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With Loss Of Two Farms, Is Cleveland Still A Leader In Urban Agriculture?

Updated: 12:03 p.m., Monday, Jan. 25, 2021

A decade ago, national publications stumbled over themselves to praise Cleveland for its cutting edge policies on urban farming.

In 2010,Travel & Leisure magazine named Cleveland one of the world’s “most visionary cities” because it created a special zoning code to allow farms on formerly vacant residential land. Another national publication ranked the city second in the U.S. in its commitment to the local food movement.

Flash forward to 2021, and two urban farms that date from that era are being redeveloped: one as mixed-income housing, the other as a preschool. That's angered nearby residents, who question whether the city's progressive policies toward urban land use were merely a stopgap until more profitable uses came along.

"It's not a pretty picture, quite frankly," said Anne Armstrong, who lives a few blocks away from Cudell Orchard, between Detroit and Franklin avenues and West 85th Street on the city's West Side. "I am very concerned for the city because they talk about being sustainable and caring about this stuff, and then their actions are the opposite."

In December, her campaign to save the orchard came to an end when a backhoe dug up all 40 of the orchard's trees — a mix of apple, cherry and pear. Eight of the trees were transplanted to a nearby site on Detroit Avenue. The rest were discarded.

Armstrong had started an online petition that drew nearly 2,000 signatures, but it was too late: The nonprofit development corporation that owned the land had sold it to Horizon Education Centers, which plans to build a $3 million preschool there.

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The former orchard site has been cleared of most trees and will become a preschool. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

Residents are raising similar concerns, meanwhile, on the city's East Side. There, near Woodland Avenue and East 114th Street, a one-acre farm on city-owned land will be redeveloped as mixed-income apartments. The site is part of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's plan to rebuild the Woodhill Homes public housing neighborhood.

Until 2019, the farm had been operated by the Cleveland Botanical Garden as part of its Green Corps program to teach farming skills to kids. After Green Corps downsized in 2020, a group of volunteers ran it as Bumper Crop Farm.

"I'm really annoyed," said Michelle B. Jackson, a neighborhood resident and activist who cofounded Reclaim Ward 4, a political action committee that seeks to involve people in public life on the city’s southeast side. "I'm annoyed that our community, when we have this actual open space that was opening up to the community, that it's now going away to build housing."

The farm's one acre produced three tons of produce last season, according to Hollie Baker, a former Green Corps employee who headed the volunteer effort. The soil had become highly fertile due to 10 years of organic supplementation, she said.

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Volunteers ran Bumper Crop Farm during the 2020 growing season. [Hollie Baker / Bumper Crop Farm]

Beyond its productivity as a farm, Jackson said Bumper Crop had recently come into its own as a community hub. Gatherings in summer 2020 — complete with live bands, free masks and physical distancing — drew as many as 200 people, at a time when most public parks and recreation centers were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A Question of Priorities

Neither Armstrong nor Jackson oppose new preschools or housing being built in their neighborhoods. But they question why urban farms are the places to do that, especially when the city has so much other vacant land: more than 14,000 parcels at the last count.

Jackson said the loss of productive green space is especially felt in mostly Black neighborhoods such as hers.

"Our illnesses, how we're housed, our economic prospects, all of that relates to your food, your access to food, how you're eating and how it's treated," Jackson said. Access to healthy food was one of the main benefits both the farm and the orchard were supposed to provide when they first opened about 10 years ago. Many others founded around that time and later continue to operate — as many as two dozen, by some estimates, plus an even larger number of smaller community gardens.

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Eight of Cudell Orchard's trees were transplanted to a new site in the neighborhood. [Nikki Hudson]

But some food policy experts in Cleveland say the loss of Bumper Crop Farm and Cudell Orchard shows just how vulnerable other spaces could be, while signaling a growing lack of enthusiasm for a movement once touted as a creative reuse of the city's underused land.

"If you look at Cleveland the last several years, this hope of development kind of supersedes everything — bricks and mortar, residential, retail," said Morgan Taggart of The Fare Project, a nonprofit that works on ways to get healthy food into all Cleveland neighborhoods. She helped create the agriculture zoning code the city passed 10 years ago.

"In terms of that highest and best use, urban agriculture and green space isn't up there," Taggart said, "even though I think we had a hope that it would be on the same level as other uses."

The City of Cleveland did not respond to a request for comment on its current prioritization of urban agriculture, though its website still touts its commitment to local foods and urban agriculture.

Ownership Equals Longevity

Some argue that farms and orchards need to earn the right to be viewed on the same level as more traditional development.

David Smith, the executive director of Horizon Education Centers, which is building the new preschool at the former orchard, said the site had fallen into disrepair.

"The property was very overgrown and surrounded by a six foot fence, and also it was kind of a garbage dump," he said.

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An architectural rendering shows Horizon's planned preschool. [Horizon Education Centers]

He said the new school site, once it's complete, will actually be much more accessible as a public space than the orchard was, offering a playground open to all. And not all neighbors are angry about the outcome. Nikki Hudson, who had also campaigned to save the orchard, said in the end she feels the eight transplanted trees will be much more visible — and much better tended — in their new location, while galvanizing neighbors to create new public spaces for growing food.

CMHA, meanwhile, has said that its Woodhill redevelopment will contain a network of new green spaces and community gardens open to the public.

Smith said he hopes there's a lesson learned from the orchard redevelopment: "If you have an orchard and you want to maintain your orchard, do that. Make it a community asset."

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CMHA plans to build 110 new mixed-income apartments on the former Bumper Crop Farm site. [Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority]

Of course, proper maintenance is only possible with access and control of the land, according to Novella Carpenter, who directs the urban agriculture program at the University of San Francisco. "We can't hope that someone's going to be nice to us forever and they'll just support us because it's cool," Carpenter said. "You have to own the land. And I mean, for African-American farmers, it doesn't work to be sharecropping." 

She said the best models she’s seen are community land trusts and direct ownership by citizen farmers.

At least one example of the latter model already exists in Cleveland. Chateau Hough, a vineyard on formerly vacant land on the city's East Side, was founded by Mansfield Frazier, whose nonprofit Neighborhood Solutions, Inc. owns the land.

Meanwhile, groups representing both the orchard and the farm are working with the City of Cleveland and other institutions to find new locations and — they hope — new ownership structures that put more control in the hands of farmers and neighbors.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.