Source: Cincinnati Enquirer
By: Hannah Sparling
The phone call came this past March. The woman on the other end of the line was having trouble finding produce. Empty shelves because of the coronavirus pandemic. She wanted to know if April Pandora had any to sell.
“They needed produce, and we had it,” said Pandora, who owns and operates an organic urban farm in Cincinnati. “That’s what we do.”
As small businesses around the nation are suffering the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, urban farmers like Pandora are actually seeing a boost in sales as well as heightened interest in their niche part of the region’s agricultural system.
People are more concerned with their health, so there’s a new demand for fresh, locally grown food.
And when panic buyers emptied supermarket shelves, it was a wakeup call.
That’s not to say farmers are not struggling during the pandemic. In fact, some have had to destroy tens of thousands of pounds of fresh food because their usual customers – hotels, schools and restaurants – are doing less business or are shut down completely.
But for others, like Pandora, who runs the Avondale-based Eden Urban Gardens, LLC, business is booming.
“People have realized how fragile our food systems really are,” Pandora said. “People got scared. People realized the grocery store only has a two- to three-day supply of food.”
Owner/farmer April Pandora checks soil around the orchard section at Eden Urban Gardens.
‘Running out of food’
During World War I, the government called on Americans to grow whatever they could in their yards to help combat food scarcity. First called War Gardens and then Victory Gardens, the movement grew so popular during World War II that in 1944, community gardeners produced nearly 40% of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S., according to the History channel.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020, gardening again rose to the fore, with seed companies telling The Enquirer in March they were doing 10 to 15 times their normal amount of business.
It’s difficult to quantify the boom, but multiple local farmers told The Enquirer business is up as a result of the pandemic. Sharonville urban farmer Andy Gorman, who also manages the Deerfield Farmers’ Market, said every farmer he knows has experienced an uptick in business. If he had to guess, Gorman would say demand for his produce at Cincy Urban Farm is up about 30%.
Gorman said he specifically got new customers after the first round of stimulus checks. People told him they were intentionally spending the money locally to help support all the small businesses they knew were struggling.
Owner Andy Gorman looks out over his crops at Cincy Urban Farm in West Chester, Ohio, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.
Alex Otto, assistant farm manager for Our Harvest Cooperative, which has farms in College Hill and Morrow, Ohio, said he’s noticed a 10% or 15% increase in business over the past year or so, in part because people want control over their food supply and they want that personal connection that comes with shopping local.
“It’s proved a lot of our theories correct,” Otto said, “that in a crisis, it’s the community that steps in to have your back. The idea that we should have relationships with the people that grow our food just makes so much sense. … If there’s ever issues with food shortage, you literally have the number of the person that’s growing your food.”
Mary Hutten, who manages the Lettuce Eat Well farmers’ market in Cheviot, said that in 2020, demand was so high that some of her farmers ran out and had nothing left to sell at the market. Hutten attends national market meetings, and that story is common, she said.
“We’re running out of food,” she said. “But I don’t want that to be alarming – I think this is a good thing to happen. People are doing what I’ve wanted them to do for years. I wanted them to take responsibility for their food supply.”
Not your typical farm
If you’re picturing a traditional farm with expansive fields, rolling hills, tractors, combines, grain silos and barns, you are way off. Eden Urban Gardens is set on a regular Cincinnati street, just like any other in the city. There are houses and apartments and then, on one plot of land, Eden Urban Gardens.
On this plot, instead of a manicured front lawn with flowers and bushes, there are long garden beds with spearmint, oregano, lettuce and radishes.
Instead of a house, there’s a high tunnel, a 30-foot by 48-foot enclosure that protects plants from the elements and helps extend the growing season.
Part of the calling of urban farming is to turn otherwise-unwanted land into productive space. This plot of land was vacant until Pandora bought it at auction. Now, with this plot plus one other and a small garden at her house, Pandora is farming just over half an acre.
In 2020, Eden Urban Gardens grew about 1,575 pounds of produce. And that was before the high tunnel, which was just installed in December and will allow an extra 2,000 pounds every year.
For context, 2,000 pounds is one ton.
“Are we going to feed 20,000 people with our farm? No, but we’re not trying to,” Pandora said. “We are partners and part of the local food system.”
The USDA estimates that worldwide, about 15% of food is grown in urban areas. USDA service centers across the country are hearing from people who are starting to grow their own food because of the pandemic, according to a spokesperson, but it's unclear how many of those new growers are in urban areas. In general, the spokesperson said, the percentage of urban-grown food is expected to increase as most of the world's population resides in cities.
