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Large urban farms taking shape on Cleveland's east side

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/14/12 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Local food system, Transform

This summer, two moribund corners of Cleveland's Central neighborhood will make significant strides in their quest to be large scale urban agriculture ventures. They carry the weight of expectation-that vacant land is more fertile than assumed, that it can elevate heroes in overalls with dirt under their fingernails.

On Monday, May 21, fruit trees will be planted and a massive sign forged in steel will frame a gateway park to a farm taking shape on residential land gone to seed at Kinsman Road and E. 81st Street.

A loose collaboration between two local businessmen who gained the support of Milwaukee's inner-city agriculture pioneer, Will Allen, and OSU Extension-which has trained hundreds of Cleveland residents to grow food and sell it at farmer's markets-continue to carve out plans to convert 28 acres of abandoned property into a farm operation with plots for rent.

The venture offers a good deal of support for the would-be urban farmer for whom materials such as good soil and technical support are often in short supply. Giving the farmers in Kinsman a leg up is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's first foray into urban agriculture, a $1 million grant that was matched with half a million in state and city support in early 2011. The idea is to test if concentrating resources in an incubator environment helps catalyze local food business creation.

Also under construction is the Green City Growers Cooperative, a huge, double-walled polycarbonate greenhouse that will span 3.25 of 10 acres of vacant land near E. 55th Street and I-490. The third start-up operating under the worker-owned Evergreen Cooperative banner also includes food prep buildings that will employ 20-25 area residents who will grow and prepare for institutional kitchens leafy greens like bibb and red leaf lettuce and basil in hydroponic ponds. Scheduled to launch in Fall 2012, the green house co op, like the solar power and green laundry, has the financial support from the Cleveland Foundation. Their backing helped recruit board members from the big food suppliers and, ultimately, letters of commitment from anchor institutions in University Circle.

"We work in neighborhoods around Greater University Circle to tie businesses to the local procurement needs of the big hospitals and education facilities, so that their money flows into the community," said Green City Growers Executive Director Mary Donnell. "They have huge purchasing power. Our goal is to help transform lives and neighborhoods through a profitable cooperative."

Besides local employment and healthy food, environmental performance was an early goal of the green house. A 1.5 megawatt wind turbine was in the plans and even had Stimulus funds to pay for its construction, but it was nixed because its 400-ft height did not meet local ordinance.

"I would just be very aware in the case of a turbine that it is sized not just for the energy needs of project but for the built environment around it. Familiarize yourself for local regulations," Donnell said with good cheer. Donnell was the former head of the Ohio Hydroponic Vegetable Program.

Energy conservation measures include curtains that can be drawn across the roof to slow heat loss in winter, an 130-gallon water tank to filter water with UV light and an energy control system tied to outside temperature. She hasn't yet figured out if hydroponic greens are less energy intensive than growing greens in fields in California and shipping them here.

"A greenhouse has high yields, and we're growing cold weather leafy greens not peppers or other hot climate crops like most hydroponic operations. I am very committed to a healthy environment."

If you interested in learning more or applying for a job at Green City Grower, attend a May 23 horticultural tour gathering at St. John AME Church in Central at 10:30 a.m. Or, attend a community meeting on June 16 at City Mission, 5310 Carnegie Avenue, noon to 2 p.m. to learn more. Free and open to the public. Register with Donnell by phone 216-268-0200.

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