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Making farm-to-table more than ideal

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/21/12 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Food

Nick Swetye can picture a day when locally grown food like kohlrabi, beans and black raspberries is on the plates of half a million more Northeast Ohioans than the few thousand who forage for it at weekly farmer's markets or community supported agriculture operations like CityFresh where Swetye is Director.

I ask him, how will the region grow its local food economy?

It will require some tweaking of how Cleveland, Cuyahoga and our surrounding green belt interact, he says.

"We have to develop an urban design model that looks a little different," he begins. "Think of the city as your hand. The fingers are urban places, and everything else is farm.

"We're well situated in Northeast Ohio to do that. We have the fresh water, an awesome growing climate and incredible soil.

"It's an older model of urban design," Swetye admits, "from a time when there was more attention to food and more people involved in some aspect of growing their food."

If CityFresh's growth in seven years-from zero to a rotation of 1,400 households paying for a share of the produce coming off local farms-is any indication, CSAs will play an even larger role in local food's gain in market share. The Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Coalition lists 11 CSAs its 2011 Local Food Guide. Localfoodcleveland.org lists 33 CSAs in the 9-county area. CSAs are a way to buy directly from a farmer.

Swetye thinks the model is well suited to areas with high poverty; even though it might be more expensive than discount supermarket groceries, it's more sustainable because farmers can make a living (they also accept food stamps). Instead of ten cents on every dollar earned by the conventional farm, Swetye says, CityFresh's suppliers make eighty cents on the dollar. With the average age of the American farmer currently at 60 years old, attracting the next generation to grow our food will require offering a decent living.

"At the grocery store, the rest of your dollar goes to their distribution system. We don't pay for facilities. We have two staff and 150 volunteers."

Most CSAs rely on volunteers to distribute the food, especially as they grow, as CityFresh has to 17 drop off spots in three counties.

Volunteers are also the wellspring of growth for CityFresh. In Ohio City, residents secured a Neighborhood Connections grant to purchase pop up tents for the Fresh Stop at the Carnegie West Library. Lakewood is one of the biggest pools thanks to grassroots organization, Lakewood LEAF, which runs the CSA's distribution at the library on Detroit Avenue, handing out 150 bags filled with a variety of food, from greens to fruit. Every week something slightly different as the season shifts.

CityFresh buys food from 22 farms. Most are small Amish family operations located near Ashland, some 50 miles south of Cleveland. Swetye notes how his customers' preference for organic food has convinced most of the farmers to reduce or halt spraying pesticides or synthetic growth supplements. Aside from a boutique purchase of micro-greens from Community Greenhouse Partners in Cleveland's Hough and NEO Restoration in Glenville, CityFresh has, for the time being, outgrown the urban farmer.

It doesn't help that Cleveland's urban farmers are struggling to get by. A crush of rules and regulations threatens to choke off the enthusiasm of young entrepreneurial farmers who practically rose up with pitchforks in hand when the city's elder statesmen produced their 2007 ReImagine manifesto.

Can the city catalyze growth in local food and vacant land re-use?

"There are some people at top who want to tax it and put permits on (urban ag). They are making roadblocks. There's going to be a need for leadership, for those who write the laws and set policy. We have permits for planting trees and people who want to put up greenhouses facing permits. Fees for architectural drawings. For all the promise of urban agriculture, after three years, I know people who want to give up.

"There's the issue of land ownership," he continues. "The value in farming would be in the ownership of land. The (urban) farmers who are getting a 99-year lease, they don't own the land."

ReImagine did prod 50 new growers to try scratching out a living-or at least, not lose their shirts-on a hardscrabble city lot from the ever growing glut of thousands of vacant properties. The report made a compelling argument for not locking down the potential for growing food in the Cleveland Landbank for some future rosy return to 1 million residents, but to instead employ it in an extreme makeover of our food system. But without supportive infrastructure, that enthusiasm turns to frustration and all but the well-funded, mostly not-for-profit ventures are left.

Swetye is the first to admit that CityFresh would have gone under during its start up without grant funding-from USDA, and later Gund and Cleveland foundations. When the foundations told them last year that they would have to sink or swim on member support, they had at least established the core of their operation. At the end of 2011's five-month growing season, CityFresh operated in the black on 100% individual support from selling an average of 600 share bags a week, Swetye says. That generated $150,000 to $200,000 in annual sales for farmers. Swetye's goal this year is to sell 1,000 share bags a week. Their existing operation can handle at least 1,200 share bags a week.

The economics of farming are such that Swetye estimates we need to buy 20% of our food from local sources for private enterprise to thrive. How do we get there from here in Cleveland?

"We'll have bigger (urban) farms where some of these houses are coming down. Early on there were a few big parcels (in Cleveland) for urban farms. But these are getting gobbled up by well-publicized groups, which is fine, but it's getting harder to find continuous land that isn't contaminated."

"The local food system is more than just the farmer. It's also the processes for year-round local food. We have to get canning going for institutions like hospitals and prisons and schools. They're not going to change their methods for preparing food but they'll (use canned goods from local farms).

When it launched as a program of Oberlin College's New Agrarian Center in 2006, CityFresh had no customers. Into the cauldron of the foreclosure crisis, the health crisis and innumerable other crises waded NAC's former director Brad Masi and local foodie/farmer Maurice Small with laudable goals of feeding Cleveland's hungry masses. A CSA offered them a way in to the diabetes epidemic spreading in Cleveland and Cuyahoga where one in three (one in two if you're African-American) are now expected to contract diabetes as a result of poor diet. Masi and Small joined ranks with OSU Extension who are teaching farming on urban 1/10 acre gardens for sale.

It's working out because a strong informal social network of local food professionals and the hipsters who are leading a new back-to-the-land movement in pockets of the city has formed. It's hard to overestimate the value of the local food leaders getting along, Swetye says.

"The social dynamics of people getting along is often overlooked in building a local food system. Most of us are doing this as a labor of love. In a business environment, there's an economic reason to work together. We're working on how we facilitate a conversation that keeps it going."

(Disclosure: This writer is now a satisfied customer of CityFresh).

Other CSAs from Cleveland's urban farmers

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Growhio Local Food Guide

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