Making Change: The Cuyahoga Valley Initiative, Part 3: Veggies in the Valley

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See also:
Cuyahoga Valley Initiative, Part 1 [July 21, 2004]
& Part 2 [August 4, 2004]

Melvin "Skip" Cook is a third generation farmer. His family's farm is on Schaff Road near the boarder of Brooklyn Heights - nestled in the crook of the Jennings Freeway and I-480. This whole area, Cook says, used to be the greenhouse capital of the country.

Melvin "Skip" Cook: Initially it was all truck gardens. It used to be just acre after acre of celery growing out here. You drive down Schaff Road and all you could smell is celery.

So it was for almost a hundred years. But it all changed in the 1970s, Cook says. Improved technology made imported fruit and vegetables from California or South America plentiful and cheap. The farms in the Cuyahoga Valley couldn't compete - what, with their high overhead from heating and labor. Cook's 5-acre farm and market is one of just three remaining. And for Cook, it's not a full-time job.

Melvin "Skip" Cook: If I had to rely on this farm to survive, I couldn't do it. I have a small shop, manufacturing facility which provides me with my main source of income and this is more like a hobby. I do it because I love it not because I'm making a lot of money on it.

Cook says he doesn't see why anyone would willingly go into farming in the Cuyahoga Valley these days. But Brad Masi believes the time has come to change that. Masi is part of the Northeast Ohio Foodshed Network, one of the groups that is working to build connections between local farmers and consumers, institutions and processors.

Brad Masi: We're finding increasing markets for local food - a lot of restaurants, institutions are looking for local. But for us the bigger challenge is finding suppliers.

Masi says it's encouraging that the interest is there, but the cause of the greenhouse industry's extinction - cheap imports and rising energy - hasn't changed. And that leads one to wonder if recreating an urban agriculture scene could really work. Masi says, there are challenges to rebuilding the industry - challenges he sees as opportunity.

Brad Masi: We're looking at this not just from the perspective of food production, but if we could begin to look at developing more state of the art greenhouses with alternative glazing, renewable energy. So part of what we're look at, if we can make this success, it's not just food production; but it's about creating the markets for green building materials, for renewable energy services.

Holly Harlan: A lot of people don't get excited about food - and I don't understand that - as an economic driver.

Holly Harlan is director of Entrepreneurs for Sustainability, a group devoted to encouraging sustainable practices in business, and is involved with efforts to restore what they're calling "Veggies in the Valley."

Holly Harlan: I don't know if it's our fixation on high tech being our savior, but how many jobs do we have in the food industry in Northeast Ohio?

About 128,000 people work in food service in Northeast Ohio, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In all Ohio, nearly 6,000 work in agriculture and farming.

Holly Harlan: The food industry can provide jobs at a lot of different levels. In this community we have blue collar, white collar, high tech and we need opportunity and inspiration for all of them. The food industry can provide that. We're not all going to work at the Cleveland Clinic, so we need to find other opportunities.

Agriculture offered Scott Gordon an opportunity he never expected. Gordon came from the corporate world, an internet marketing firm where suit and ties were the uniform. Now he's general manager at Rosby's Garden and Berry Farm on Schaff Road where his daily-wear is mostly jeans. He says it's tempting to romanticize agriculture - but that's a mistake.

Scott Gordon: For me, I'm an operations person, I'm not a farmer; I'm not an agricultural guy. And it's been really a challenge and a fun one sometimes and sometimes you want to pull your hair out. I'm not used to being this dependent on climate.

Gordon says Rosby's survives because it's business: the company is innovative, it's always testing new products like sunflowers or pumpkins. And it's kept its products diversified yet inter-related - each arm feeds off the other but none could survive alone. So he's cautious to endorse reviving the greenhouse industry.

Scott Gordon: It's wonderful to look at these old structures and say, "Wow, if we could just get these back in operation..." They're gone... and I'm a huge historic building person, so I'm the last person to say these buildings are done. They're production buildings that are impressive in their engineering and the way they were built, they really are. But they're done. To revive them, it doesn't make sense. But to revive the industry here, could make sense.

Brad Masi and Holly Harlan are so hopeful that it will make sense that they've convinced Leadership Cleveland to adopt Veggies in the Valley as one of its projects this year. Harlan acknowledges it's not a done deal. She says Leadership Cleveland could examine the initiative and decide it's untenable - but even that, she says, would mean people are open to a variety of ways to improve our economy. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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