April Pandora connects irrigation hoses with her daughter, Petra, inside the high tunnel at Eden Urban Gardens.
The benefits of urban farming, according to local farmers, include more nutrient-rich food, more money circulating in the local economy and more stability in the local food system. If there’s a disruption in the national or global supply chains – a threat that came up during the coronavirus pandemic – local farmers would still be able to provide food for local residents.
The ideal solution is to have a balance of local, national and international food sources, said Michaela Oldfield, director of the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council for Green Umbrella. Green Umbrella is a collaborative organization focused on sustainability in the Cincinnati region.
With a mix of sources, there’s plenty of variety in what’s available, Oldfield said, and if there’s a problem with any one source of food, the region will still be well supplied by the other sources.
‘Standard suburban kid’
Gorman, the Sharonville farmer, said he didn’t even have a garden as a child. He grew up in Springdale and was a “standard suburban kid.”
Then in 2012, he switched to a plant-based diet, and he started to get more interested in where his food was coming from. He built one raised garden bed in his front yard, then he built a couple more. Fast forward to today, and Gorman’s entire yard is covered with garden beds. He bought a small strip of empty land next to his house, and he uses two small patches of space at a local farm just up the road in West Chester.
Gorman’s home/farm is right across the street from Sharonville Elementary School, and he loves that young students see him out working. He loves when they stop and ask him questions and he gets to teach them a little bit about gardening.
He builds his beds right up to the edge of his property and lets people pick tomatoes from the sidewalk.
“My whole thing is to inspire people, whether it’s just to grow one tomato plant or to add a raised bed to their landscaping,” he said. “I just want people to get their hands dirty. If I can inspire one person a year, I’m happy.”
Pandora started her farm in 2016 with a spade, a trowel, a hoe and a 20-year-old truck, she said. It’s hard work, physically exhausting, and for as many as there are who support her mission, she also runs into opposition. There are people who don’t like the way it looks to have a farm in the middle of a residential street, she said, or who think the food should be free, like a community garden, even though the farm is how Pandora supports her family.
More than once, Pandora said, people have called the city to report her for farming her land, thinking she’s breaking the law.
But those troubles pale in comparison to the satisfaction Pandora gets from farming her land and providing fresh food for her family and her Cincinnati neighbors.
And little by little, especially lately, Eden Urban Gardens and other farms like it are growing and gaining support.
Interested in starting your own garden or farm?
Cincinnati's city code allows gardens – less than 20,000 square feet of land – in all zoning districts.
Farms – 20,000 square feet or more of cultivated land – are also allowed with "conditional use approval" according to the code. That approval is designed to address any potential adverse effects a farm might have on the immediate neighborhood.
Raising farm animals is subject to different rules governing the number of animals and their various shelters.
It's important to note this code only applies to the city of Cincinnati. If you live elsewhere, check the zoning rules for your specific jurisdiction. Urban farmers also have to follow any state/federal laws.
The Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati can be a starting point for new gardeners, with classes and a horticultural library. More information is available online at civicgardencenter.org.
About the farms:
Eden Urban Gardens, LLC is a certified organic farm with small plots in Avondale, North Avondale and Pleasant Ridge. The farm grows and sells herbs, shoots, vegetables and fruits.
Eden Urban Gardens sells at local farmers’ markets and also has a subscription service for regular produce deliveries in select Cincinnati neighborhoods. For more information, visit the farm’s Facebook page.
Cincy Urban Farm is based in Sharonville. The farm specializes in fruits and vegetables and also has a subscription service. Cincy Urban Farm is not certified organic, but owner/farmer Andy Gorman said he only uses organic methods, with no GMOs, toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilizer.
For more information or to sign up for Cincy Urban Farm's subscription service, visit cincyurbanfarm.com.
Lettuce Eat Well is a year-round farmers’ market in Cheviot on Cincinnati’s West Side. The market is currently on its winter schedule, which means it is open the first and third Friday of each month. Lettuce Eat Well is pre-order only, which means buyers put in their order ahead of time via email and pick it up the day of the market. For more information, visit lewfm.org.
Our Harvest Cooperative has two farms, one in College Hill and the other in Morrow, Ohio. It’s a worker-owned cooperative whose mission is to give people access to healthy, local food grown by fairly compensated workers.
Our Harvest Cooperative has a food subscription service, with pickup sites throughout the city plus one in Newport. For more information, visit ourharvest.coop.