More than a token: Urban agriculture ‘not gonna feed the world,’ but has much to offer close to home

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A woman picks cherry tomatoes.
Jodi Kushins, of Over the Fence Urban Farm, in Columbus, picks cherry tomatoes at her farm Aug. 27. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

COLUMBUS — Jodi Kushins, of Over the Fence Urban Farm, knows she doesn’t grow a lot compared to some farms. She feeds about 20 households through her CSA program, with 2,500 square feet in her yard and her neighbor’s yard.

“It’s like a drop in the bucket,” she said. “Seeing a semi truck full of produce and then thinking about the very, very tiny amount of food I’m able to produce in my yard definitely gives me pause.”

Kushin’s farm is one of more than 30 in Columbus, up from about five in 2014. Urban agriculture is driven by desires for food security and fresh foods, vacant land in post-industrial areas and interest in connecting with farmers, said Mike Hogan, of Ohio State University Extension.

“We know we’re not gonna feed the world with urban agriculture,” Hogan said.

But Hogan believes that urban agriculture needs to be part of the city food systems. In Cleveland, about 80% of the vacant land could provide 20% of all the produce needed.

Columbus has been behind post-industrial cities, like Cleveland, in urban agriculture, Hogan said. There is less vacant land. But it’s growing.

“We know [cities] are not gonna be able to feed themselves, but we may be able to feed a neighborhood,” Hogan said.

As for Kushins, the food she grows affects her and her CSA members. The farm is a side hustle. She doesn’t make much money from it. But she is paid in friendship, having reasons to go outside and stay active and eating well year-round.

“We’ve always said that we were a model for growing, and so if I’ve encouraged one person to try to grow as much food as they can … then I feel like we’ve fulfilled that goal,” Kushins said.

Urban agriculture

Urban agriculture is considered everything from community gardens and people growing food in their yards, to people with specialized systems in buildings, to urban farms.

“Urban agriculture includes all of those things,” Hogan said. “Producing food, no matter who’s doing it, in an urban setting.”

Though the pandemic has driven more interest in local food, Hogan is not sure that it is going to have a major effect on urban agriculture. There are barriers — like finding affordable land and paying for water. But he does expect it to continue growing.

Growth

Kushins grew up Jewish, in New York. Her family was kosher and paid a lot of attention to where their food came from. Then she was a vegetarian. In the early 2000s, she started going to a farmers market for local food.

She started growing food in her yard and later expanded into a neighbor’s yard.

Kushins was part of the first group that went through Ohio State’s master urban farmer program. The program has had more than 200 people in the past five years, Hogan said.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has started recognizing the value of urban agriculture, Hogan said, increasing funding and starting Farm Service Agency county committees to focus on urban agriculture, based in cities like Cleveland.

Hogan travels quite a bit for work. He hasn’t been to a city yet where he can’t find urban farms.

While Columbus hasn’t seen as much of an increase in local food production as some places, Kushins has seen growth, including more people with gardens in their yards.

A woman feeds chickens in her backyard.
Jodi Kushins feeds her chickens at Over the Fence Urban Farm, in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 27. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Getting started

Katie Hawkins, of Happy Toes Homestead, got started in 2017 on two acres in the city. She has a CSA to sell vegetables and cut flowers, with 22 half-shares and seven full shares, and is going to one farmers market this year.

Hawkins studied environmental studies in college and did some internships on farms. After college, she didn’t farm for about seven years, but she did garden. She started selling extra basil to a restaurant.

Things grew from there. This year, Hawkins hit $10,000 in CSA sales and hit $4,000 in farmers market sales — her goal for the year — around the end of July.

This is her first year not working a separate day job. Her husband’s job sustains the family. She has gotten grants for things like water lines and a walk-in cooler. A few years in, she’s happy with where she is. It’s rare for a beginning farm to make a profit in the first five years.

“The goal is to cover the cost of the farm and make at least somewhat of a profit,” Hawkins said.

A woman stands in a greenhouse holding a baby.
Katie Hawkins stands in a small greenhouse at her farm, Happy Toes Homestead, in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 27. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Challenges

Hawkins has challenges as an urban farmer. Many farms have ponds or well water. With city water, irrigation is expensive.

She is not allowed to have a farm stand on her property due to zoning restrictions, though she can handle CSA sales on the farm.

Zoning regulations cause other problems, too. Farmers in rural areas usually don’t need approval to do things like set up a high tunnel. For Hawkins, it took six months of review, an appeal, a hearing and about $1,000 in fees to get approved.

“It’s a huge pain, and it’s very expensive,” Hawkins said.

Community

But despite the challenges of farming in a city, the location is essential for some, according to Rebecca Brown, executive director of Franklinton Farms, in Columbus.

The farm is a nonprofit that also does education and other community work. The farm’s learning garden is across from an elementary school. It is near other nonprofits. The farm is getting a community fridge to set out produce for residents.

“I think the logistics of growing in an urban setting are so different than having to haul food in from more rural environments,” Brown said.

It’s also more complex, in some ways. The farm is spread out across 12 plots, which are not all connected.

Expansion

As Franklinton Farms has expanded, it has had help not only from staff, but also through help from 700-1,000 volunteers every year who help with things like weeding and mulching. The farm used to be a community garden, started around 2007, but it started selling some of the food around 2014.

In 2020, Brown said, over 700 households have bought food from the farm so far. In 2019, the farm sold about $100,000 worth of food, up from $40,000 in 2018, after a new farm manager joined and helped make the farm more productive.

The farm, however, focuses on access. The farm offers half-price produce for neighbors and 75% off for anybody on food stamps. It is able to manage this through subsidies like produce perks and grants.

The farm comes close to paying for itself, but the organization has other expenses for community work that it does, so it relies on grants and subsidies, and some donations to support the nonprofit work.

It is one of the largest fruit and vegetable producers in Columbus now.

A woman stands in a garden.
Rebecca Brown, executive director for Franklinton Farms stands in one of the lots at Franklinton Farms, in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 27. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Roles

Hawkins doesn’t expect to ever be a full source for produce. People can’t shop at the farm every day, whenever it’s convenient.

But she can take advantage of her urban location to reach out to neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores, with fresh produce.

“I think that I see my role as being someone who kind of gets people interested in produce more,” she said.

In her CSA newsletter, she includes recipes for produce that members might not be used to.

About a third of Franklinton Farms’ land is city land bank property. The rest is owned or leased.

“I would love to see Franklinton Farms being a model that’s replicated,” Brown said.

Minister Aaron Hopkins, on the south side of Columbus, saw what Franklinton Farms was doing with city land bank property and decided that he could too, Brown said. Now, he is growing produce in his area.

“I think building up urban food systems and building up Columbus’s urban food system is one of the roles that we are gonna play,” she said.

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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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