You don't have to move to warmer climates (South Beach, anyone?) to enjoy the benefits of locally grown lettuce, herbs and other fresh produce in Cleveland during the winter.
With help from Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, Cleveland Crops -- an urban farming program run by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities -- is defying the region's usually cold winters to expand the growing season and keep people employed year-round.
At the program's Stanard Farm -- located in Cleveland's east side on the former site of an elementary school -- farm manager Gerry Gross and his staff are using a variety of season-extension techniques, such as high tunnels and low tunnels, to grow as many things as possible for as long as possible.
Lettuce, beets and carrots in December and January. Parsley and other herbs throughout most of the winter.
"They actually earn a living working here," says Gross of his "consumers," the term he and his colleagues use to refer to people with disabilities assisted by CCBDD. "The number-one reason we started this program is to create jobs. The main objective is to decrease the amount of revenue that taxpayers are paying. There are some consumers who have already been removed from the taxpayer's roll and are living on their own from the wages that they earn here. It helps to get them out of the home, gives them more freedom and the satisfaction of having a job."
Cleveland Crops began in 2010 at the 1.1-acre Stanard location with the goal of providing new job opportunities to a segment of the population that typically lacks them. Since then, the program has added acreage by committing to several other sites throughout Cleveland, including in Ohio City, the East 105th-St. Clair area, and South Euclid.
While the program has been successful in its main drive to employ people with developmental disabilities, it was quickly realized that the farming off-season would pose a problem for these workers. "We didn't want to lay them off during the winter," Gross says. "I love pushing the envelope and believe it is possible to have fresh produce available in Cleveland during the winter."
So Gross -- combining his personal experience growing food in the much-harsher North Dakota weather conditions and technical advice from Ohio State horticultural and agricultural engineering experts -- began experimenting with season-extension techniques that are becoming popular among gardeners and farmers alike throughout the country.
Stanard Farm now has two high tunnels -- plastic-covered, metal-frame structures that look like greenhouses but are much cheaper to build and operate. Inside, a variety of crops grow in raised beds erected from the bricks of the old school and further protected from frost by fabric row covers. Gross is also experimenting with low tunnels -- three-foot-high bent-conduit structures positioned along raised beds and covered with plastic, and which the consumers themselves build at the farm's shop with assistance from staff. The low tunnels cost only one-tenth as much as the high tunnels, Gross says.
"Thanks to these efforts, this winter we have 8-10 staff fully employed, and 20-25 consumers employed part-time," Gross says. "We plan to have even more people employed in the coming year."
Vicky Hamm, a job coach, is a new member of the staff at Stanard Farm. While washing Jerusalem artichokes (the root of a type of sunflower plant) with frigid water, she explains she found out about this program while looking for urban farming opportunities. "I love working with the consumers, they are really fun, they do their work and they do it well," Hamm says. "I also like getting to go to the different restaurants that use our crops and seeing them on the menu."
Cleveland Crops' main customers are area restaurants that like to incorporate local foods in their menus and like to experiment with "unique produce," as Gross puts it. Some retail stores also purchase produce from Cleveland Crops, including Nature's Bin, an upscale natural and organic products store in Lakewood. While not certified organic, all of Cleveland Crops' fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
"Their produce is better than anything I can get in the entire city, without spending a lot of money. I can get great vegetables, great quality and great diversity," says Jack Ahern, chef de cuisine at L'Albatros Brasserie and Bar in Cleveland, who in January was buying lettuce, Swiss chard and beets from Stanard Farm. "I'd love to have more produce available as this project grows. We are ready to grow with them. It's a win-win, a best-case scenario for the city. It speaks to what we are striving to accomplish for Cleveland."