CLEVELAND - Erich Hooper looks for dirt. When he finds it, he is in his world.
Hooper is an urban farmer who has found his Garden of Eden in his own backyard in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood. At the end of West 11th Street, where a section of the quiet street changes from a brick surface to a patchwork of asphalt pieces, Hooper's Farm grows in a lush valley.
Most of the backyard is growing food. Lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, sage, onions, and several other crops are maturing in the fertile soil which Hooper praises because of its mineral content.
"Make sure that plant is standing straight up and down and make sure there's plenty of dirt around it," said Hooper to a group of students from Lincoln-West School of Global Studies.
Lincoln-West High School is his alma mater. Several students came by to help him with his garden. It is part of a school project where the students learn how farmers feed the world.
"We will always do our best to honor Cleveland's Lincoln-West," sings Hooper in his baritone voice. The students didn't know their school song, but Hooper showed them he still had high school spirit and a voice to announce it.
Hooper began growing a garden to raise a few crops he could sell to his neighbors.
"Originally, I started because i needed to raise more money to put my daughter in a private school," he said as he walked among the crops growing in his urban farm.
That was more than 20 years ago. Since that time, the garden has grown into a small farm. Hooper raises enough produce to sell to restaurants, many of them in his Tremont neighborhood.
"We buy his lettuce and cherry tomatoes," said Dennis Haffey, owner of a catering company which bears his name. "We also buy heirloom tomatoes from him."
The tomatoes have not matured enough yet, so Haffey was harvesting some of the lettuce growing in Hooper's greenhouse. The greenhouse is a starter for the lettuce. Once the produce gets to size, Hooper and his volunteers will transplant it to the yard itself.
The farm is within sight of a steel mill in the Cleveland Flats Industrial area. Hooper talks about the heavy work which goes on in the mill, but also mentions the heavy work he must do to keep the farm going. When he is not in the dirt, he drives a truck for a food-delivery company. During his off-hours, the farm keeps him busy.
Hooper, 59, was a cheerleader for the Cleveland Cavs for one year in the 1990s. He still has some of the moves, flashing a big grin at the mention of his old job. He tells his own story of how he began gardening. He is witty and welcoming.
Anyone who comes to the farm is asked to put on some gloves and see how it feels to work in the soil.
Man of the soil
Of the soil, Hooper is enthusiastic. He praises the glaciers which moved through this area of the world during the Ice Age, long before humans came on the scene.
Scooping out a handful of soil, he holds it to his nose and inhales the aroma. He said the glaciers brought minerals which became part of the soil.
"This is the city of Cleveland -- a great lake and a great soil -- and that makes us so viable to the Midwest region," said the urban farmer.
After a while the high school students left the farm. But Hooper remained, walking among the crops and pulling weeds when he could find one trying to choke out the life of his beloved produce.
He would be there in the soil until the sun sets. Erich Hooper would probably be there even after that, tending his crops by the light of his farmhouse backdoor.