whirlwind cleveland tour

i had the opportunity to get a one day whirlwind tour of cleveland with a little toledo and oberlin thrown in the mix.  myself and five other detroiters departed at 7:30am along with a host of ohio folks, and were not back until 11:30pm.  it was a long day.

the first stop was in toledo at toledo grows.  i’m friends with michael who directs the program, and have visited several times, i always enjoy seeing him.  since the last time i was their, they have greatly expanded there rabbits and aquaponics. when i  went to explore the rabbit area i was expecting to encounter meat rabbits, not these cute and fuzzy mini rexes.  Ma obsessed over the mini rexes somewhere around 2004 – 2005, hence my familiarity with them.  The young man who oversees the rabbits explained that while they do raise meat rabbits, most of the youth are more into showing rabbits, some of which were at the state fair, and had already won a prize.  if anything really comes though with toledo grows, it’s youth leadership development, they work with some truly remarkable youth.

also greatly expanded was compost, this view only shows a small part of the operation.  the key to the development of this larger compost system was a tractor.  while i don’t like the idea of utilizing machinery, it’s looking more and more like getting a bobcat is the way to go.  maybe i could do a conversation on a bobcat so it could run on veggie oil to make me feel better.

on to oberlin, a place i have never visited, nor really had the desire to.  the only thing i knew about oberlin was that david orr taught there, and that it was full of hippies.  the jones farm we visited did little to dispel the hippie idea.  i didn’t get a chance to explore that much but it appeared to be about 3 acres of veggies, and a lot of weeds.  i’ll assume this is because they hire hippie college students to be farm hands.  they did have some very interesting features including a walk in cooler made of straw bales, and a hoop house framed in cob.  while i understand that the thermal mass of the straw bale should increase night-time temperatures, i wonder how it compares to a clear end wall.  overall energy into the system is less with the cob wall, but does the thermal mass make up for it?  i was under the impression that they also had a straw bale hip board going around the edge, which makes more sense, as it help insulate the ground from cold and wet as well as creates thermal mass.  the walk in cooler made a lot more sense to me without question.  i know of a lot of folks that have constructed coolers like this utilizing closed cell foam insulation, but straw bale seems very well suited for this situation.  they used an old air conditioner and a coolbot controller, replacing the old, and expensive compressor.

with oberlin done, it was time to move onto the goal: cleveland.  somehow and for some reason the first stop was a shopping mall.  it did have a small hydroponics demo, but that’s no reason that i should have to come all the way to cleveland to hang out in a mall and to eat lunch at a food court.  with all the rich food culture in cleveland, i was forced to spend one of my precious meals in a mall.

fortunately there was a food cart across the street with soul food that at least allowed me to sample some locally prepared cuisine.

with the mall quickly transformed into a distant memory, buried as deeply as possible into the recesses of my memory,  we  hit the first of the many excellent urban farms of cleveland, stanard farms aka cleveland crops.  located on an old school yard and buzzing with activity, the farm is largely staffed by developmentally disabled adult, and very well-organized and managed.  the hoop houses have a very interesting retractable end wall, a design i had never seen.they have a hand crank inside which allows you to lift them up, and when they are down, large anchors to secure it.  the interior of the house is lush and full of life.  i was also very impressed with the well-organized wash area, pack shed, and storage area.  a tent was simply put up between two storage containers.  i’m of half a mind to do this a work and help address a multitude of our problems.

after stanard farms, it was on to chateau houghlittle more than a few vines on a half-acre of land, it’s the dream of the charismatic mansfield frazier, who is chomping on a stogie when we roll up and explains in detail the economics of wine grapes.  while mansfield is unsure of where is wine grapes will end up in the future,  he seems pretty positive that good things are to come.

 i quickly bore of the wine grapes, i need diversity and i was growing impatient.  our cleveland hosts seemed to greatly overestimate how long we would want to spend at any one location, how little i wanted to hear people talk and how much i wanted to go running around fields, like a kid in a candy store.  i’m not used to being at the mercy of others for transportation, or staying in one place for very long.  i was growing impatient, and i’d run out of water, and the offer of artificially flavored bottled water didn’t suit my snobby needs.  the next stop had no potable water either, i was gonna lose it.

with my patience greatly tried i, i tried to take in everything.  the zone they called it.  22 acres of land that had been cleared and was slated to be land for market farmers, surrounded by metal scrap yards, a few residents remained, and i was curious how they felt about being surrounded by farm land.  i could help but feel like i was seeing the foreshadowing of detroit, and i had major mixed feelings about the situation.

the only part of the “zone” that had been developed into farm was the rid-all rotc farm.  i wrongly assumed that this was sponsored by the army, but realized that it stood for regional outreach training center, and was affiliated with growing power.

while i’d like to never say a bad thing about growing power, i find that often the sites that it works on are high on vision, and not as much on detail.  but it’s easy to talk smack, especially about a place like rid-all which has only been going in the current location for a few months.  the soil sucks, they don’t have much compost, and need a bunch more time to get everything up and going.   but they seem like really awesome people, even putting together a comic book featuring will allen as “worm man” who saves the soil from lead poison by inoculating it with massive numbers of worms.  when i visit in a couple of years, i expect them to be up to great work.

next stop is city fresh – which seems on paper (since we had a guide to our trip that included descriptions ) completely uninspiring, turned out to be the sleeper of the trip.  we had the chance to get some unflavored, straight from the tap water. with my attention span restored, and a shady spot, next to the bounty of city fresh’s veggie table i was able to listen to the charismatic founders, maruice and brad.   city fresh is sort of like a csa that isn’t run by farmers, and is focused on serving low-income populations.  it works by having some shares full price and some lower cost.  the higher cost shares subsidize the lower cost shares.  so long as the ratio is 30% reduced cost shares to 70% full priced shares, the whole thing works without outside input.  they do about 700 shares a week, and source from over a dozen farmers most of which are amish.  they only have two employees to do this, but depend on massive volunteer labor force of dependable people.  the boxes are not packed, items are spread out on the table with a list of what should be taken and there is a swap box for folks to take what they want and leave what they don’t.  the whole thing is so simple, but seems to be achieving results very well.

final visit before dinner is ohio city farm, a huge and well-tended 6 acre parcel right next to the historic west side market.  i’m a little overwhelmed by the size and scoop.

it’s a shared project, one group works with and trains refugees, another is for beginning farmers who lease land.  it’s the first farm where they realize my need to just get out and run around.  i bound out ahead of everyone else and explore the crops, meet one of the farmers and talk shop.

cleveland seems to have a few legs up on detroit for urban agriculture.  a much more cooperative city government, some visionaries willing to try some radical ideas, and local foundation support.  seeing all these projects made me excited to get back to detroit and the next morning, i was glad to be back to a place i carried for myself instead of just touring other projects.  no matter how cool other projects are, i feel very lucky to be working where i do.


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