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Cleveland and Agriculture: Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?

29 August 2011 No Comment

The Columbus Dispatch is reporting that OSU Agricultural Extension has completed a study finding that $115 million of produce could be produced if 80 percent of Cleveland’s vacant land was transferred to agricultural use.

Great news, right? The report says that existing vacant land could provide between 22 and 100 percent of the city’ produce needs.

In my mind though, OSU is looking at the issue too narrowly. I wish OSU would explore how much produce could be produced if greater Cleveland quit building Walmarts on all of its prime farmland and instead preserved it for agriculture, then focused redevelopment efforts on vacant parcels in the city.

The state of Ohio lost 6.9 million acres of farmland to development between 1950 and 2000 and almost all of that was to low-density, suburban-style, detached housing.

I’m not an agricultural researcher, but my guess is it would pale in comparison to $115 million that could be wrung out of the city, perhaps only after expensive remediation.

Another big, unanswered question is whether urban agriculture would be profitable and supply a living wage at the scale OSU is suggesting.

It seems like everyone’s attitude about urban agriculture is that it’s a wonderful thing. And I get that. Who is going to say that providing fruits and vegetables and greening vacant lots is a bad thing?

But 80 percent of Cleveland’s vacant land? That would severely inhibit the development potential of the city. What’s the return for the Cleveland public schools on 1000 acres of agriculture? I’m guessing not too great.

And if you are a city dweller, maybe it makes you happy living next to an urban farm because it’s pretty and you can buy fruit or vegetables there.

But on the other hand, maybe you don’t have a car. And those gardens are only going to be producing for less than six months a year in Cleveland. So the other city months of the year, its just this vacant abyss that is between people and what they need: grocery stores, banks, workplaces, transit connections.

I know you guys are sick of hearing this from me, but doesn’t anyone else see how this is sort of a contradiction. If we want to live more sustainable lives, I think we should focus on living in more densely populated environments, not less densely populated.

Besides if Cleveland is essentially rural, what advantage does it have over every other place in the region? Where is the spot in greater Cleveland for people that want to live in a legitimate city with urban amenities?

-A.S.