On a main road in College Hill, smack dab in the middle of an urban food desert , sits a quiet, 28-acre farm at the center of a revolution.
A freshly built propagation house stands just a hundred yards or so off a four-lane section of North Bend Road that 20,000 cars traverse daily. Inside, the last remains of a small patch of cucumbers dangle from tall vines next to rows of knee-high hot pepper plants; piles of onions dry out on a row of pallets, their last stop before delivery to local homes, grocers and restaurants.
Fields of tomatoes, broccoli, beans and Swiss chard lead back to a pasture where more than a dozen cows graze over a hillside. On an early August afternoon, four farmers work the land. They water, weed and collect ripe vegetables; they inspect each new find with a gentle touch, crouching and reaching and stretching their way down neatly planted rows.
Just four-and-a-half acres of Bahr Farm, one of the last remaining family farms within Cincinnati city limits, serves as the incubator farm for Our Harvest , a union cooperative with major ambition and a core group of leaders determined to reshape the local food culture.
The cooperative, now reaping its second summer of organically grown harvest, has already garnered international attention and national press .
Our Harvest is the first business launched as a part of the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative , or CUCI. Founded by local peace, justice and union professionals, CUCI is based on an i nternational worker-owned business model and infused with American union support .
“We are very interested in helping to rebuild our food system here,” said CUCI co-founder Kristen Barker, 36. “We want to put so much of this fertile land back into production and create good, family-sustaining jobs. And we want to impact food access issues in a serious way.”
Big Ambition, Big Payback
It’s a big ambition to undertake anywhere, much less in the middle of a food insecure neighborhood where at-risk residents are more rule than exception. Nearly 15 percent of the neighborhood’s approximately 14,000 residents have not graduated from high school; 70 percent don’t have a college degree, according to 2010 census data .
But for Barker and her co-founders, College Hill, which lost its lone grocery store in 2002, is a great example of the need for a local food hub, or centralized effort to aggregate locally grown food for distribution. Providing access to affordable, healthy food grown on local land, as well as offering agricultural jobs with decent pay and benefits, makes for a healthier, more sustainable economy.
“This is definitely the definition of cutting down your carbon footprint,” said Ellen Vera, president of the board of Our Harvest and another CUCI co-founder. “The time it takes for you to get from the fields to your table is so much shorter. It’s healthier for the environmental all the way around.”
In its second year, the co-op supplies a 200-person Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), local farmers’ markets, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College , Pipkin’s Market, Picnic and Pantry in Northside, Country Fresh Market in Anderson Township and, on occasion, Jungle Jim’s grocery stores.
The co-op’s crops also make it to the tables at Local 127 , Myra’s Dionysus and The Summit Restaurant at Cincinnati State. This fall, University of Cincinnati students can pay $10 a week for a delivery of fresh Our Harvest produce.
On North Bend Road, that helps support nine employees, or worker-owners. Seven of them are full-time, not counting Vera, whose full-time job is with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 75, or Barker, who until last month worked for the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center .
This fall, the union co-op will expand to include crops grown on land leased in Wooden Shoe Hollow , also in the City of Cincinnati, just off Winton Road.
Growing that much food on that little land takes expert farming knowledge and experience, which at Our Harvest comes from CSA Farm Manager Charles Griffin, 61. In the 1980s, the California native helped start a 200-acre organic farm, Terra Firma , in Winters, California. He relocated to the Midwest in 1997 to bring the knowledge and techniques he had learned from farming around the world to a region that could grow mixed crops; he joined Our Harvest last year.
“They are biting off a huge chunk, really huge,” Griffin said of the Our Harvest founders. “I have to give all I can on my part to make it work. You have to be very efficient and not only productive but intensive. That means in this climate, three different seasons for growing crops. It means that we can grow more than one crop on one plot a year.”
Tall and rail thin with a tousle of grey hair, Griffin exudes the calm confidence of a natural teacher. He already works with two owner-apprentices at the farm; this fall he will bring students from his Cincinnati State course in sustainable agriculture to College Hill for their hands-on practicum.
Before joining Our Harvest, he
grew the CSA at the Enright Ridge Eco-Village into a 70-share operation.
Our Harvest crops are grown organically, said Griffin, who prefers natural predators to chemical ones. He has found them in abundance on Cincinnati land. Not long after he noticed cabbage butterfly worms eating the plants’ leaves, he saw birds working the cabbages. “They were controlling the cabbage worms,” he said. Nearby, cucumbers got help from a relative of the ladybug, which ate the eggs of harmful cucumber beetles.
“It’s just amazing how much life there is in a place where crops are more diverse and habitats are more diverse,” said Griffin, who lives in Price Hill. “Crops nearly grow themselves here.”
Cooperative Business Model
Even with his love of the land, what excites Griffin the most about Our Harvest is its cooperative business model. “The worker-owner aspect is what is going to be the most profound change,” he said.
The cooperative idea allows Our Harvest worker-owners to share resources like marketing, distribution, equipment and knowledge, thus lowering the often-prohibitive, capital-intensive start-up barriers to farming. “It’s really exciting to me,” he said.
Access to locally grown food does more than cut down the fossil fuel impact of trucking produce across the country. It also gives consumers healthier choices for fresh, nutrient-rich produce, helps increase the health of communities and spurs the local economy.
But there simply aren’t enough local farms to meet the growing demand, especially in Ohio. The state’s direct sales from farmers to consumers jumped 70 percent between 1992 and 2007, for a total of $54 million, according to an analysis by Ken Meter, president of Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis . That’s more than twice the national average, which makes Ohio a leader in farm-to-consumer sales.
Putting People to Work
As Our Harvest trains more farmers and reclaims more land for farming, the co-op can do more than increase the amount of locally grown food on dining room tables, according to founders. The co-op aims to employ 200 worker-owners within the next four years.
“Putting land back into production creates a whole lot of jobs,” said Barker, a Cincinnati native who lives in Northside. “You can create family-sustaining jobs with benefits.”
Vera, like Barker, thinks big. “In order to really be able to get into schools and universities, and also to keep prices down, we need to up production,” she said. “We are looking for 50 to 100 acres, ideally within a 50-mile radius of the city.”
So far, the founders’ goals have been intentionally low profile, as the business grew from extensive research and planning in 2010 to coalition building in 2011 to Our Harvest incorporation in 2012.
Now, with crops and customers established, the world has taken note. Literally.
Based on CUCI’s success, Barker was hired in July by Mondragon, the Spain-based union cooperative business that employees more than 83,000 in hundreds of businesses and boasts zero percent unemployment (as all employees are worker-owners).
“We went from not being on the radar to being a pilot project to now we are the prototype for the country,” said Barker, whose after-work-hours volunteer efforts for the past several years have evolved into her new full-time job. She’ll work to further develop CUCI and support similar efforts in other parts of the country.
Editor's Note: This is the first article reported, written and photographed by Contributing Environmental Editor Elissa Yancey. Yancey is also a journalism professor at the University of Cincinnati where she teaches environmental journalism. She will write weekly for WCPO on issues related to our environment.