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From the Ground Up: Developing a Tool Kit for Urban Farmers

Oh the challenges associated with urban agriculture. No previous “farming” experience; tired, worn out or maybe contaminated soils; challenges obtaining permits for the land or water; variable weather and no blueprint for success.

Back in 1949 when the Cuyahoga SWCD was established, Cleveland’s population was nearly 1 million and the county was already 50% developed. But in 2016 the population had plummeted to fewer than 400,000 and thousands of vacant lots are scattered throughout the city’s core. All that vacant land inspired urban planners to develop ideas for "remimagining Cleveland."

Thanks to local and national initiatives, urban agriculture pioneers seized the opportunity to buy or adopt vacant parcels to expand community gardens and develop urban farms. The federal USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service’s funding for the Seasonal High Tunnel initiative was instrumental in encouraging beginning farmers to work the land. To date, 80 high tunnels have been built, however some are much more productive than others. At this year's Local Work Group meeting, urban farmers asked where they could get additional guidance.

This spring, the Cuyahoga SWCD applied and was awarded grant funds from the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) to aid nascent urban agriculture initiatives. Justin Husher, with experience as an urban farmer, was hired to use his expertise to provide guidance to beginning farmers. Justin farmed two vacant lots on Cleveland’s west side and sold thousands of pounds of colorful, fresh produce. His harvests included varieties of tomatoes, peppers and squash, as well as specialty items like ground cherries and Mexican sour gherkins. Old Husher’s Farm doesn’t exist at this time, but growing is still his passion. Justin is now working to establish paw paw groves here and in Athens, Ohio and growing specialty items.

Justin has degrees in botany and business management. He understands the trials and tribulations of urban farming and is looking to share his knowledge and skills. He has interesting challenges and a outstanding opportunities to provide beginning farmers with the tools and information that will help them become successful. Justin already has his boots on the ground. He is meeting with stakeholders and future collaborators to get a better understanding of the needs, identify gaps in current programs and determine what types of assistance will lead to the greatest success.

Welcome Justin!

~by Janine Rybka, District Administrator

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