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Buying the Farm

Cleveland wants us eating local by 2019. But is it doing enough to make that happen?

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Steve Schimoler, who owns Crop Bar and Bistro in Ohio City, calls the 25 percent "totally attainable, but you have to look at what that 25 percent of the mix is.

"We're not going to have local shrimp or avocados or olive oil," he says. "I tell people sustainable agriculture doesn't mean shit unless there's a sustainable business model."

To some, that model starts with making it easier to free up farmland.

"The biggest obstacle is probably going to be getting control of the land," says Congresswoman Marcia Fudge. She's referring to Cuyahoga County's countless vacant lots, which are scooped up by the county Land Bank and cleared for reuse. While some lots have been leased to small-time urban gardeners, larger-scale farmers who want to put permanent structures into use want to make sure the land won't be scooped out from under them by a developer.

"We need to be able to assure them that someone's not going to come along and say, 'Hey, that's my property,'" says Fudge. "The great thing about the Land Bank is if you have a lot next to your home, you can get it for $100. But we need to look more at how people can get access to larger lots."

That's something Community Greenhouse Partners' Tim Smith knows firsthand.

He spent two years looking at city-owned land all over town, finding everything either inappropriate or unavailable. In one case, the city was holding out for manufacturing to return to a long-vacant, cleaned-up brownfield, hoping for more jobs per acre than farming could create. Smith's group finally bought the decommissioned St. George Church from the Cleveland Catholic Diocese in December 2010.

"We need to get the city to free up Land Bank property, to make it easier for people to take over vacant lots to be able to grow food," he says. "We need space to grow food, and that's the incentive to do it. As long as it's an arduous process to get land from the Land Bank, people aren't going to do it."

Perhaps Kelsey puts it best when asked about Sustainable Cleveland's prospects for success.

"It took us decades to get into the mess we're in," he says. "It will take us decades to get out."

Organic Progress

While the city plays referee for the movement's many players, others are working on their own to chip away at the mountain of issues that need to be solved.

Like Parker Bosley and Michael Symon before him, Steve Schimoler focuses on serving local products at Crop Bistro. But he's also expanding the market for them with the side business he founded: Local Crop, which aggregates produce from local small-time farmers and distributes it to various restaurants.

"The image of the chef going to the farmers market with a basket is bullshit," says Schimoler. "It's not a Robert Frost poem. That model is very romantic, but it's not sustainable. If you make the commitment that it's going to be on your menu, you don't want to find that three days later the truck shows up and your stuff's not on it or they underestimated how much they had or it's not available. You have to have a product that is buyable and available, and is quality-assured and you can trust."

The "25 percent local" report contains a grandiose proposal to create a Northeast Ohio Food Authority — a public or private group that would provide support and resources to developing food-related entrepreneurs. That hasn't happened yet, although the Food Policy Coalition is a step in that direction.

Jenita McGowan of the city's sustainability department recognizes that the effort must expand beyond city boundaries. The coalition has grown to include Cuyahoga County, with Executive Ed FitzGerald's office and members of the planning commission on the advisory board. But with the new county government in place only a little over a year, it has yet to develop a fully formed food policy of its own.

"We understand that our food system is a regional endeavor," McGowan says. "The urban agriculture that's happening here is providing so much value to the area in terms of quality of life and local ways to get food. But if we want to get to 25 percent or beyond, we need to look to the region to have a robust local food economy."

Like Darwin Kelsey, Erich Hooper emphasizes the need to get the next generation involved with farming, and he uses his Ohio City farm as a learning center for school groups.

"With gardening, when you do it, it becomes second nature," he says. "The idea is to train kids so we can build the infrastructure. You give them hands-on experience and now you have a bunch of people who are proficient."

Spice of Life's Ben Bebenroth suggests that it all boils down to the roots of who we are and who we could be.

"Watching money go right into people's pockets is imperative," he says. "It's not just about it staying here. It's about what people are doing with it while it's here. I go out to Monica [Bongue]'s farm at Muddy Fork [in Wooster] — I've been buying from her for eight years. You go out there, and you see a new windmill or a greenhouse. You see her kids going to college, and they see agriculture is a good way to make a living. I think it's a transition of body and mind and spirit."

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