SALEM, Ohio — City streets and skyscrapers don’t make the best elements for farming. But Jessica and Emmy Levine have found those metropolitan components don’t necessarily prevent agriculture, either.
In 2006, the sisters decided to begin urban farming in Cleveland. They built raised beds in abandoned parking lots and grew organic herbs and vegetables like garlic, eggplant, cilantro, scallions, tomatoes and peppers.
Their gardens were successful and it wasn’t long before Jessica and Emmy realized they couldn’t grow enough produce to keep up with the demand. It would be nice, they thought, to have more space for their budding Cuyahoga County business.
The sisters had heard about a program called FarmLink that pairs people who want to farm with people who have farming property available. It seemed like a convenient way to expand, so they sent in an application.
In neighboring Medina County, Susan Schmidt was starting to feel overwhelmed. She’d been running her 50-acre organic farm by herself since 2004 and the responsibilities were mounting.
She grew several acres of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, pumpkins, eggplant and squash — among other vegetables. Plus, she dabbled in honey production, bee pollen production, raised chickens for eggs and sold her products at local farmers’ markets.
Schmidt started farming after her husband died in 2003 and as her operation grew, the workload became more than one person could manage.
Besides the vegetables, chickens and honeybees, she worked off the farm and took care of her daughter, Elizabeth.
Although she wasn’t ready to give up her farm, she was ready to have some help. So, Schmidt began searching for a business partner.
Around that time, Schmidt read a newspaper article about FarmLink. A program from The Farmland Center, FarmLink is designed to connect retiring farmers with beginning farmers and it allows agricultural land to be preserved. It also provides a way for younger farmers to gather knowledge, tips and advice about agriculture.
Schmidt signed up for the program and before long, the center sent her five applications from nearby land seekers. When she saw Jessica and Emmy’s application, she knew she found her match.
The trio is Ohio’s first official farm link, but Chris Norman, FarmLink coordinator, said there will be many more to come.
So far, the center has received about 170 inquiries, with most of the interest coming from land owners.
Anyone can enroll in the program and applicants specify what they’ve got or what they want. Things like location, soil type, buildings on the property, size and past farming practices play a role in getting the seekers and owners matched up.
Through FarmLink, which focuses mainly on northeast Ohio, participants have the opportunity to buy, lease or rent property — whatever works best for those involved.
Jessica and Emmy plan to rent ground from Schmidt and keep it in organic vegetable production.
“I have a good feeling with what Jessica and Emmy want to do,” Schmidt said.
The three have worked out a plan and agreed to meet each other’s stipulations.
“Any apprehensions I had quickly faded and I credit this to the level of communication between Susan and I,” Jessica said.
She added that, thanks to FarmLink, she not only has land, but someone to teach her about growing.
“The farm will enable me to grow root crops, which is very difficult to do on reclaimed city soil,” Jessica said. “But the best part is Susan’s mentoring and friendship. Working with her has been inspiring.”
Jessica and Emmy sell the produce from their parking lot gardens at local farmers’ markets. Using Schmidt’s farm will allow them to grow more of the most popular items and it gives them a chance to try some new crops.
The sisters visited the Medina County farm last summer and helped Schmidt with some of the 2007 harvest. This year, Schmidt will be the helper while Jessica and Emmy take on the main responsibility.
“I’m real clear that I need to let them do what they want to do,” Schmidt said.
Jessica and Emmy don’t plan to abandon their urban gardening endeavor. Jessica will work primarily at Schmidt’s farm, while Emmy will take responsibility for the Cleveland production.
And now that Schmidt isn’t wrapped up in vegetables, she’ll have time to focus on her chickens, honeybees and family. She still intends to sell honey and eggs at the farmers’ markets.
She’s also looking forward to seeing Jessica accomplish her goals.
“She has so much to offer her customers and the community,” Schmidt said. “It will be exciting to see her thrive here.”