COLUMBUS – For Mark VanFleet, down on the farm is actually a formerly vacant lot in a residential neighborhood on the South Side of Columbus.
His one-half acre plot grows row upon row of vegetables, including lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, turnips, cucumbers, garlic, basil, dill, chard and kale. Known as Harriet Gardens, the lot provides enough for the full-time urban farmer to sell his produce to 15 local restaurants and at least three farmers’ markets.
“I never thought I’d grow up to be a farmer – I’d never even gardened until my wife and I bought our house 10 years ago and planted a small plot in the backyard,” VanFleet said recently, as he harvested carrots out of his Merion Village farm. “It’s become my passion and, three years ago, my fulltime job.”
“I like living in the city and didn’t want to move, so turning this vacant urban lot into a farm has been wonderful. Its small size is manageable for my experience and its location is close to home. Plus the neighbors love it.”
VanFleet is one of several growers that have graduated from the Ohio Master Urban Farmer workshop series offered by the College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University (CFAES).
The intensive course, which was developed by Ohio State University Extension (the outreach arm of CFAES), teaches the basics of farming in an urban environment. Topics include soil testing for urban sites, choosing a farm location, basic plant science, marketing your produce, and most importantly, zoning and legal issues associated with farming in urban and residential areas.
Agriculture is a booming industry in many urban centers across Ohio and nationwide, said Mike Hogan, an OSU Extension agriculture and natural resources educator who works with the program to increase the number of urban farmers.
For example, Columbus was home to only five urban farms just four years ago, he said.
“Now, there are at least 30 urban farms throughout the city,” Hogan said. “Not only have entrepreneurs been able to benefit from starting their own farm business in the heart of city neighborhoods, but people in the neighborhoods have benefited from having access to fresh, healthy foods grown nearly in their backyards.”
OSU Extension’s Franklin County office, along with the Columbus Urban Farmers Network, will host a free, public tour of five urban farms this summer to highlight the work urban farmers are doing and to educate consumers on the possibilities of urban farming, Hogan said.
The Columbus Urban Farm Tour Series tours generally last about two hours and will take consumers from farms on the South Side of Columbus, to urban plots in Franklinton and the Linden area, to urban food enterprises on the East Side of Columbus.
One of the farms on the tour will include Freshtown Farm, run by OSU Extension Ohio Master Urban Farmer alumna, Marcie Todd.
Todd’s urban farm is situated on a plot of land in Vassor Village near South High School that formerly housed three vacant homes.
She now grows at least 70 different varieties of produce at the South Side location and on a larger plot she farms in Pataskala, enough to sustain a 30-customer Community Supported Agriculture business, as well as sell to several local restaurants and two farmer’s markets.
Todd also produces enough food to donate to local food banks as a way to “give back to the community,” she said.
“I find a lot of value farming in the neighborhood and working in the community in which I also live,” Todd said. “In addition to being able to earn a living and run my own business, part of the privilege of urban farming is being able to produce healthy foods for people that live here too.”
Another benefit of urban farming is the boost that it offers neighborhoods, Hogan said.
“Several developers have reached out to OSU Extension Franklin County to find out how they can start urban farms in many of the communities they are developing, because more and more people are viewing urban farming as an attractive amenity,” Hogan said. “People want access to fresh, healthy, local foods, and urban farming is a valuable, viable option to supply that demand.”
The first location on the Columbus Urban Farm Tour series was Harriet Gardens, 42 W. Jenkins Avenue, on July 10. The remaining tour dates, topics and locations are:
-Urban Community Garden Serving Homeless Men, Aug. 19 from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Friends of the Homeless Garden, 924 E. Main Street in Columbus.
-Expanded Aquaculture and Vegetable Farm, Aug. 23 from 10:30 a.m. to noon, at Project AquaStar Farm at St. Stephens Community Center, 1500 E. 17th Ave., in Columbus.
All the tours are free and open to the public. For more information on attending the tours or to learn more about OSU Extension’s Ohio Master Urban Farmer Workshop Series, contact Hogan at 614-866-6900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.