When you think of Cleveland, what comes to mind? The industrial city whose polluted river caught on fire? The undesirable city recently rejected by local hero, LeBron James? The dumpy, depressing city featured in American Splendor by dark comic, Harvey Pekar? The cursed city where not one of the football, baseball, or basketball teams has brought home a national championship in 46 years? Oft dubbed “Mistake on the Lake,” Cleveland is the gag writer’s easy punch line.
But anyone who is actually paying attention knows that Cleveland is the rising star of the local food movement. A firestorm of small-scale community initiatives has swept the city, with urban farms, farmers’ markets and food distribution centers lighting up the supposedly gloomy town. And the spark these initiatives share is Brad Masi, a community organizer, writer, photographer, filmmaker, teacher and social entrepreneur who has been developing local food systems in Northeast Ohio for almost 20 years.
As a student at Oberlin College (about 30 miles from downtown Cleveland), Masi launched a local food purchasing initiative that now encompasses dozens of Ohio farmers and the college dining service.
Then he founded and directed the New Agrarian Center and the George Jones Farm and Nature Preserve. The farm provides training and research opportunities for college students and community members in food production, natural building, habitat restoration, renewable energy systems and outdoor education.
He went on to co-found City Fresh and serve as its first director. City Fresh increases Clevelanders’ access to fresh local food, improves urban market access for local farmers, provides nutrition education and teaches urban farmers how to turn abandoned lots into market gardens.
Masi also founded the Agrarian Learning Network to build cooperation across Northeast Ohio. The Network hosted permaculture trainings and helped create two documentaries, Real Low Calorie Diet (2007) and PolyCultures: Food Where We Live (2009), which was an official selection of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in California.
Masi describes himself as a social entrepreneur. “I ask what’s here in this community that could address the problem. We have most of the resources that we need. We just need to unlock them in creative ways,” he said.
“If it’s designed right, it sustains itself after I walk away,” he continued. “Collaboration is very critical.”
The Northeast Ohio landscape is dominated by large-scale industrial agriculture and the remains of large-scale manufacturing. But Masi says that many of these large-scale systems are crumbling, as evidenced by the region’s derelict urban and rural landscapes.
“The growth in the region is smaller scale. It’s sustainable farms catering to small markets,” he said.
The crumbling of the old industrial model has strained Cleveland. The U.S. Census Bureau calculates that Cleveland is the nation’s second-poorest city. The city has lost half its population, from almost 1 million people in 1950 to about 430,000 in the latest census. And around 3,300 acres of vacant lots drain the city’s resources.
While most people would see this as a blight, Masi sees it as an opportunity. “There’s no pressure on the land. It’s sitting there idle. In the last few years, there’s been an incredible surge of interest in urban agriculture,” he said. “At any of these farms, you find a very different vibe. There’s a sense of community. People are coming together to restore something, to give life to an area that has struggled.”
Though it faces past environmental and economic degradation, the region has something in the positive balance: dirt. The region has deep, productive soils and Lake Erie produces a variety of micro-climates. “It’s a rich area from an ecological point of view. It’s a very productive and very resilient area,” Masi said.
Rich ecological surroundings and urban agriculture tie into a bigger vision of how Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland can evolve into green cities, says Masi. “Creativity, entrepreneurship, and job creation are all connected to urban agriculture,” he said.
The Stanard Farm on the east side of Cleveland is just one example of a dereliction-turned-opportunity. An old school building was carefully deconstructed, and materials were redistributed to farmers around the city. In its place grew a farm operated by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. They hired adults with developmental disabilities to work the land. “The unemployed in cities tend to be people who have disabilities or have been recently incarcerated,” said Masi. “How can we produce a local economy for people who have been locked out of it before?” The Stanard Farm provides an answer.
Urban gardening. Photo by Brad Masi
Masi and a consulting team just completed an assessment of the region’s food system. The goal of the Northeast Ohio Local Food Assessment and Plan is to create a local food-based economic development strategy.
The team recommended ways to “re-localize” the food system and rebuild the region’s economy. They found that if the region shifted 25% of its economy to local sources, that would create 27,664 jobs and $868 million in wages.
Significant barriers to realizing that shift include a lack of infrastructure, such as greenhouses and food processing centers, and an overall lack of capital to finance start-ups or expansions.
“If you look at pension plans or investment funds, none of it is going into local businesses,” he said. “How can we create more opportunities for people to invest in small businesses in their own region? How do we change our concept of investment?”
Next steps for Masi will include creating a mechanism that can tackle the issues of community investment and infrastructure.
New farmers with hands on the land
Our country’s system of growing and distributing food is changing. “If you look at the system of agriculture in the U.S. especially after World War II, a lot of agriculture moved towards one person using equipment to farm,” said Masi. “It’s difficult to connect in a meaningful way to the land when you’re farming at that scale. And it’s farming on the assumption that there’s always going to be fuel available. Looking at the decline of fossil energy, we have to ask how to run our food system off the sun again.”
Masi’s stresses the importance of farmer training. “We’ll need new farmers with hands on the land,” he said.
Small-scale farming renews that connection to the land lost through industrial agriculture, says Masi. He describes how small-scale farming originally connected him to the Northeast Ohio landscape.
“I came to Oberlin from Colorado where I’d spent a lot of time in the wilderness. When I came to Oberlin, I didn’t have those vast wilderness areas,” he said. Then he started volunteering on a nearby farmstead. “”I realized that was the connection [to nature and a sense of wilderness] that I was hungering for.” he said. “The great thing about local food is that you engage with it and bring environmental values to your daily life. You get away from the notion that you have to drive to get nature experiences.”
High tech, low tech
Masi is working on a new multi-media project that will examine Northeast Ohio’s natural history and local food systems.
He says it’s a myth that a resurgence in small-scale farming will force everyone to return to a primitive time. In reality, he says the local food movement is “a way of embracing the future.”
“There are high tech aspects and much more traditional low tech aspects,” he said. One example of the high tech is using new media for marketing products and sharing ideas. Another is using film and web-based media to highlight success stories, such as with Polycultures.
“We present their stories so people can learn from them. [Farmers and artisans] are so focused on their craft or enterprise, they can’t connect to something bigger,” said Masi. “Using film or web technology makes people feel connected. They begin to work cross-regionally.”
All of the collaboration and enterprise is paying off. When Masi first started talking about urban agriculture, he was met with skepticism. Agriculture in the city was seen as some sort of Green Acres fantasy or a cute hobby, at best. “The mixture of opinions veered from neutral to negative. Now, it’s gotten to a point where City Council members compete with each other to show their support for community gardens,” said Masi.
Cleveland was the first major U.S. city to create a garden zoning policy that protects land for urban agriculture.
“We have seen this move from the fringes to the mainstream,” said Masi. He points to the almost six-acre farm recently established to the West Side Market and a low-income neighborhood that is training 30 new urban farmers to run their own businesses.
“People think of Cleveland as a place that’s been knocked down or left out,” said Masi. “The local food system is spreading a new narrative for the region.”