This post was contributed by Garland Mason.
I recently had opportunity to attend the Community, Local and Regional Food Systems eXtension Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Over one hundred extension agents and food systems professionals attended the conference. Attendees visited Cleveland’s urban farms, received a training on undoing racism in the food system, and engaged in rich discussion on how to improve our practice in advancing food systems development across the United States.
Cleveland has numerous urban agriculture initiatives and we hopped aboard the “Lolly Trolley,” an open-air wooden trolley, for our tour of three sites. We stopped by the Stanard Farm first. The Stanard Farm—built on the site of former school that had been closed by the city—also serves as the hub of Cleveland Crops, a food processing facility that specializes in processing, packing and marketing products made using Cleveland-grown produce. The Stanard Farm and Cleveland Crops provide training and employment opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities through their close association with the
Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. After a quick tour of the farm and facilities we all boarded the Lolly Trolly and headed towards an area of the city known as the “Forgotten Triangle” after the existing neighborhood was destroyed by a fire because the city had literally forgotten to maintain the water pressure in the area’s fire hydrants. After this tragedy this area of the city became a site of illegal dumping which continues to be a problem. Here we visited the Rid-All Green Partnership for Urban Agriculture and Youth Education. The project is associated with Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rid-All along with Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc., Ohio State University Extension, with funding from a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant are working to revitalize this section of the city as an urban agriculture innovation zone with the goal of converting the 28 contiguous open acres into a hub of urban farms and incubator for beginning farmers.
The last stop on our tour was to Ohio City Farm where several groups have come together to farm a piece of land with views of Cleveland’s nearby downtown district. The 6-acre parcel is farmed by several different organizations including the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and The Refugee Response, which connect low-income residents and refugees living in Cleveland with the farm. The farm tours concluded with a gathering at Great Lakes Brewing Company, another partner of Ohio City Farm. At Great Lakes Brewing Company we learned about the history of Cleveland and the development of the brewery whose triple bottom line is fundamental to the mission.
Over a pint, attendees reflected on the day. General questions arose about fostering urban agriculture, supporting new farmers and promoting the development of new models or farming. We discussed the importance of the inclusion and investment of urban farms’ neighbors. How can you make sure that the nearest neighbors are invested in the farm and that they are accessing the food grown? We talked about the complexities of farming on urban soil: the importance of testing urban soils and making sure the soil is safe. Particularly in the case of the “forgotten triangle” at the Kinsman Farm, where the neighborhood burned down, and then served as an illegal dumping ground, it is important to make sure that there are no toxic substances or dangerous materials left in the ground. Additionally, the Kinsman Farm sparked conversation about how to create a successful incubator program for new farmers. What kind of education and services need to be in place? How do you prep the soil for farmers to come in to an urban area? How do you make plan for farmers to transition away from the incubator? How do you help them to develop markets? And, for me, one of the biggest questions of the day was, how is the development of urban farms contributing to gentrification? That is, are the farms changing the dynamics of a neighborhood in a way that is inclusive or exclusive to the residents that live there? Are urban farms able to effectively address systemic issues that privilege certain neighborhoods over others? These last questions set the tone for the undoing racism training of the second day of the conference.
Next week I’ll reflect on that training, and other conversations we had about trying to tackle some of the toughest food systems questions. Stay tuned!
Garland Mason is a master’s degree student at Virginia Tech in the department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education. She serves as a graduate research assistant for the Appalachian Foodshed Project.