Despite confines, Eden Urban Gardens bears fruit in Avondale

April Pandora always pictured herself working on a farm one day. Then, in 2016, while pursuing her degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Management at Cincinnati State, she had a powerful dream. It was like a calling, she says. 

“I thought I would just work for somebody on a farm. I had been working on farms in different capacities, plus my other job, for several years by that time. I had a dream I was selling produce as my own farm, not for somebody else,” says Pandora. “And I felt very led by the dream, which I feel like was god speaking to me, to start my own urban farm.”

Pandora and her family began the task of bringing this dream to life immediately. They started small, and set up the initial locations of Eden Urban Gardens, LLC on the west side, where they happened to live, with 1,200 square feet on two sites.

When asked why she chose urban farming rather than saving up to procure her own plot the country, Pandora says, “This is the situation I was in, and this is where the opportunity presented itself. So that’s where I felt led to go. “

Times were tough at first. Pandora and her family struggled to make ends meet, working their fingers to the bone to get the farm up and running. They built up over the next two seasons to a little over half an acre, eventually leaving a lease arrangement to purchase their own land.

“That process in itself took two and a half years,” says Pandora. “The amount of time involved in these types of things is just astounding.”

Urban Farming, she cautions, involves a lot more than just frolicking around in the sunshine as crops spring forth. It is a complex and uncommon business to run, with reams of red tape encircling everything involved in the process. It is back breaking labor on a daily basis. It is management of growing and growers and consumers; distribution methods and outlets; forms and procedures and certifications; budgets and billing; securing funding for new and existing projects…the list goes on.

But Pandora loves what she does and feels blessed to be able to do it.

“I looked at hundreds of properties and applications with the land bank, putting in offers and not having enough. Just a very, very challenging process, but here we are six seasons later. We have multiple sites that we farm, and instead of just leasing the land we own it, which is a big difference in these contract situations,” she says.

“A lot of people think you can get a vacant lot for a hundred bucks, and you throw some seeds around and you skip in the sunshine. We are solely reliant on sales to support the farm and support ourselves. We don’t have another charity or organization coming in and doing that,” she says. “We have to educate people about what urban farming is, what it is not, what we are doing, and what we are not doing.”

Pandora says she has faced much resistance from neighbors who presume that farming ought to be a country occupation and should not be present in their communities. She also believes they are concerned about what is being done to the properties in their neighborhoods, preferring other types of development.

“We have a right as property owners to grow fruits and vegetables on our land. We have had people threaten us. If you’re not like other people they will go after you. We have to not be intimidated,” says Pandora.

“They are fearful,” she continues. “We have addressed that through building relationships — having people come out for tours. And I would say that, for the most part, when people come and see the way we’re doing things, it changes their minds — because they don’t really have anything to draw from as far as commercial urban farms.”

While the concept of urban farming may be unfamiliar to some, it is far from new. When confronted with criticism from opponents of her practices, Pandora stresses that they are quite common in much of the world.

“I think it’s happening maybe more globally than in the United States. If we look on a global scale there’s a lot of urban farms, especially in places like Cuba,” says Pandora, citing the country’s history and geographical nature as agents that brought about this characteristic. “People were in a food crisis. It’s an island. Things weren’t coming in, so they ended up doing a lot of urban farming to sustain themselves. And they kind of have taken a lead on that. They were able to grow produce and raise small animals for protein.”

Cuba’s past needs necessitated its people’s move toward urban agriculture. In modern day Cincinnati, environmental and health concerns drive urbanites toward obtaining not just fresh, but locally grown, organic produce. Many aspire to support local businesses and leave the smallest carbon footprint possible. Eden Urban Gardens is built around fulfilling those noble desires.

“We are here for the community. We want to feed everybody. We believe in having access to quality produce. Everyone should have that option. That’s our focus: growing quality produce and making that accessible to the city, to the urban communities,” says Pandora.

Providing such access is no small feat, but Eden Urban Gardens tries to offer its products to as many members of the community as possible.  Operating as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) organization, Eden Urban Gardens has shareholders who front the farm’s expenses for producing a season’s worth of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Pandora explains: “There’s all of these startup expenses each season. You have soil amendments, certification fees, taxes — you have to pay that up front.”

A standard membership currently runs $505, and supplies shareholders with 24 weeks of the farm’s fresh, organic produce — which can be delivered in select, nearby communities, or picked up at local farmer’s markets for those further out.

Recalling her own financial struggle while establishing the business, Pandora saw to it that she could accept WIC as a method of payment. The Clifton famers market pick up location also accepts EBT and Produce Perks.

“We also currently have a working shareholder who works in exchange for a discounted rate on produce. We would be open to taking on three or four, because we have different tasks for different things. But the work is hard. It’s moderate to heavy labor at times,” says Pandora.

