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A decade ago, Cleveland was a leader in urban agriculture. Now activists fight for land to use as green space

Urban Farming
Posted at 8:23 AM, Jun 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-04 12:42:03-04

CLEVELAND — In 2011, Cleveland was lifted up as a national leader in urban farming. But, a decade later, several farms have closed. There are community activists trying to keep the land but are running up against roadblocks.

"How are we losing this when we're just now being let in?" Michelle Jackson is an activist in Ward 6 and a supporter of Bumper Crop Farm. The farm ran as a community green space and urban garden during the summer of 2020.

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Community activist Michelle Jackson.

"This became like an Oz on Woodland Road," she said.

Before 2020, the land and garden were in the hands of the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Supporters of the space knew the lease would end in 2020 and be developed into new housing. But, the pandemic put a hold on the project and the land was available for an urban green space.

"When Holly came to manage the farm for that one-year growing season, she opened it up. She did events. People came and did music and poetry and barbecues. And we felt like this had always been ours," Jackson said about the volunteer who came in to run the farm last year. She is now in nursing school and unable to run the farm this year. The housing development has not started yet.

The farm was successful and Jackson saw it had the potential to be around long-term. So, supporters started looking for another lot.

"And we really are committed to having it on a main thoroughfare like this that's easily accessible in the Woodhill neighborhood," she said. To find the space, they looked at the land banks for both Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. The land banks are online spreadsheets that show vacant lots and dilapidated properties."

"My gripe is that we're not prioritizing green space," she said. "The priority is to give it to developers to come and build those boxes, the priority is not to let individual citizens buy it."

Kim Kimlin, the chief operating officer with the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, disagrees.

"I would say that the green space for use, it is a fairly small amount, probably less than 5% of what we do," she said.

Residents interested in running a green space in the county have to submit an application, pay a $200 fee, submit a plan, and get sign-off from the council person in that Ward.

"And that's just ridiculous when we know that there's land available that can be used, that we can pay," she said.

For Kimlin, it's not about who can afford the land but what happens once the plan is approved.

"I think the issue really with creating green spaces, who's going to manage it," she said. These green spaces are supported by groups of volunteers.

Right now, the county land bank has more than 1,700 lots listed as vacant lots. Jackson knows these lots can be used for housing or other development projects but she thinks green space is just as important.

Unclaimed vacant lots can get overgrown and become dumping grounds.

"We found a space that was formerly known as the "forgotten triangle" because it was an illegal dump," said Randall McSheppard, one of the founders of the Rid-All Partnership.

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Rid-Al-Partnership farm in the Kinsman neighborhood.

The partnership is two miles from the former Bumper Crop Farm. It started 10 years ago during the urban agricultural boom.

"No one was using the space for anything positive," McSheppard said.

The community-government partnership now takes over 15 acres near Otter Park in Kinsman.

"We're the Collard Green Kings of Cleveland," said G. Keymah Durden. He is another farm founder. For Durden, he knows farming is not for the faint of heart.

"It is not. It is not," he said. "It is a 24/7, 365-day operation."

"You can't go away for nine months and then come back and think that everything's going to be okay," McSheppard said.

But, the founders know work like this has benefits. "The food is awesome," Durden said. "And when you create a new environment, you create a place that's ripe for change. There's a direct correlation between environment and behavior."

It's that chance and community benefit the supporters of Bumper Crop Farm are trying to keep in Ward 6. Jackson said she knows housing is important for people in her area but thinks the land should be used for more.

"There's always a benefit to somebody besides the people in the community," she said. "That's just the way it is."