Guest Editorial: An Urban Farmer Responds

As a subscriber of Rust Wire for over a year and as a city based farmer, Cleveland resident, and a local food advocate that has found himself employed as a direct result of agriculture I wanted to share my thoughts on urban food production with you and your readers. This letter is in response to the August 29th post entitled Cleveland and Agriculture: Are We Asking the Wrong Questions? There were three main points that the article posed that I would like to address one at a time.

Todd's farm, in Cleveland's Central neighborhood.

1. Dedicating 80% of vacant land to urban farming is not positive

The blog notes that the positives of urban farming are overstated, that Cleveland Schools would get almost no benefit from 1,000 acres of agriculture, and that vast amounts of land being dedicated to urban farming would seriously inhibit other development programs.  These arguments are misinforming your readers, and are based on limited information.  A few counter points for you and your readers to consider.

  • Urban farmers are making money. There are a number of full-time and part-time farmers in Cleveland, myself one of them. I live in the City of Cleveland, pay taxes in the City of Cleveland, and patronize other Cleveland businesses. I am not unique in this sense as there are many others in the same boat. This number will continue to grow as the number of vacant acres under till increases.
  • Urban agriculture adds value to surrounding properties and land. Sure, many urban farmers are beginners and there may be some rocky seasons where the farmer forgot to tear out a row of tomato plants before the winter, but all in all the value of homes and property around those gardens and farms increase. Look no further than Cleveland Crops’ one acre farm at East 53rd and Stanard Avenue. Since starting two years ago crime rates have decreased drastically in the neighborhood, and three vacant homes surrounding the garden that were slated for demolition have since been purchased, fixed up, and are now occupied. Occupied with residents that are paying taxes that are ultimately benefiting the City of Cleveland School District. Would those homes have been purchased, renovated, and occupied if the farm never started? Possibly. The fact remains though that people want to live in safe areas, and much of the recent safety and drop in crime in that area is directly attributed to the farm.
  • Farms are not necessarily ‘vacant’ in the winter months, as you argue. Hoop Houses are low cost structures that allow farmers to grow food in the winter. This allows the farmer to make money during the winter, and also keeps the farm site active for 12 months of the year. Many of these structures have been built to prevent a dormancy in land usage. These structures are becoming common among rural and urban farmers alike.
  • Urban agriculture does not inhibit other development projects. Urban farmers either license, lease, or own their land. If a developer wanted to develop this land it would be treated the same as any other land negotiation. If a group such as Walgreens or Taco Bell or an apartment developer is interested in developing an area, they will work to acquire that land to do so. The same free market rules apply in the City as they do in the suburbs – if a housing developer wants to build houses in Cleveland on the current site of a farm, a price can be determined for that land, and negotiations can move forward.

2. Loss of Prime Farmland vs City Farmland

The blog states that there should be more research highlighting the loss of agricultural production on Ohio’s Prime Farmland. On this point I agree completely. However, the context of this point was made in an either – or scenario. That is, your stance was that recent attention and traction given to urban farming somehow detracts from more important rural agricultural land issues. I disagree that the attention given to urban agriculture has been detracting from these issues. Prime farmland is developed for three main reasons:

  • Retail establishments follow money; people form suburbs, people have money, Walmart follows
  • Farmland is cheap; on a price per acre snapshot it is fairly easy to find undeveloped land in Ohio that costs between $1,000 and $7,000 per acre, this doesn’t slow down sprawl development
  • There aren’t enough farmers; less farmers per capita than anytime in human history since the invention of agriculture. Someone needs to farm prime farmland, but who will it be??

Urban farming has nothing to do with the unfortunate state of sprawl Ohio experiences.

4. Where in Cleveland are people supposed to live with urban amenities?

Cleveland. The infrastructure is already here, Cleveland already rocks, and there are already a number of neighborhoods that are safe, have great amenities, and that many young professionals would love to live in. I agree that people should live in more densely populated environments, but please do not bring this up as an either – or statement when many of your readers are using your website as an informative news source and as a reference point for their everyday conversations. The needs and wants of future city dwellers should not trump the current need to do something productive with the land. In that same vein the activities of urban farming should not be described as a deterrent to people migrating to the city when all evidence points toward urban agriculture having the opposite impact on Cleveland.

The current desire to have people living in the City is understandable, and it is a desire that I share. This desire should not be an excuse to ignore urban agriculture as a legitimate and positive use of land in the meantime. Yes, someone might want to develop a house on an urban farm space in five years, but today that urban farm is sitting on the former site of a vacant parcel used for dumping old tires, or the vacant parcel where neighborhood hookers went to give low cost blow jobs, or a vacant parcel used to deal drugs.  Pubs, coffee shops, and boutiques are great, but that is what comes next; for now, the best way to get people to move to the city is by doing…. something.

I thought about posting this or a similar comment on your blog post, but wanted to send my letter to you directly because I wanted any comments I made to have space for me to expand in more detail. If you have any thoughts on what I wrote above I would love to hear them. The opinions and statements I outline above are my own comments, and do not necessarily represent the position of the groups I am affiliated with. Again, I am a long time subscriber to your website via Google Reader, and I look forward to continuing to read the posts that are published by you and your colleagues in the future.  I thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Todd Alexander

Growhio
Central Roots
Tunnel Vision Hoops

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