The weekly Bounty Bags supplied to shareholders are highly customized. Before receiving a first delivery, recipients of these goods must fill out a detailed profile describing their household’s dietary needs and preferences.

“We often take notes on if anyone has allergies in the house, if they eat a lot of salads, how many people are living at the home. We’re able to better serve them with that information. We really focus on trying to diversify and collaborate with other farms in our region to get other items like honey or maple syrup. They don’t have to go to a farmer’s market. All of that is customized, and all of that is coming to their doorstep. It’s a good product and a good deal I think,” says Pandora.

Varieties of fruits and vegetables currently produced by the farm include melons, peppers, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, pears, paw paws, and many types of greens and herbs.

Pandora takes pride in the fact that all of these crops are certified organic.

“We have a six-plus hour inspection every year, and they go out to all our sites and they want to know when you planted this, and how much did it produce, and where are your sanitation sheets and your log sheets. They’ll go through all your seed catalogs,” she says. “For me, it does make us a better farm because we’re keeping those detailed records. It shows that we’re willing to do this to show our customers that we’re doing this in a sustainable way. Otherwise, it’s really just the farmer’s word, which might be enough for some people, not for others.”

In addition to the struggles she faces educating naysayers about urban farming, Pandora also feels that she faces backlash from the community for being a woman farmer and involving her children in the labor of production.  Again, she cites a global, rather than local, example.

“Most farmers in the world are women. Oftentimes the man is trying to get some sort of work doing something else, so the idea of a woman farmer is not a new concept. Women are also managing the children and assigning the chores and the logistical end of the household,” says Pandora.

As far as putting her children to work in the fields, she says she adheres to a different set of expectations and morals than many in today’s society, and that her children enjoy their roles in helping the family business. She says that even at ages 12 and 15, they still find childlike joy in watching the crops grow and harvesting them from the fields.

“Both of my children are involved, and I mean, like, work.  It’s not like they pick a few things and sit down and somebody’s on a phone or whatever. It’s ‘work’ work. Sometimes people appreciate that — and sometimes people are critical and think that kids working is a bad thing, and that they should be sitting all day being indulged,” says Pandora.

She believes our current culture and leisurely way of life is crippling to humanity.

“People are just not very physical. We’re out of shape as a society. A lot of people are overweight.  Some young people even have little to no outdoor experience. They’ve never used shears or mowed a lawn before,” laments Pandora.

That said, she has unfortunately had to counter local schools who endeavor to bring student tour groups to the farm because she is unable to provide a safe experience.

“We have had to explain to the community that we are not the type of urban farm where we can bring in 30 kids from the elementary school and let them run around and possibly get scraped by the metal and the tools. There’s liability and food safety,” she acknowledges.

On the upside, Pandora and her family have been receiving a lot of attention from local media these days. Pandora was recently featured in a roundtable discussion with a group of other local, urban farmers on WVXU. She also made the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer.
“I was a little surprised when I saw us on the front page. I was like, ’Oh my goodness. I thought we’d be in the lifestyle section!’” she recalls.

Additionally, Pandora has been a trailblazer of late in the push toward improving Cincinnati’s sustainability — increasing her farm’s capacity for producing mass amounts of fresh produce year round by installing a piece of advanced growing technology known as a high tunnel.

“It’s been in since December. We’ve grown a ton of produce in it and it’s been a game changer as far as making things available earlier in the season — and it will be a game changer as far as having things available later in the season and into the winter,” says Pandora, excitedly.

The entire process was a challenge. Pandora faced several hurdles going through variances to get her land and location approved by council, while community members vocally disapproved of the project.

Pandora says she then required a continuance and had to pay for the hearing, as well as a geotech survey from an engineer.

She waited months for approval while sweating a deadline associated with the application timeline in relation to actual installation. After the project was finally approved, taking out trees and brush to accommodate the structure cost another $2,500.

Just as with every challenge she has faced, she says it was all worth it in the end. She is proud, not of the only of the heaps of produce coming out of the high tunnel, but also at how she has paved the way for other urban farmers and organizations to be able to have the same opportunity in the future.

“We were the first ones to build our high tunnel in Cincinnati through the USDA Cincinnati High Tunnel Initiative Program — to go through the process, the grants, everything — and to build it,” says Pandora. “It was a pilot program, and this year they’re taking applications for 2021. So that’s a real big deal to take the lead on a project and have the USDA say, ‘We’ve seen what this can do and we’re going to continue it.‘“

“We’re really grateful for the USDA and all their agents who just work tirelessly with us,” she says. “Not even just with us, but also with the city and with zoning.”

To become a shareholder or learn more, visit their Facebook page.
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.