It's nearly the wrap on the Year of Local Food, which means the city of Cleveland is looking to raise up inspiring examples of local food producers who are empowering the city's economic engine. They need look no further than the Rid All Green Partnerships and Kinsman farms—an urban agriculture operation that, in its second year, has scaled from dreamlike Green 'n tha Ghetto storyline to a living color example of what a hundred grand in seed capital from Will Allen and an energetic crew with passion to burn can turn out.
On 1.3 acres of formerly vacant land sandwiched between the RTA Blue Line tracks, Kinsman Road and E. 81st-83rd streets, Glenville natives and co-founders Damien Forshe and his farming cousin David Hester (known by all as "The Green Hand") first ascribed their vision: Build partnerships with everyone, from Growing Power's Allen to at-risk kids in the Central neighborhood, and grow lots of healthy, local food for Clevelanders.
At the time, it was a grassy field dotted with illegally dumped junk at the end of a street that time forgot. Today, six new high hoop houses constructed from polycarbonate shell and honey-colored wood beams (or plastic sheet and metal tube) stand exactly where the pair had envisioned.
Inside Greenhouses 2, 3, 4 and 5 are rows of dark soil—produced on site from their massive compost operation. Compost becomes soil, a natural heater—raising the temperature to a humid, 80 degrees—and beds for salad greens and turnips—the winter crop. In Greenhouse 1 (and soon-to-be #6), Rid All is raising tilapia and vegetables in the same "aquaponics" system pioneered in the Netherlands, discovered in America by the likes of Allen, who annointed Cleveland as one of his regional outposts and shared his techniques.
"This is an area where creativity comes in," says farm manager, Mark White, who trained in Israel on drip irrigation techniques, describing the "closed-loop" aquaponics system.
In the bottom of what look like six bunk beds, tilapia fish swim and grow. A simple 2x6 framed box lined in black waterproof paper form a 100-gallon open tank. It's rigged with a sump pump that moves waste water up to a platform to mix with bacteria breaking down the fish poop in to nitrates. That fertilizes plants—micro greens used to feed the fish. A 10 kW solar panel on a tool shed roof supplies the pumps with power. One gallon of water produces a one-pound fish in about 18 months, says White, who confirms that local restaurants are snapping them up.
To reach even this level of urban agriculture doesn't take rocket science, says Manager of Operations Keymah Durden. Beyond the seed capital and title to the land (which the city facilitated), the most valuable asset for Kinsman farm is the drive and know-how of its staff— four full-time farmers, three administrators, a few more part-timers and a load of volunteers.
In 2012, the farm produced seven tons of food for sale adhering to organic methods (they prefer the term, "Original State"). It was all grown in soil produced on site. Giant compost bins are the finishing spot for a field of sheet composting—layers of woodchips (a great source of carbon) and 14,000 pounds of food waste trucked in from the Cleveland Food Bank and Progressive Insurance (about 8,000 pounds comes out of the compost process which they sell to the public for $85 a cubic yard).
Durden rolls off the reasons for doing it: One gallon of fuel burned for every 100 pounds of food trucked on average 1,500 miles to Cleveland is diverted.
Urban dwellers spend half of their income on food. In this neighborhood, gas stations are by far the most common place to get food, says Durden. Forshe has plans to set up a farm stand and a CSA. Their clients include Bridgeport Cafe and St. Vincent Charity Hospital both just west on Kinsman Road.
"Urban agriculture brings in the human culture," says Durden. "This is about getting people to understand the value of locally grown food. We need to move the custom for food from everyone for themselves to 'I'm concerned about what I eat and what my neighbor eats.' It's easy to stand on the sideline and say what's wrong. I missed the (Civil Rights revolution of the) '60s. This is our revolution. We're changing the world one tomato at a time."
After decades of neglect and disinvestment, this area once called The Forgotten Triangle is a laboratory for a city flooded with vacant land and still little new outside investment. A goal the city could stake in the dwindling days of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Year of Local Food is to replicate a Kinsman Farm in every neighborhood. It would be an aggressive anti-poverty, local reliance, food safety and health investment. It would not be easy. Even if the city committed $1 million for seed capital for 10 more Kinsman Farms, they need an experienced staff, one who can fearlessly handle both the unglamorous work of being an urban farmer, and who can fan out and make connections to the likes of Randy McShepard and the big institutions involved here as clients and its champions. Kinsman farm has an enviable network and staff. People power drives it (having Will Allen's star power behind it helps). Even more than turning out tons of good, local food, the higher purpose of the Rid All Green Partnership, and the city, may be in figuring out how to franchise this.