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Urban Farming Grows in Northeast Ohio but Faces Challenges

Steve Larson of Living City Farms spreads mulch
Kelly Krabill
Steve Larson spreads mulch at Living City Farms' new lot in the city of Tallmadge. The urban farm recently expanded to a second location after growing produce the past eight years in Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood.

The idea of urban farming is a straightforward one. Take vacant, unused land in an urban setting and transform it into something that gives back to the community. And while urban farming is growing in Northeast Ohio, the farmers are still facing a host of challenges.

Steve Larson, manager at Living City Farms, spreads mulch with a wheelbarrow to help keep weeds from growing around his planted crops. He slowly works his way down each row, spilling a chunk of the woody chips at each stop he makes in the furrow.

With fewer weeds to pull, Larson can focus more of his energy on the new farm in the city of Tallmadge, which was started in the summer of 2020.

KRABILL living city farms 2.jpg
Kelly Krabill
Assistant manager, Em Evans, is with Living City’s manager, Steve Larson, in their newly cleared farm in Tallmadge. The farmers have expanded the business to grow their customer base.

The eight acres used to be an overgrown horse pasture that wasn’t used for about 10 years. Larson and his assistant farm manager, Em Evans, cleared 1.5 acres so they could grow additional food for new customers, not just for Ms. Julie’s Kitchen, a farm-to-table vegan restaurant in Akron.

The farm’s first location, which is a 0.5 acre lot, was started eight years ago in Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood to grow vegetables like kale and spinach for the restaurant.

“One of the intentions with starting this new farm was to be able to have more space to produce more and have the infrastructure needed in order to produce more and sell produce to outside outlets,” Larson said.

As Living City grows its business, zoning regulations prohibit the farm from selling vegetables at either location, so many urban farmers like Larson use farmers markets as a secondary means to maintain a customer base.

Other obstacles they face include poor soil health and getting allowances for the use of city water hydrants. Urban farmers often need to rebuild soil after they gain access to their land.

That can take time, “especially in urban settings where it's a vacant lot that a house came down or a series of vacant lots,” said Lisa Nunn, the executive director at Let’s Grow Akron, which has 30 community gardens and around five market gardens, which are made up of gardeners who sell at farmers markets.

“A lot of times there's very high clay or filled dirt has been brought in after houses or buildings have come down so the soil is depleted of nutrients or could even be toxic,” she said.

Em Evans of Living City Farms harvests collards
Kelly Krabill
Em Evans harvests collards for the Summit Lake Farmers Market. Living City Farms sells produce to outside buyers since city zoning regulations prohibit the farmers from selling at the farm.

Larson and Evans “dug up giant slabs of concrete” when transforming the horse pasture into the Tallmadge farm, Evans said.

Larson added they are changing the way they farm at the second location.

“We’re putting more emphasis on that regenerative process and wanting the sort of agriculture that we’re doing to be life giving to the people involved doing the growing [so] the plants that we’re growing are healthy and able to regenerate the soil,” he said.

Zoning restrictions at both locations are another issue the farmers are dealing with.

In Akron, “growing is permitted anywhere residential use is permitted,” but the selling of agriculture is prohibited under the residential zoning code, according to an email from the city’s press department.

The Tallmadge farm is located behind a white house across the street from the Summit County Fairgrounds on North Avenue. The street is busy with car traffic and a few businesses operate nearby, but the farm is located in a residentially zoned area. Larson said the city has been working to revise its residential zoning code over the last few years. He hopes to find out soon if there are any changes to allow the sale of produce at the farm.

Many cities are providing more flexibility with their zoning codes to accommodate farmers, said Mike Hogan, an extension educator at Ohio State University’s agriculture and natural resources department.

KRABILL living city farms 4.jpg
Kelly Krabill
Em Evans talks to a customer at the Summit Lake Farmers Market. The market was started in 2014 by community organizations and residents to provide access to fresh produce. Living City Farms is one of the local growers at the market, where seven to 10 vendors set up every Tuesday from June to October.

“It’s very common for cities to recognize that urban agriculture can be a very important part of a community, and they have been willing to adjust zoning regulations that make sense,” Hogan said.

Urban farmers also often struggle to access city water systems, typically via fire hydrants.

Akron almost discontinued the use of water two years ago for community gardeners, including urban farmers, because the city was concerned about safety issues and water waste.

“The primary function of the fire hydrant is for emergency responders to use in the event of a fire so they must have immediate access when needed,” according to an email from the city’s press department. Akron was “able to develop some rules for use that allow the community gardens to utilize the hydrants without creating any safety issues or overuse of the hydrants.”

Nunn, from Let’s Grow Akron, met with city officials to talk about the group’s concerns. “We had quite a few meetings and developed a good relationship where we’ve now moved past that threat of losing the hydrants,” she said.

Living City Farms uses Tallmadge city water and Larson said they are “working on getting a connection brought out to [them] to make watering easier for setting up irrigation” for when there is no rainfall. Tallmadge wants the farm in the city limits, he said, but he is still waiting for the ability to sell his products onsite and recently began selling produce online for pickup.

Despite these challenges, small-scale food producers on city lots provide access to fresh produce so residents have a shorter distance to travel for food.

Living City Farms by Kelly Krabill

Kelly Krabill produced this story as part of her work with the Collaborative News Lab at Kent State University in partnership with WKSU.

Kelly Krabill is a multiple media journalist at Ideastream Public Media. She is excited to engage viewers with visual storytelling. While living near Canton most of her life, she recently moved to Cleveland.