Refugees use farming skills at Ohio City Farm

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A farm staff member sorts carrots in crates.
Nar Rai, a worker at Ohio City Farm, sorts vegetables at the farm Oct. 28, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Behind a fence around Ohio City Farm, in Cleveland, Ohio, refugees prepare vegetable orders for restaurants on a recent Wednesday, as they do each Wednesday. Though they come from different countries and have varying levels of English language skills, agriculture is a language they all understand.

“Most of the people who work here were farmers back in their countries,” said Lar Doe, site manager for the farm.

The farm is part of the Refugee Response, an organization that helps resettled families adjust to their new communities in Cleveland.

Northeast Ohio has received 2,500 refugees since 2008, according to Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland. The Refugee Response supports more than 120 each year through various programs, including youth mentoring, adult tutoring and Teen Response, an after-school program.

But originally, the farm was the Refugee Response, said Michael Bartunek, senior farm manager for Ohio City Farm.

Refugees in the U.S. are expected to become self-sufficient within just three months of arriving, which is difficult for most. Many refugees have a background in agriculture in their home countries. The farm, founded in 2010, was created to give refugees a work environment where they can use skills they already have and adjust to their new city.

The farm

At six acres, the farm is the largest contiguous urban farm in the county. In 2019, the farm grew more than 45,000 pounds of produce. The land is owned by the Cuyahoga Municipal Housing Authority. The farm leases the land through Ohio City Incorporated, the community development corporation for the neighborhood.

“I think we stand with some of the best in the world, as far as quality and as far as the sheer production that we get out of that space,” Bartunek said.

Bartunek believes the strength of the farm comes from its roots in collaboration. It had a nonprofit, the Refugee Response, two public agencies, the housing authority and the community development organization, and a local business, Great Lakes Brewing Co., involved. The brewing company helped fund the farm’s founding, and buys vegetables and herbs from it.

“I think it has been those four drivers consistently all working together that has allowed it to continue to exist,” Bartunek said.

The farm’s CSA program serves 250 families for 20 weeks out of the year. From May or early June into November, it has a farm stand on the weekends. It also works with about 20 restaurants in the area, though the restaurant side of things has slowed down this year.

Hoop houses sit on Ohio City Farm, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Ohio City Farm sits on land leased from the Cuyahoga Municipal Housing Authority, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Employment

The only full-time jobs on the farm are held by refugees. Bartunek, a sales and marketing coordinator and a delivery driver all work part-time. Doe, who manages farm staff, and seven staff work full-time, and a few high schoolers work at the farm stand on the weekend.

Doe was born in Burma. He left Burma when he was 13 and spent about 15 years in a refugee camp in Thailand, before coming to the U.S. He lived in Iowa for a time, but came to Cleveland to work on the farm in 2012.

In Cleveland, Doe said, there is also a Burmese community. Many of the Burmese people in the city came from the same area, so they have things in common. Doe has worked on the farm for about eight years.

Though the farm grows some things year-round in its hoophouses, it slows down in the off-season. Some staff are laid off or have hours reduced temporarily during the slow season. But most of them come back from year to year.

“The goal is always to keep them employed for as long as possible,” Bartunek said.

Bartunek said the farm tries to add hours or extend the season for employees every year.

Shifting focus

The farm used to have more educational programs to teach people to farm. Now, it operates more like a business, though the money it brings in goes back to supporting the farm. It made this shift in 2018, after much of its federal funding expired. Today, it focuses on farming and providing good jobs to the most people possible.

“That is really at the core of everything we do,” Bartunek said.

For the last three years, the farm has been a self-sustaining business. Bartunek said it still does get grants on occasion, but it doesn’t rely on those grants to operate.

The farm focuses on sustainability in more ways than financially. It gets its soil for starting plants from Tilth Soil, an outgrowth of Rust Belt Riders, which collects food scraps for composting. Tilth soil is the product that the company makes from the food scraps it collects. The company is based just 20 blocks from the farm.

“They are quite literally our neighbors,” said Daniel Brown, co-founder of Rust Belt Riders. “I can’t think of an organization that we wanna see succeed as much as them.”

Nathan Rutz, director of soil, said some of the farm’s customers are also customers for the company’s food scraps collection program.

“It’s a beautiful small-scale example of what we would like to see going on, on a large scale,” Rutz said.

This model allows Rust Belt Riders and the farm to recycle nutrients in a way that keeps money and resources in the community, and minimizes environmental impact.

Growth

The farm also launched a line of spices and dried herbs over the last two years. That line helps extend the season for staff and adds a product that doesn’t have to be sold right away, Bartunek said. While the farm is already selling it at the farm stand, it is also planning to market it more around the holidays.

Over the last three years, the farm added power, after seven years without it, installed a heated greenhouse and a walk-in cooler, and added more secure storage and fencing.

In the future, the farm is looking at adding a pavilion in front of the farm to serve as a center for other farmers market-style businesses to come in on the weekends.

Two farm staff sort vegetables for restaurant orders.
Nar Rai and Lar Doe, staff at Ohio City Farm, sort produce for restaurant orders Oct. 28, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Pandemic impacts

The farm usually hosts hundreds of visitors on tours and in volunteer groups. In 2018, the farm had 350 volunteers come to the farm, he said. It also hosted events like farm to table dinners and a 500-600 person fundraiser for the Refugee Response.

This year, the pandemic kept the farm from hosting tours or other events. The farm also cut back the number of volunteer opportunities and only hosted a small, regular group of volunteers.

“The volume of people that didn’t come to the farm this year … it was a sign of the time,” Bartunek said. “We’re looking forward to having all of those people back.”

But for the staff, Ohio City Farm has continued to be a safe place to work and adjust to Cleveland. Like most farmers, they have been farming through the pandemic, wearing masks and working mostly outside.

Bartunek said the pandemic may have also helped the farm’s direct sales, as more people looked to local food for their shopping.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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