Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Seeking Inspiration Abroad: Palm Springs and Wooster

On December 4 when winter kicked into extreme gear in Cleveland, me and the missus took off like the rest of the snowbirds to the sunny desert of Palm Springs, California, where a much welcomed vacation was enjoyed with cactus-scape and oasis hiking, margarita poolside sipping, tarantula encountering, mid-century furniture window shopping, and old friend hanging (thanks for making the drive, Scot, Todd, and Anya).

Though I didn't want to do anything farm related, I managed to knock out two blogs and made a visit to the Palm Springs "Certified" Farmer's Market, where I became even further impressed with my Cleveland farmer brethren. In California, the Land of Ag, I expected to find crazy-colored tomatoes, Asian greens, and even some new peppers. But what I found instead were pretty much standard veggie crops with two yellow exceptions: a carrot and a slicing tomato. Granted Palm Springs is not the cultural capital of California, but given all the mid-century furniture and propensity towards food trends, I expected a lot more in every way, shape, and form from the Palm Springs "Certified" Farmer's Market.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is way off this blog's beaten path, but it should be noted that every time something in our food distribution chain gets "certified" that it adds costs in terms of time and money to the farmer. One of the beauties about micro-scale farming is that the consumer can literally get to know their farmer and often the farm itself. This is me definitely being an idealist, but I feel a personal relationship/connection is worth more than any certification when it comes to our food chain.

Now don't get me wrong. There were some awesome sights. Oranges, lemons, and avocados were stacked high and were visually intriguing because we can't grow those fruits in Ohio.

My favorite stand sold nothing but value-added products. Bella Vado Splendid Oils are the end products of a family avocado farm east of San Diego. Homegrown and home-squeezed, Bella Vado offers bottled avocado oil, avocado, soap, and the avocado stick (lip balm). I've been showering with the unscented soap this week, and it's been nothing short of luxurious. I love the tiny bubbles. I also brought back a bottle of the oil, but have yet to open it. Regretfully, I didn't get the avocado stick, which would be really useful this time o' year in Cleveland.

In hindsight, what I liked about the Bella Vado operation beyond the ultra-personable-ness of family member/salesperson, Charissa, is that their products are probably the furthest thing than what anybody is doing here. It may exist, but I don't know anybody in NE Ohio that is micro-pressing any kind of oil at all, and definitely not to the point of creating value-added products. In that sense, Bella Vado was completely eye opening.

When I got back to snowy, blustery Cleveland, my attention quickly turned to the distribution bottleneck that so many of us urban farmers are presently facing. That attention traversed me to the furthest corners of southwestern NE Ohio to a big town called Wooster, Ohio in order to visit, shop, and get inspired at their working food co-op, Local Roots.

Upon entering Local Roots, it all seemed too easy. There was the value-added to the left and left-back of the store, starting with soaps and balms and changing to dried beans, canned salsas, and sorghum and maple syrups. In the center, there was the fresh produce with husk cherries, every color of potato, apples, chestnuts and so forth. The right-back of the store was a coffee stand, serving small batch roasted cups of coffee. The right wall was lined with freezers and coolers, full of meats, cheeses, milks, and eggs. I bought some thick-cut bologna and Hartzler's Egg Nog. Then the right-front not on the wall was an assortment of fresh baked goods from vegan what-nots to gluten-free whatevers to Christmas cookies to kolachis. Let me emphasize that none of these products came from more than 50 miles away!

In order to shop at Local Roots, you need not be a member. However, in order to sell, membership is required at a cost of $50 or five labor volunteer hours. Producers set their own prices with Local Roots getting a flat 10% of sales. Sales are tracked with a semi-elaborate UPC code system that purportedly costs about $400. Shoppers tag their own produce with the correct UPC code sticker so that sales are rung up accordingly. Now getting back to membership, a shopper may also become a member for $50 a year or $1,000 for a lifetime. This entitles the member to a proceed of the profits, if and when there are profits.

It should also be mentioned that the visible walls were plastered with one page farm bios of all the participating producers. This created a familiar atmosphere that really drove the "local" home. Again, Local Roots made it seem all too easy, and way too organized. I wondered, could Clevelanders cooperatively do anything? Furthermore, could we replicate something like Local Roots in Cleveland?

When making my pilgrimage down to Wooster, I specifically had two storefronts on my mind as potential Cleveland Co-op candidates. Coincidentally and independently of my pro co-op consultation, one of these storefront owners came to the same conclusion about starting a local food co-op in Cleveland with their storefront after visiting Local Roots a week prior to my visit. No convincing was needed. As for the other storefront, that's a big fat "we'll see." I believe Cleveland could support multiple local food co-ops, but it always takes that initial risk taker to first dip their toes in the freezing water of Lake Erie.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

For the Record

Ever since I've started to engage in urban farming, a lot of people have had a lot of questions for me, a lot of them personal. They're the kind of questions that people may discuss with their good friends, but not relative strangers. But with the visible-ness and subsequent openness of urban farming, the public seems nonchalantly inclined to regularly put me through a series of par for the course questioning. What this boils down to are inquiries about farm revenues and personal finances.

So here it goes for the record. Like Wikileaks, I believe in full disclosure. I will attempt to answer these questions and divert the public to my blog when they come up in the future.

So, Old Husher how much money did you make this first year farming? Personally, I made nothing. The farm had veggie revenues just under $2K and t-shirt sales of $500. All of these monies went straight back into my company, Green Urban Enterprises. Obviously, $2K is not enough to live on even by cheap ol' Cleveland standards. Considering however, I only grew on 1,900 square feet of my 17,000 available, AND I actually sold within city limits (not to yuppies in the 'burbs), AND I didn't have a spring crop because of Cleveland's temporary cease and desist, AND I wasn't set-up to accept assistance this year, AND I do this without a partner, then my $2K is actually quite a feat that I'm exceptionally proud of.

