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Giving Thanks for Today’s Pilgrims in Agriculture

By Suzanne Pender

Built upon a vacant lot across from the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority's Riverview Towers, the six-acre farm is one of the largest urban farms in the United States.

Built upon a vacant lot across from the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority's Riverview Towers, the six-acre farm is one of the largest urban farms in the United States. Photo: Chris Coulon, NRCS Ohio.

Ohio City Farm supplies produce to local chefs, runs a roadside farm stand, and runs a weekly CSA program, through which members can also donate shares to local families in need. P

Ohio City Farm supplies produce to local chefs, runs a roadside farm stand, and runs a weekly CSA program, through which members can also donate shares to local families in need. Photo: Chris Coulon, NRCS Ohio.

High tunnels trap heat under a polyethylene, hoop-shaped structure and extend the growing season, sometimes making growing year-round possible.

High tunnels trap heat under a polyethylene, hoop-shaped structure and extend the growing season, sometimes making growing year-round possible. Photo: Chris Coulon, NRCS Ohio.

What comes to mind when you think of the first Thanksgiving? You probably don’t think about modern-day refugees or urban agriculture, but perhaps you should.

“Nearly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims—men and women who want nothing more than the chance for a safer, better future for themselves and their families,” President Obama said in his 2015 Thanksgiving address.

Many of today’s refugees come from farming backgrounds and want to grow food to contribute to their communities. Urban agriculture has a unique role to play in the lives of these new Americans.

I recently visited some urban farms in Cleveland, Ohio, that were assisted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The city of Cleveland has supported urban agriculture through actions like modified zoning and reduced water rates for growers, and is one of the most active and successful urban agriculture movements in the nation. Urban farms and their benefits—nutritious food for residents, improved neighborhoods and increased employment opportunities—are making a difference to the 56 percent of Cleveland residents who live in “food deserts,” areas with limited access to fresh, nutritious food.

At Cleveland’s Ohio City Farm, refugees are learning how to grow food in the city and are also introducing nutritious, and sometimes unfamiliar, fruits and vegetables to the tables of their community.

Built upon a vacant lot across from the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority's Riverview Towers, the six-acre farm is one of the largest urban farms in the United States. It was founded to provide fresh, local and healthy food to Cleveland’s underserved residents, boost the local food economy, and educate the community about their food. Ohio City Farm provides low-cost land, shared facilities, and technical assistance to support new agricultural entrepreneurs.

Each year, Ohio welcomes 1,300 to 1,900 refugees from countries including Burma, Laos, the Congo, Somalia, Ukraine and Iraq. To support refugees in Cleveland, Ohio, City Farm partnered with the Refugee Response and created The Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program (REAP), which employs refugee trainees and teaches them employable skill sets. The refugees learn food science, horticulture, business, and agriculture. They sell directly to restaurants and have their own market stand. Biweekly workshops focus on agricultural education including soils, harvesting, pest control, winter growing, cover cropping, and irrigation. Many refugees have gone on to careers in kitchens, grocery stores and farming.

“Eighty-five percent of the refugee population is highly skilled in agriculture. It was obvious to connect those activities with an urban land opportunity,” said Darren Hamm, executive director of the Refugee Response. “This is an honorable place to grow and heal—it is a spiritual place that benefits them economically as well.”

Some of the farm’s seasonal high tunnels were acquired with the assistance of NRCS. High tunnels trap heat under a polyethylene, hoop-shaped structure and extend the growing season, sometimes making growing year-round possible.

Besides making a big difference to the productivity of urban farms, “High tunnels make it possible to grow food locally in an environmentally beneficial manner. Many urban farmers grow food for local farmer markets, which stimulates the local economy and improves air quality by reducing air emissions from transportation,” said NRCS Ohio State Conservationist Terry Cosby.

USDA and NRCS are exploring more ways to help urban farmers. As “The People’s Department,” USDA is providing assistance to all growers, regardless of acreage or location. “We didn’t know where the Initiative would go, but we have 50 to100 people wanting to do this every year,” Cosby said. “We’ve had up to 300 people at our workshops on high tunnels.” In addition to providing high tunnels to support urban growers, NRCS in Ohio also hired a full-time urban conservationist and entered into an agreement with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to assist with outreach and education.

Ohio City Farm supplies produce to local chefs, runs a roadside farm stand, and runs a weekly CSA program, through which members can also donate shares to local families in need. Tenants of the housing authority and SNAP recipients are able to buy produce at discounted rates. “Green Teams” prepare some housing authority residents to one day start their own urban farms. The farm even grows hops for local breweries.

“The high tunnels are improving the social environment in these communities, which is a big benefit,” said Lynette Harmon, NRCS District Conservationist. “High tunnels in this specific area of the city raise awareness of food and where it comes from. It encourages people to start eating healthier and demonstrates how they can grow food on their own.”

On any given morning, teams of workers—residents of the housing authority across the street, refugees, or others who want to get their hands in the soil—are tending the crops. The farm has given a lot to these people – a reconnection with nature, a closer-knit community, the ability to grow their own healthy food, and job skills. They in turn have given back to their community by making healthy food accessible and, in the case of refugees, introducing new foods from their country of origin.

For agency leader R. Pooh Vongkhamdy, state conservationist in Rhode Island, visiting Ohio City Farm brought back memories. “My family came to the U.S. as refugees from war in Laos. We had a farm, where we grew many of the same crops that are being grown at Ohio City Farm. The farm is beautiful and well organized, and the refugees’ skills are appreciated and being used for the benefit of all. It’s a win-win—great for the refugees as well as for the community.”

“I’m really impressed with how these high tunnels are touching people’s lives in way that the NRCS has not been able to before. It is awesome to see the passion in the eyes of those involved,” said Gayle Barry, the NRCS Northeast Regional Conservationist.

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants whose traditions have woven the diverse tapestry that defines our nation. American culture—cuisine, art, and music, to name few—is shaped by the combination of these diverse cultural influences.

On this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the unique partnership between urban farms in American cities and the diverse urban famers who are nourishing and enriching their communities.

See the story of the 2015 Minority Farmer of the Year, an urban farmer in Cleveland. https://youtu.be/nijRgz6_NSk

For more information on how NRCS can help you with urban agriculture, contact your local state or field office or www.nrcs.usda.gov. For information on all USDA resources for urban growers, see the new USDA Urban Agriculture toolkit.