Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A small but growing number are finding success growing crops within the city

Rachel Tayse, co-owner of Swainway Farms, feeds the chickens in the backyard of a home in Clintonville.
By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
On Canyon Drive in dense, residential Clintonville, a sign in the window of a particular small house reads: “Organic farm, please do not spray.”
Step into Joseph Swain’s backyard and it is clear that this is no residential garden. A pair of long raised beds and a small hoop house take up much of the narrow lot. Chickens peck and scratch in a pen tucked into a corner. Bright green garlic shoots poke from the dark soil that hasn’t been covered with straw for the winter.
This is urban agriculture — small plots, novice farmers and a belief that people want locally grown food.
Swain’s business, Swainway Urban Farm, is for-profit, and he’s been at it for seven years, making him just about the longest-tenured urban farmer in Columbus. Swain and his partner, Rachel Tayse, farm two backyards and grow indoors in a warehouse in Clintonville.
They believe Columbus has a lot of room for urban farmers.
“We’ve grown every year,” Swain said. “We’ve never been able to meet demand.”
The city has only 15 or so commercial farms — which, unlike the roughly 250 community gardens, operate as full-fledged businesses. That’s a far cry from Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and Detroit, which have dozens of urban farms, but the number is growing.
“There is not near the vacant land here like there is in Cleveland and Detroit,” said Mike Hogan, associate professor and local-foods program leader for Ohio State University Extension. “But there are new (farms) popping up all the time.”
Hogan saw an opportunity to help folks interested in growing food in the city by tapping into Ohio State’s massive agricultural knowledge and resources. His master urban agriculture class, offered through the Extension program, has graduated more than 100 people in the past 18 months.
Joel Harris, 29, a former soldier who did a combat tour in Iraq, is one of them. He opened Heirloom Produce this year and started growing leafy greens and root vegetables on a pair of reclaimed, vacant city lots he leases for $10 each.
He’s learned a lot, both from Hogan’s class and from running his own business.
“I was beyond happy,” Harris said of his success this year, “and I don’t have any agricultural background at all.”
Harris sees a lot of room for both his business and many others like it in the city. He sees the proximity to a large population and relative economic stability as positives that outweigh the higher cost of obtaining land and stricter zoning.
“Columbus is a great market. We’re right here where the demand is. There is no doubt there is room for more,” he said. “There’s money to be made.”
Harris sold mostly at farmers markets this year but hopes to move into restaurant and wholesale accounts.
Swain and Tayse also sell at farmers markets, like those in Clintonville and Worthington, and to several restaurants, including the Crest, as well as the Bexley Natural Market and Weiland’s Market. Restaurants and wholesalers offer more-consistent year-round business than seasonal farmers markets.
While urban land represents only 3 percent of the 2.3 billion acres in the country, according to the USDA’s 2007 land-use report, it is home to 81 percent of the country’s population.
Those people need to eat, and one of the hottest food trends in the past few years is buying locally produced food.
“We’re in the right place to do this,” said Bruce McPheron, dean of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Science. He noted that Ohio State is the only major agricultural institution based in a big city.
“We are a great test bed.”
McPheron sees Hogan’s class as a way to reach a new segment of farmers who might not have hundreds or thousands of acres to grow Ohio’s traditional commodity crops. He also hopes to seed business opportunities here in Columbus.
“There are a lot of people who want to get into the business,” McPheron said. “There are ways we can make a living doing this so it isn’t just a hobby,” he added.
There are challenges to growing in Columbus, including the relatively high price of land and lack of vacant lots compared with other large Midwestern cities, Hogan said. That is also a good thing, according to Tayse.
“Land is much more expensive in and around Columbus due to scarcity,” she said, “but it also means that there are more consumers with good jobs who might pay for locally grown organic food."
Swain and Tayse see Columbus’ potential for more urban farmers as the next piece of their business. They plan to open a retail store in the front of their warehouse in Clintonville in the spring. It will focus on supplies and consulting for urban and suburban farmers and gardeners looking for ways to grow food for themselves or for sale.
The pair also started the Columbus Agrarian Society to educate others and provide urban growers with a community support system.
Hogan’s classes tour Swainway Urban Farm, and he uses it as an example of how growers can adapt to the city. It is an important stop for his class, Hogan said. It shows hobbyists that urban farming is more than a fad or a trendy thing for city hipsters.
“There is more than potential,” Hogan said. “It is real.”


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