So, Old Husher why'd you only grow on a fraction of your land this year? This boiled down to time constraints. Though the city granted me funding for a fence, this meant nothing in terms of city zoning. It was total bureaucratic left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing. Much of my summer was spent down at city hall trying to get my fence for which the city had already granted me money to get. As a one man band, if I'm down at city hall, then I'm not farming.

Old Husher, what do you mean by "one man band?" Doesn't your wife help? What I mean by "one man band" is that I do 98% of all the work myself. From seed selection to seed starting to planting to pruning to weeding to harvesting to processing to selling, it's generally all me. That being said, I do have a small crew of volunteers that help somewhat regularly. This crew consists of Mike Birchler, Kevin "Glutton" Orr, and Jessica Julian. For them being in my life and on my farm, I'm eternally grateful. Please note, there is no reference to my wife, Sarah Husher, within this crew. Instead, she works a full time job with benefits and a part time job as a yoga instructor, which ultimately has awarded me the financial freedom necessary to get this farm off the ground. And just like my crew, but for obviously different and varied reasons, I'm eternally grateful for having Sarah in my life despite her not "helping" specifically on the farm.

Old Husher, do you own the land you farm on? As it stands right now, I don't own my farm land. I have two separate landlords. The first is the City of Cleveland, who I have a five year, zero dollar lease with. My other landlord is the Bellaire Puritas Development Corporation, who I have an annual lease with that costs several hundred dollars more than the one with Cleveland. Ultimately, I would like to own my farm land, as this would offer me and my business more security. I need about $9K for the Bellaire Puritas property, and even given that money I still need to prove to them that I'm serious about this urban farm stuff before they're willing to sell it to me. The Cleveland Land Bank property is up in the air, whether or not Cleveland is willing to sell. Basically as I understand it, if Cleveland has a better development opportunity for my farm, then they're gonna jump on that, and my farm is kaput. It's not exactly the sterling guarantee that I'd like for the longevity of my farm, but it's the best I can do for now.

Old Husher, what kind on money did it take to get this all started? Well, I'm a firm believer that an urban farm in the Rust Belt can be started for about $1K. However, I got my farm started with substantially more money. My first cash infusion came in the form of a grant called Re-Imagining Cleveland. This was a grant for $7.5K and was actually part of Obama's Stimulus. These Obama monies got used up quickly, mostly on my fence and storage container. Sarah and I also lent my company $4K so that Green Urban Enterprises could have working capital for things like business cards, insurance, and rent money. Of the $4K, Green Urban Enterprises has paid back $500 so far. It would have been an even grand, but this laptop I'm typing on right now took precedence over Sarah and I.

So that's about it. I've fielded these questions so many times I've felt it necessary to right this blog. If you have any other questions for me, please feel free to ask.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The First Cleveland Farmer's Summit

On December 1, the day winter came again to Cleveland, I participated in the First Annual/Seasonal/Monthly Cleveland Farmer's Summit. The event was organized by Ms. Molly Murray at the OBOE Building on Lake Avenue. Though the email invite was extensive, the actual turnout was sparse. With a few exceptions (namely Lynn Rodeman, Eco Village Produce, and Blue Pike Farm), you could say the attendees were the hardcore, Cleveland farmers. There was Peter McDermott and his partner Virginia, George Remington, Eric Stoffer and Annabel Khouri, Erin "Mean Bean" Laffay, myself, and Molly. Refreshments consisted of homemade chai tea with Hartzler's milk, whose cream separated and froze, and I ate. Which had I left after eating the frozen glob of sweet cream, I would have left satisfied. But instead I stayed for the entire Summit and left extremely satisfied and completely energized.

Molly put together a formal forum that consisted of discussion based around successes, what we wanted to learn in the future, and our vision for this whole urban farming thing. What surprised me the most was the array of answers. About half the attendees (not me) wanted to scale up their operations to multiple acres and outside the city. I found this a little disheartening because I've always felt urban farming is about urban growth (especially in the Rust Belt), and one of our main competitive advantages as urban farmers is our closeness to our markets. But to each their own, not everybody likes rock n roll and independent restaurants. Molly iterated the need for cooperative buying, as we all buy our stuff from relatively the same places and because it's exceptionally difficult to buy basic farm goods like straw bales within city limits.

In terms of successes, I am excited to just have made it through my first year. Others named specific crops like carrots or arugula. But in general, we focused on what we all wanted to learn. I always pick mundane things like greens handling/processing/storage and drip irrigation; whereas, Peter McDermott threw out there some way bigger fishes like total farm planning (with an implied emphasis on spreadsheets). This became the great white whale of the evening and is the formal topic of our next Summit in January.

Erin Laffay presented the most refreshing perspectives of the evening. She's taken a page from the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative down in Athens and subsequently grows staple foods. This year she grew on a 900 square foot plot, dedicated to nothing but beans. What's refreshing about this is how Erin is completely bucking the high dollar veggie trend and is instead opting for high protein/high fiber/easily stored goods that typically do not bring in those high dollars. In case of the 2012 Zombie Apocalypse, we're going to need Erin's beans much more than anybody's arugula or carrots. And for that, Erin, I salute you.

Going home that evening, I found a certain comfort in knowing/learning that all of us are fairly still new to this urban farming thing, even the two-year seasoned veterans. My slight insecurities in terms of benchmarking against my peers completely went away after this meeting. I feel more secure and comfortable than ever with my farm and myself, and for that I'm grateful to have attended the First Cleveland Farmer's Summit. Here's to growth and the future.