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Urban Farm Manifesto uncovers hard but fruitful nuggets

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/19/12 @ 8:00pm  |  Posted in Local food system

If living in Cleveland means 'you gotta be tough', what does that make our urban farmers? In Urban Farm Manifesto, you'll find Justin Husher telling it like it is. From hustlin' tomatoes to liberating soil out from under asphalt, Husher's 20-page illustrated booklet (art by Gabriel Bond) is a sardonic trip. But it also lays bare the hardships, the hoops, and from his POV, lessons learned from the frontlines of urban farming in Cleveland.

Husher was a recipient of a $10,000 ReImagine a More Sustainable Cleveland/HUD grant to help start up his urban farm on a 7,350 sq. ft. lot located at the corner of W. 130th Street and Sprecher in the Puritas-Longmead neighborhood. Despite some contradiction in taking a public subsidy, he's downright evangelical that urban farming turn a profit. While he acknowledges a place for subsidies and non-profit urban farms, he insists they should give away their food to the needy.

At a CSU Forum on the ReImagine experience, Husher got in a heated exchange, stating that urban farming has no future if it cannot find a market. He prefers that urban farmers sell their food to the hungry in the city, rather than in the upscale suburbs. Farmer's markets are his top choice, because, "they're often outdoors, and their public nature is open and inviting. Furthermore, farmer's markets are typically the only way a small farmer can access various food assistance programs (i.e. EBT and WIC), which makes them the people's food vehicle." Getting ready for farmer's markets, though, is "the worst part of my job," he adds.

What's nice about the Urban Farm Manifesto are the business tools of the trade, and the graphic novel take on the unvarnished truths of farming – from excavating countless Wild Irish Rose bottles on abandoned properties, waiting out weeklong rain delays, and finding that your water source-a fire hydrant-has disappeared. He turns his lessons into a wish list: Sending out an invitation to other urban farmers to start a Co-Op for buying/selling and for sharing equipment.

Husher dives into the policy debate, offering his take on what might help more urban farmers enter the field. It includes a call for clarity on land tenure, or long-term access to vacant property for growing food. Even though Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have thousands of vacant parcels, and recently updated Land Bank policy to allow an urban farm to lease a vacant plot for five years, this is too short term, Husher insists. Better would be a homesteading rule where the farmer who "can show a reasonable income stream" in that five-year period earns the right purchase the property.

He also wants cities to lead in the fight for more 'food sovereignty'. Meaning, instead of a default 'no' to building fences around vacant lot/farms and farm stands and to home-based food sales, officials need to engage farmers in understanding the particular quirks of the urban environment, and figure out compromises on how to make their business operate better.

We like Husher's vision of the future for urban agriculture, he writes:

If we can get over these antiquated zoning laws and create land tenure for farmers, then the future frontier of urban farming appears wide-open…as urban farmers prove their worth, more local auxiliary businesses will spring up to fill niches: Urban farm supply stores, hoopbuilders, canneries and mid-size composters to name a few.

I envision a New America with artisanal regional craft foods, replacing our fast food stereotypes; I long for a time when farmers are respected members of the community just like the chefs of today, and folks harken back to when people knew their farmer. Going forward just bear in mind, a farmer has to eat too.

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