmers.

As a mentor with the CHEF (Cultivating Healthy Environments for Farmers) program at Findlay Market, which is in its first full year, Hill was mentoring a crew of low-income residents so they could all earn a profit on a small plot of land. When her crew realized they'd have to wait until August to make money, they quit, Findlay Market's Urban Farm Manager Ken Stern said.

Working her plot by herself about 30 hours a week, Hill takes produce on Tuesdays and Sundays to Findlay Market, when crowds are sparse. The soil in the garden needs time to improve, and the yields are not high. People sneak into the garden at night and pick food. One morning, she arrived to find her five best tomato plants lying in an alley.

Hill presses on, she said, with the knowledge that she is laying the groundwork for a program that can, in time, bring fresh food to people who need it, and also provide jobs for them.

The garden is a pocket of beauty that draws in curious passersby, and Stern said its soils, and markets, will be greatly improved in the wake of this year's lessons learned.

The CHEF garden at Elm and Liberty is the latest and perhaps most ambitious of dozens of vegetable gardens growing in the urban reaches of Cincinnati. Some are community gardens that feed the people who work in them, and others operate under a hybrid concept with a market program and grant funding or volunteer labor that keep them growing.

Another program, Permaganic, prepares youth for their first job by putting them to work in a garden four hours a week and providing monetary rewards for hard work.

Permaganic has an established peach orchard and rows of tomatoes, squash and chard growing in a small fenced plot on a large swath of green space across the street from the old Rothenberg school. Half of their plot, and most of the green space around it, sits on land slated for housing development by the City of Cincinnati. Operations manager Luke Ebner hopes that once Rothenberg is remodeled he and Permaganic's executive director, his wife Angela, can establish a formal collaboration with the school. He ultimately hopes to strike an agreement with the city to cultivate about half of the green space, and encourage eco-friendly affordable housing on the remainder.

Permaganic is opening a storefront just north of Liberty on Main St. in October, and Ebner has been selected to sit on a new city board for urban agriculture.

Soon, more urban gardens will be popping as part of the City of Cincinnati's Urban Gardening Program, funded by a Department of Energy grant. The local rise of urban gardens is in step with a national trend that continues to gain momentum.

This Sunday, the man who many consider to be the leader of the urban farming revolution will be coming to Cincinnati.

Will Allen is a former professional basketball player who's farm, Growing Power, raises $250,000 worth of food every year on two acres in a low-income Milwaukee, Wisconsin neighborhood, with a few satellite gardens on the city's outskirts. The operation includes greenhouses fueled by solar panels and 10,000 gallon tilapia tanks that produce a waste water byproduct which fertilizes crops. His group composts over a million pounds of food and carbon waste - and trains over 1500 new urban farmers - every year, he said.

The farm, and Allen's 6 ft 7 frame which is always clad in a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt, have become a symbol for American urban farming and last year he was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people.  Allen will bring his message to Schiff Family Conference Room at Xavier's Cintas Center this Sunday, September 26 at 7 p.m. as part of the school's Ethics/Religion and society lecture series.

On his way home from a day on the farm Allen talked with me about the urban farming revolution and getting good food to the tables of low-income families.

"To do urban agriculture you have to grow the soil, but the first thing you have to do is to engage the community," he said. "The whole idea of urban agriculture is to do it in a kind of communal way, and involve volunteers - involve just about everybody. You want the community you're working in to look at you as an asset and if you're not looked at as an asset, if you have any problems, you have nobody to protect you."

Allen said urban farmers should start with the youth, and then the parents will get on board. From there, "politicos" and city officials will join the ranks. His most tried and true method, he said, is "just getting to know folks over some really good food."

Growing Power now supplies supermarkets, corporate cafeterias and the Milwaukee public school system. They are known for their $16 "market baskets" that have 20 lbs of food, which are bought by both millionaires and people who earn $5,000 a year, he said.

"Poor people can go out - and it's unfortunate - they can pay $30 or whatever a carton of cigarettes costs, but for $16 they can feed their family for a week," he said. "It's a very dignified thing to pay for your food. You feel good about it, and it leads towards other positive things."

Producing affordable food consistently with sustainable methods in confined space takes a really long time to do well, Allen said.

"The key thing to the whole process is being patient," he said. "You add the pieces of the puzzle as you move along the continuum."

Growing Power has built economies of scale that allow it to buy expensive solar heating systems and machinery needed to produce thousands of pounds of compost every month. Soon they will break ground on a five-story vertical farm, which Allen said will be the first of its kind in the world.

Allen said the large glass building isn't meant to be flashy, or aesthetically pleasing, but utilitarian. They will be able to educate more people and grow more food on a small plot of land. He insists that the thing that makes their model work is that it is based on small scale concepts, which the thousands who visit their farm each year can wrap their heads around.

"When people drive across the country and they see these industrial farm fields of hundreds of acres and thousands of acres they look at that and say 'I can't do that,' but when they get to view something like what we're doing, I want  them to be able to say, 'I can do that,'" he said. "And that's what happens."

Seating is very limited, and doors open at 6 p.m.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Megan Hill at work in The CHEF garden
Megan Hill, photography by Jody Bunn
Impact Over-the-Rhine eco garden
Little Miss Dean working hard in the Relish Restaurant Group garden
The CHEF garden at Elm and Liberty
Luke Ebner at the OTR Eco garden

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