Urban agriculture thrives in northeast Ohio but faces challenges

The idea of ​​urban agriculture is simple. Take vacant and unused urban land and turn it into something that gives back to the community. And while urban agriculture thrives in Northeast Ohio, farmers still face many challenges.

Steve Larson, Director of Living urban farms, spreads mulch with a wheelbarrow to prevent weeds from growing around its planted crops. He slowly descends each row, knocking over a piece of wood shavings with each stop he makes in the furrow.

With less weeds to pull, Larson can focus more of his energy on the new farm in the town of Tallmadge, which started up in the summer of 2020.

Kelly krabill

Assistant Manager Em Evans is with Living City Manager Steve Larson at their newly cleared farm in Tallmadge. The farmers developed the business to increase their customer base.

The 8 acres were once an overgrown horse pasture that went unused for about 10 years. Larson and his assistant farm manager, Em Evans, cleared 1.5 acres so they could grow additional food for new customers, not just for Mme Julie’s kitchen, a farm-to-table vegan restaurant in Akron.

The farm’s first location, which is 0.5 acres of land, was opened eight years ago in Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood to grow vegetables like kale and spinach for the restaurant.

“One of the intentions of starting this new farm was to be able to have more space to produce more and to have the necessary infrastructure to produce more and sell products to outside outlets,” said Larson. .

As Living City grows in business, zoning regulations prohibit the farm from selling vegetables in either location, so many urban farmers like Larson are using farmers’ markets as a means. secondary to maintain a clientele.

Other obstacles they face include poor soil health and obtaining allowances for the use of standpipes. Urban farmers often need to rebuild the soil after gaining access to their land.

It can take time, “especially in an urban setting where it’s a vacant lot that a house has collapsed or a series of vacant lots,” said Lisa Nunn, executive director of Let’s Grow Akron, which has 30 community gardens and about five market gardens. , which are made up of gardeners who sell in farmers’ markets.

“Often there is a lot of clay or loaded soil after houses or buildings have collapsed, so the soil is depleted of nutrients or could even be toxic,” she said.

Em Evans of Living City Farms Harvesting Cabbage

Kelly krabill

Em Evans is harvesting cabbage for the Summit Lake Farmers Market. Living City Farms sells its produce to outside buyers, as city zoning regulations prohibit farmers from selling on the farm.

Larson and Evans “dug up giant concrete slabs” during the transformation of the horse pasture into the Tallmadge farm, Evans said.

Larson added that they are changing the way they farm at the second location.

“We put more emphasis on this regeneration process and want the type of agriculture we practice to be a source of life for those involved in the cultivation. [so] the plants we grow are healthy and able to regenerate the soil, ”he said.

Another issue facing farmers is the zoning restrictions at both locations.

In Akron, “cultivation is permitted wherever residential use is permitted,” but the sale of agricultural products is prohibited under the residential zoning code, according to an email from the city’s press service.

The Tallmadge Farm is located behind a white house across from the Summit County Fairgrounds on North Avenue. The street is heavily trafficked and there are a few businesses operating nearby, but the farm is located in a residential area. Larson said the city has been working hard to revise its residential zoning code in recent years. He hopes to know soon if there are any changes to allow the sale of products on the farm.

Many cities are offering more flexibility with their zoning codes to accommodate farmers, said Mike Hogan, extension professor in the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Ohio State University.

KRABILL Living Urban Farms 4.jpg

Kelly krabill

Em Evans talks to a customer at the Summit Lake Farmers Market. The market was launched in 2014 by community organizations and residents to provide access to fresh produce. Living City Farms is one of the local producers in the market, where seven to ten vendors set up every Tuesday from June to October.

“It’s very common for cities to recognize that urban agriculture can be a very important part of a community, and they have been willing to adjust zoning regulations that make sense,” Hogan said.

Urban farmers also often find it difficult to access city water systems, usually through fire hydrants.

Akron almost stopped using water two years ago for community gardeners, including urban farmers, because the city was concerned about safety issues and wasted water.

“The main function of the fire hydrant is that emergency responders can use it in the event of a fire, so they must have immediate access when needed,” according to an email from the press service of the city. Akron has been “able to develop usage guidelines that allow community gardens to use hydrants without creating safety issues or overuse of hydrants. “

Nunn, from Let’s grow Akron, met with city officials to discuss the group’s concerns. “We have had quite a few meetings and developed a good relationship where we have now moved past this threat of losing standpipes,” she said.

Living City Farms uses water from the town of Tallmadge and Larson said they were “working to make a connection to [them] to facilitate watering for the establishment of irrigation ‘when there is no rain. Tallmadge wants the farm within the city limits, he said, but he is still waiting for the opportunity to sell his produce there and has recently started selling produce. in line To pick up.

Despite these challenges, small-scale food producers in urban land provide access to fresh produce so residents have a shorter distance to travel for food.

Living Urban Farms by Kelly Krabill

Kelly Krabill produced this story as part of her work with the Collaborative News Lab at Kent State University in partnership with WKSU.

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