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26-acre urban farm zone in Cleveland to get boost from Will Allen

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/09/11 @ 3:00pm

For Damien Forshe and David Hester, urban agriculture didn't begin with 2007's ReImagine a More Sustainable Cleveland or even 2010's loosening of the city's zoning to allow farming and livestock on residential property (nice as those efforts were in applying a salve to the popular belief that the city is were opportunity goes to die).

Greening the Ghetto<br />Rid All Green Partnership is growing food under giant hoop houses on vacant property in Cleveland's Central neighborhood.Go fish<br />An ingenious vertical aquaponics system raising tilapia for sale is part of the Rid All Green PartnershipLots to lettuce<br />Rid all is composting on site and using their own soil to raise greens and veggies for sale locallyWaste to profits<br />Rid all Green Partnership's massive compost operation is for growing food and for resale.

"We've been bred into this," says Hester. "My grandparents were farmers. When they migrated to Ohio, they brought those skills with them."

His grandmother taught him about raising chickens, planting veggies and fruit trees. "We had all those things on East 105th and Churchill."

For the past 45 years, Hester never stopped gardening. He enrolled in the OSU Extension training in Wooster where he learned the art of floristry and animal husbandry.

And so it is with a sense of destiny that the pair of cousins—one who grew up near Kinsman, the other in Glenville in the aftermath of fires in the late 60s that tore their neighborhoods apart and left them fallow—are repairing the land and the people who live on it.

During the day they run Rid-All, an exterminating company, but their passion for urban farming got a big boost last year at an event in Youngstown where they met Will Allen, the rock star urban gardener who rubs elbows with the likes of Michelle Obama. Allen anointed the pair his Ohio partners, and will appear in town next week to help them build a regional training center, a Cleveland version of Growing Power, the urban farm/training/retail center he directs in inner city Milwaukee.

"We are the team that will move (Allen's) dream," Forshe says proudly.

Forshe is investing his own money-and working to attract capital with the help of Allen and local movers like Randy McShepard of PolicyBridge—to anchor what nonprofit community developers Burten Bell Carr (BBC) are calling the Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone, a 26-acre area of mostly city land bank and tax delinquent properties on Otter between E. 79th and E. 84th streets and Kinsman. The same fires from the Sixties were the demise of many a structure here, but Forshe and Hester envision it as ground central for an urban agriculture cluster-and they're not the only ones banking on it.

If you didn't know better, the drive down E. 79th Street past Orlando Bakery and the overgrown Kingsbury Run and RTA Blue and Red Line corridors to Kinsman Road feels like backcountry Kentucky. It's where you'll find the city's largest swath of vacant land all green and shaggy but also choked with rusty and twisted chain link fence and piles of illegally dumped brick and masonry.

Down a bumpy lane with squat homes, large trees and cars and trucks parked on lawns, Forshe has framed out a tidy 60 x 40 ft. greenhouse with 2x4s and secured it with a polycarbonate shell. It is here at E. 81st Street and Otter Avenue, on an acre on loan from the Cleveland Land Bank, that Allen will lead a workshop on how he built his famous 2-ton worm composting system. And he'll bring the blueprints for his 10,000 fish farm where 6 x 4 ft. tanks of tilapia and perch are raised for sale. The sustainable aspect of the 'vertical farm' system (which Allen credits the Dutch with inventing) is powering it by solar thermal energy and siphoning off the waste into tanks that fertilize watercress and hydroponic tomato plants.

Forshe plucks a color illustration from a folder detailing his plans to scale up his operation, that is, once he can locate a six-acre parcel (with JP Morgan Chase and Neighborhood Leadership Institute signed on as partners, he hints that funding will not be a barrier). It shows a cluster of greenhouses and a 6,000 sq. ft. building with two classrooms and a prep kitchen. Outside, Hester will lead kids in planting beds of "TOP G" (Tomatoes, Onions, Peppers and Greens) produce following a method they call Original State ("No pesticides added. Never. Nothing added").

They have a strategy to attract kids from around the way, and build them up with an entrepreneur's instinct at this state-of-the-art urban agriculture and training center.

"We're waking them up, through these comic books," he says, handing over a copy of Brink City: Green in the Ghetto. It's a serial about an extraterrestrial who arrives in the city to fight for the people and against the woes of environmental degradation. Created by Forshe and CIA artist Martinez Garcias, the Sisters of Charity paid to print 2,500 copies which will be distributed through schools in the Central area, Forshe says. Future issues will include the kids who go through their training program.

"I define urban agriculture as the swagger of being able to communicate, to relate through comics, through sport programs," he continues.

Across the road from the greenhouse is a city park with a swing set and a basketball court where they plan to introduce kids to environmental science and urban agriculture through a program called "Shoot Hoops, Not Guns." They would like to launch a farmer's market on their property, and are talking to the founder of Soul Vegetarian restaurant about running a food cart.

The dream was built over 14 years when Rid All exterminated pests in nearby CMHA properties like Garden Valley Estates. "Down in the projects, we opened people's cabinets and it was all processed food. No veggies. We said, 'I feel helpless right now. We've got to do something.'

"We live in a food desert. What we need is a food revolution."

