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Downtown on the Farm

Urban farming offers productive uses for vacant city lots

By Julie Hotchkiss · July 8th, 2009 · News

President Eisenhower said that farming looks easy “when your plow is a pencil and you’re 1,000 miles from the cornfield.” Many would-be gardeners enjoy plowing through seed catalogs, but others in Greater Cincinnati have moved from the “easy” part to tilling, planting and tending to new urban farms in lots and backyards across the city.

When planning an urban farm, you don’t just need soil and seeds and shovels — you also need liability insurance and lead testing. Such challenges haven’t deterred a hardy new crop of urban farmers here. Some have been growing food crops within the city limits for a few years, but for many, this is their first year of farming. Inspired by the trend to “think green” and an economy that makes grow-it-yourself appealing, they are getting assistance from government and civic organizations.

Cincinnati officials announced a pilot program in February to turn vacant city-owned property into garden plots, and there are now farms in six city neighborhoods, including Northside, Westwood, South Cumminsville, Madisonville, California and Over-the-Rhine.

The Green Cincinnati Plan committee made the initial recommendation to use city-owned land more productively. The city identified 18,000 vacant lots and selected several properties that were level and unshaded. Interested groups then filled out applications to lease the plots for a nominal fee.

City engineers tested the soil to check lead levels on the sites (each of which tested well within federal safety limits). They also offered expertise from naturalists and made park tools available. The potential farmers had to provide proof of insurance, usually through a community council, and were responsible for seeds, plants and anything else they needed for farming since the program currently has no funding.

The urban farmers were up to the task. In the Over-the-Rhine garden on Walnut near 14th Street, the community council worked with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members and Mayor Mark Mallory’s Young Professionals Kitchen Cabinet to find donations of wood for vegetable beds, and they are planning a greenhouse made from recycled two-liter pop bottles.

Michelle Dillingham, aide to urban farming advocate Vice Mayor David Crowley, works in the Walnut Street garden weekly. “This is land use that can make an impact through food production,” she says.

The city has applied for a federal energy block grant that includes funding for urban farming. If that grant is approved, the program will have a $75,000 budget to allow it to expand in 2010, according to Dillingham.

Tiffaney Hardy helps administer the project from the city manager’s office and recognizes its potential. “It was intended to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to residents of urban neighborhoods,” she says.

But it has also had some unexpected benefits, such as helping to maintain vacant lots that would normally be overgrown with weeds and littered with trash. “The gardens have encouraged people to work with their neighbors and have also inspired creative ways to recycle and reuse everything from the water supply to building materials,” Hardy says.

She predicts that the intangible benefits will be as important as the harvest this summer. A citizens’ advisory group helps monitor the farms and will prepare a report on the pilot program sometime in October.

Other groups not affiliated with the city’s program are also making an impact on the local urban farming front. The Relish Restaurant Group — which includes JeanRo’s, Lavomatic, Greenup Café and Chalk — has a farm lot at 13th and Walnut streets near Grammer’s. Chef Justin Dean was interested when Relish owners Martin and Marilyn Wade offered the lot, which is slated for development in the future, as a farm site.

“I grew up on a farm, so I nominated myself to get the project started,” Dean says.

Chef Mark Bodenstein of Chalk in Covington is particularly interested in using locally sourced foods for his menu. They’re growing eggplant, peppers, beets, many varieties of tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, and snow peas and will rotate crops throughout the season.

A few restaurant employees and the two chefs are doing the farm work, which Dean estimates takes 30-40 hours a week. But he thinks the results are well worth the time invested.

The Avondale Youth Council’s gardens along Reading Road are well-established and thriving. The gardens are supported by a coalition that includes the Avondale Community Council, a Health Alliance outreach program, and Closing the Health Gap in Cincinnati, an organization working to eliminate health risks in minority populations by promoting healthy living.

“What do we grow?” asks Fulton Jefferson, the Avondale Council member who coordinates the youth gardens. “Easier to tell you what we don’t grow. We’ll try anything that goes in the ground.”

Jefferson says that the kids learn how to plant, tend and harvest what they grow and sell some of the produce at a weekly farmer’s market at Hirsch Recreation Center. Closing the Health Gap helps with the planting and shows kids how to cook what they have grown, teaching them that fresh vegetables can be delicious and keep them healthy.

This year, seniors in the area approached Jefferson about participating, and now several neighborhood churches have started their own gardens, encouraged by the success of the Avondale Youth Council’s urban farming venture.

The Enright Ridge Eco-Village in Price Hill has been working for years to create a sustainable city neighborhood, and urban farming fits in with their goals. In February, they organized a community-sustained agriculture project, known as a CSA, coordinated by Charles Griffin, who has set up CSA farms in the state of California and in southeast Indiana.

They’re currently farming in six backyard gardens and recently acquired an abandoned greenhouse so they can extend their growing season. Members pay a fee and agree to volunteer at least 30 hours a year for a share of the produce. In June they harvested greens, herbs, turnips and radishes.

Twenty-first century farming includes staying connected. The Enright Ridge CSA has a newsletter for its members, and the city’s pilot program has encouraged its urban farmers to keep blogs to track their efforts.

University of Cincinnati students and faculty working an urban farm in Westwood have been posting to their blog since early April at ucurbanfarm.blogspot.com. You can see the progress they’ve made and read about the windmill and solar panels that provide power on their farm — they even have a webcam to let armchair farmers watch the plants grow.

This summer in Cincinnati farms aren’t 1,000 miles away — they’re right around the corner, in city neighborhoods and even online.



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