By Nicole Hennessy
“Maybe I should become a farmer,” Eric Stoffer thought to himself while driving down the road one day – after which, he
remembers, he “couldn’t get rid of the idea.”
Rather than purchasing a large plot of land out in the country, he and his wife, Annabel Khouri, took it slow. Experimenting with a gardening method called SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) – a vegetable growing system that enables plots of land as small as 500 square feet to produce as much fresh food as possible – the couple began gardening their backyard, adding pots of peppers and tomatoes, which trellised up the side of the house.
Overtaking every space available, eventually the garden made its way into the front yard.
So, with the urge to expand, in 2009 Khouri and Stoffer purchased a vacant lot on Lark Street in Lakewood’s Birdtown neighborhood.
Immediately they began building the soil, adding compost and planting a cover crop to enrich the land, vacant since the early 1970s, used to grow nothing more than whatever weeds and grass it could manage.
Throughout the yearlong process of removing rocks and testing the soil, a vacant house that had been foreclosed on stood next door, showing no sign of attracting new owners; so the couple bought it, rented it to friends and added extra growing space to what they were now calling Bay Branch Farm.
Standing in the backyard portion of Bay Branch, Stoffer tells a volunteer, “That’s probably good, Mercedes,” teaching her to space a new crop of lettuce correctly. “You can get one more set in there, maybe.”
Bay Branch isn’t the only organization farming Birdtown lots. There’s also a gardening community called LEAF (Lakewood Earth and Food). With support from Mayor Michael Summers, since establishing six gardening plots in 2007, the group has gone on to expand throughout the city with over 150 plots in public parks.
Urban gardens and farms like Bay Branch and LEAF have many benefits, a few of which include the reuse of city wastewater and organic solid waste that would otherwise be disposed of, the utilization of vacant land, a reduction of pollution through added plants in car-heavy cities and an increasing awareness of nutrition and where food comes from.
Fresh food made available to lower-income areas also helps combat diseases related to obesity, as processed foods are typically cheaper and last longer than expensive organic fruits and vegetables offered at chain grocery stores.
“Aside from providing apartment and condo dwellers with green space and room to garden, community gardens have been shown to raise nearby property values, lower crime rates in adjacent areas, and provide hours of enjoyment to those who work them,” LEAF’s website explains.
“They provide physical activity, camaraderie with neighbors, stress relief, and have been shown to contribute to overall wellness. Gardening is a great platform for intergenerational bonding, provides a wholesome (and fun) activity for the whole family, teaches children where food comes from, and improves the nutrition of those who participate. Growing vegetables in community gardens can help offset rising food prices and bring the community together in the process.”
Many LEAF gardeners also take part in a bartering system available throughout the season, trading what they’ve grown in individual plots and donating produce to local charities that help alleviate hunger.
At Bay Branch, Stoffer, LEAF’s treasurer, points to different beds just starting to yield vegetables. He explains that the farm began with 21 beds of short-cycle crops like lettuce, radishes and arugula that yield two harvests per year, as well as single-season crops containing onions and potatoes, all grown in accordance with the SPIN method.
Though they need a bit more cultivation to bring them up to their full potential, with the Lark Avenue plots producing enough vegetables for Khouri and Stoffer to sell, the couple acquired another vacant lot one block away, on Robin, in the summer of 2012.
“I think that our long-term plan for that is to put a small orchard there,” Stoffer explained, listing “plums, peaches, apples and pears” as possible fruit trees that will grow there.
While Khouri and Stoffer aren’t compensated for their labor, through an ordering program and a booth at the Lakewood Farmers Market they are able to turn some profit – about $5,000 last year, Stoffer recalled, unsure of the exact amount.
More important than profits, “cultivating vegetables kind of keeps me sane,” he said, considering the farm to be a hobby.
While the crops he grows benefits him and those in the community in need of reasonably priced fresh food, Stoffer’s not sure where his “itty-bitty farm” fits into the system of industrial farming.
“I do think we need a radical change in our food system,” he said. “I have no idea what that’s going to look like.”
Pausing, he continued, “I don’t think it’s gonna look like this.”
This, to him, is a test farm, a way to explore techniques that could produce organic foods on a larger scale.
“Almost all of our food is consumed in Lakewood,” he said, motivated by the idea that the densest city in Ohio can produce enough food to sustain its residents or the percentage interested in locally grown foods.
Even so, “we’re certainly not replacing Heinen’s by any stretch of the imagination; or Giant Eagle, for that matter,” he added.
SIDE BAR: Beginning gardening tips from Lakewood Garden Center’s Paul Bilyk:
- Establish a budget and a plot of land
- Make sure your soil has ample nutrients by testing and rototilling it and adding compost
- If land is not available, use pots to grow vegetables and change the soil often to keep nutrients in it
- Seeds are always more budget-friendly than pregrown plants