* * * * *

The hope is Forshe and Hester's efforts join the constellation of those educating young Clevelanders to grow and to run a business of processing, packaging and selling food at market. Cleveland Botanical Garden's Green Corps has trained hundreds of kids to garden on urban land, for example, and sell their wares at farmer's markets.

But it was OSU Extension—which also graduates hundreds of kids and adults from its market garden training—who made the bombshell announcement last fall. The non-profit won U.S. Department of Agriculture's first urban ag grant, a whopping $740,000 to convert six acres of vacant land-right across the street from Forshe-into The Urban Agriculture Incubator Pilot Project (Ohio Department of Agriculture kicked in $100,000 and the city of Cleveland $100,000 plus it will donate the land).

At E. 83rd Street and Gill, OSU Extension will remediate the soil and provide infrastructure and training for those who want to make farming a business. A half-acre plot will be used by OSU Extension as a demonstration growing area. The remaining will be leased in quarter-acre parcels to each of 20 farmers enrolled in the incubator project. It represents a big jump up for OSU Extension which manages many community and market gardens scattered across the city, but none this large nor with so many resources to bear.

"Putting (multiple farmers) together will create synergies," predicts Andy Hudak, the newly hired manager of the project. "It can be harder for one guy on a half-acre to go to market.

"This incubator is about bringing people together. I would like to see a governance structure: I don't know if it's an official cooperative. This will be their space to manage, to build comradery and maintain a high level of productivity."

OSU will provide infrastructure, common marketing and distribution services. A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and a farmer's market are two shared services that could be set up, if the farmers want, adds OSU Extension's Morgan Taggart.

Will OSU Extension also build synergies with its neighbors from the Rid-All site?

"I think we need to have open conversations with them," Taggart says. "We're neighbors, we're doing similar training. We've worked with community gardeners for a long time.

"I could see bringing the aquaponics / fish production to some scale. By having site control for longer, maybe we can remove some of those barriers. We have space and resources now for entrepreneurial possibilities."

Hudak and Taggart also see possibilities for a food cart and developing a gateway leading into the district from Kinsman. They like the idea of grazing livestock on a common green. And since they're targeting underserved populations, they will invest in curriculum and translators to train farmers among the disabled and refugees in partnership with Catholic Charities and International Services Center.

Forshe and Hester also see possibilities of the two working together. "I think it's great (OSU Ext.) are coming down there," Forshe says. "I could see as people come through our program to create a scholarship-after they get the urban training then they go to OSU to get certified."

In fact, it was the very confluence of the city's largest area of vacant land and a number of groups-including BBC, the city's Parks and Recreation Department and ReImagine Cleveland-pushing for a bold experiment that brought the two together.

The land has been on Burten Bell Carr's radar, says program manager Sherita Mullins, for nearly a decade when they proposed a 20-acre tree farm that never got off the ground.

"We've talked about native plantings, fruit and vegetables, biofuel, water retention in a natural way, livestock, although I don't know that we could go that far," Mullins says. "Residents like the rural type environment. We definitely want to partner with the school or a faith based organization. Kids have to make the connection between healthy eating and where their food comes from."

Cuyahoga County has already paid for environmental testing on the privately owned vacant parcels and the Cleveland Economic Development Department completed Phase I and II tests on all of the city land bank property. Soil conditions are OK, Mullins says.

Terry Schwarz, director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, sees a connection between the urban ag zone and a 'signature' project evolving from ReImagine a Greater Cleveland. After years of planning, convening and momentum building, the ReImagine Steering Committee, which includes city officials and CDC directors, is preparing recommendations for large-scale vacant land reuse, with nearby Kingsbury Run topping their list.

"The Kingsbury Run / Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone could become the basis for a linked network of food producing sites in the city," the committee wrote in its final report. The ReImagine project budgets $40,000 to design a plan for physical improvements, infrastructure investments, and programs needed to attract innovative, sustainable agriculture uses in the zone.

"Maybe way we can home in on processing food or agri-tourism, like W. 25th, The West Side Market and the Ohio City Farm," Schwarz adds, "to create these moments in the city where we can talk about self sufficiency."

The Urban Ag Zone and Kingsbury Run are also attracting notice from the Sewer District which announced plans for three pilot green infrastructure projects, including Kingsbury Run, to address the chronic combined sewer overflow problems and promote sustainable land use.

"The Sewer District has noticed that all these streets could be redesigned to put water into bioretention, and become the water that goes to the farmers and not contributing to runoff problems," Schwarz says.

They're not the only ones investing millions in the neighborhood. The Cleveland Foundation-backed GreenCity Growers, the third Evergreen Cooperative, is moving ahead with a $23 million greenhouse-powered by a 1.5 MW wind turbine it will put 4.7 acres under glass to grow five million heads of lettuce for direct sale to commercial entities. The operation will create 35 jobs for local residents (perhaps some who learn the trade in the Urban Ag Zone).

"Economically, it's a good sell, as we saw at the Growing Power training in Wisconsin," Forshe concludes. "(Allen) has 40 to 50 people working on a three-acre farm. He has a passion about making this new food system available to everybody. He has the same desire as I have to get our people healthy."

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