CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The grayness of neglect too often seen in this aging rust-belt city is being transformed into acres of flourishing green thanks to Ohio State University Extension and a vast coalition of partners.
"Thanks to the work of a multitude of stakeholders, we're redeveloping our communities with community gardens, urban farms and farmers markets," said Marie Barni, director of the Cuyahoga County office of OSU Extension.
OSU Extension is spearheading or involved in a number of such projects in the area, not the least of which is the Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone, a 26.5-acre pilot site growing local food on previously vacant land. Located near E. 93rd and Kinsman Avenue, the site is the largest urban agriculture district in the nation.
The project was funded in late 2010 by a three-year, $740,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another $200,000 -- $100,000 each -- from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the City of Cleveland Department of Economic Development.
As part of the zone, OSU Extension launched the BEAN Project: Beginning Entrepreneurs in Agriculture Networks. On six acres of the site, OSU Extension assists market gardeners experimenting with new crops with the help of Extension specialists and researchers from Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. That's on top of assisting dozens of other urban farms started by entrepreneurs seeking to turn their newfound farming expertise into a business, Barni said.
"So far we've trained about 130 people and of them, 47 have started new urban small-scale farms in the county," Barni said. "Two of them are vineyards, and we have three fruit orchards, too."
In addition, about 240 community gardens have been nurtured throughout Cuyahoga County, with well over 5,500 people participating, Barni said.
"The vast majority are on previously vacant lots," she said. Besides growing bushel upon bushel of fresh produce, community gardens have a notable side benefit: "They are bringing people together. Neighbors are talking and working with neighbors that they may never have known before. It's like the good old days when people sat on their porches and watched each others' kids. Some community gardens do potlucks, some bring chefs in to talk. They're really intergenerational. Some work with schools, which use the gardens as an outdoor classroom. And we're also now working with childcare centers in a new program, To the Garden We Grow, to teach children where food comes from and acquire healthier eating habits at an earlier age."
Currently, BEAN is working with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities to provide meaningful training opportunities for their clients within an open, accepting community.
In addition, this fall, BEAN will begin a Refugee and Immigrant Farmer Training program for those interested in beginning a market garden operation. Women and minorities are also target populations of the program, and all can participate in the Market Garden Training program for beginning farmers. The training covers everything from getting started and accessing local resources to learning the business side of market gardening and locating outlets for products.
Thanks to Extension, there are many more such outlets today, Barni said. Morgan Taggart, urban agriculture program specialist with Extension's Cuyahoga County office, has spent much of her time in the past year to expand the number of farm markets in the county.
"We've gone from four farmers markets in the county to 26," Barni said.
Plus, thanks to $73,000 in funding from seven local philanthropic partners, Taggart coordinated an effort to purchase the technology necessary to allow participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to use Ohio Direction Cards (food stamps) at all of those outlets.
caption: The Public Square Farmers Market in downtown Cleveland is one of Cleveland’s newer farmers markets that also participates in the SNAP program.
"SNAP participants also receive $5 in 'bonus bucks' for the first $5 they spend at the markets," Barni said. "This is all part of our effort to provide greater access to fresh, locally grown produce to food stamp recipients."
This summer, the community garden effort expanded beyond the neighborhoods to the heart of the city. Under the leadership of the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities and its "Cleveland Crops" business, Extension assisted in transforming the lawn around the Free Stamp sculpture in downtown's Willard Park into a community garden to spotlight the area's vibrant urban agriculture activities.
OSU Extension's efforts have not gone without notice. Extension, along with three partner agencies, was one of three finalists for Team NEO/Cleveland Plus Business' 2011 New Economic Development Practice Award for its role in urban agriculture and small farms. And, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has selected the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition, which Extension helps coordinate, as one of three food policy councils in the nation that show promise in preventing obesity. In June, CDC representatives interviewed Extension and partner representatives and have asked the coalition to work on a national project evaluating how food policy efforts relate to obesity prevention.
"We've progressed from 'Cleveland Rocks' to 'Cleveland Grows,'" Barni said. "With so many people and organizations working together, we're having a strong, positive impact in individual neighborhoods and overall throughout the county."
For more information on the project and other progams offered by the Cuyahoga County office of OSU Extension, see its website at http://cuyahoga.osu.edu.