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Farm to table: Urban farm grows in city

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Posted at 10:11 AM, Dec 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-03 10:11:59-05

CINCINNATI – Urban Greens grows thousands of pounds of produce right in the heart of Cincinnati.

The low-tech concept behind the business may hark back to the pre-digital age, pre-electric even, but this classic example of a social enterprise -- a commercial business that seeks to benefit society -- is decidedly on the grid. Located on Worth Street off Riverside Drive in East End, the experimental, for-profit farm is situated on two plots that add up to half an acre, said founder/co-owner Ryan Doan. The plots are surrounded by city streets, Eli’s BBQ restaurant and houses.

Even on a rainy day in December the farm is producing. There are long rows of kale and chard. Leeks look lively. Parsley is abundant. Peppers hang from dwindling plants. And turnips are growing riotously. Still, Urban Greens’ fall CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) season has officially ended, and Doan said much of the produce in the fields is being given as a bonus to the farm’s regular CSA subscribers, who are invited to pick what they want on Saturdays; some of what’s growing will be composted. There also are two thriving bee hives and a chicken coop that is empty, its inhabitants having been sold for meat.

Now in its fifth year, the enterprise may have done some shape shifting since it was founded; one of its founders left town for career reasons. But Urban Greens’ central mission to feed people while creating a working model for modern, sustainable agriculture has remained in place. And while they were at it, a few other benefits might have been gained, like the training of future farmers, improving the soil base, building community, and providing job satisfaction to one former financial analyst (Doan) who preferred spending 10 hours a day in the garden to 9 to 5 indoors.

For Doan, it’s a matter of some urgency. “You can make plenty of money farming,” he said. “That’s the message that I want to send to young people. The average farmer in the U.S. right now is 58 years old. That’s scary. ... Who’s going to replace them?” 

Keeping Farms Close To Home

“If the message that you send out to young people is, ‘You can’t make money farming’ – Well then what’s going to happen? Then our farms are going to continue to just get bigger and bigger and bigger and farther away from us. Our food supplies are going to get farther away, they’re going keep having to be shipped in with fossil fuels, relying on chemicals to grow them and young people aren’t going to want to do that profession because there’s going to be too high of a capital threshold to become a farmer… I’m trying to train as many farmers as I can, teach them the right way, teach them old growing practices.”

Urban Greens began, Doan said, with a group of families who pooled their money. Through the city’s Office of Environmental Quality, Doan leased the farm’s first parcel, which he calls the Mulberry Plot; the following year he obtained the second, the Two Trees Plot, which is home to two large silver maples. For both plots, he said, he was given “perpetual leases,” with no payment required, under the condition that they be used for gardens, or a farm. The properties had been vacant previously, and they lie in the Ohio River flood plain below the Columbia Parkway.

Raised outside of Oxford, Ohio, Doan, 36, has a degree in business from Miami University and background as a financial analyst, having worked for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Fifth Third Bank and private equity firms.

“I was always working for other big companies and helping them figure out their business and now I can work for myself and figure out my own business,” he said, “I like that.”

After founding Urban Greens, he said, “I started going to the city looking for land. I was at the Civic Garden Center taking these classes [in horticulture] and they helped me find this land down here, which was available… One half acre total.”

Last year, Doan and his wife purchased a small brick house that came up for sale next door to the Two Trees Plot. It now houses Urban Greens’ two employees. The kitchen is used for washing vegetables, prepping and preserving. 

He speaks passionately about all aspects of the farm, from the business side of it to soil improvement, botanical science.

Compost And Rain Water

“We don’t spray anything,” he said. “Every year I put a lot of compost on my beds. Every year, I switch up where the plants are. We use flowering diversity. There are tricks you can do to plant certain types of plants together to confuse the bugs. We try to take care of our soil because the soil is what provides for us every year.”

He also uses rain water, as much as possible, on his plants because, he explained, it lacks city water’s chlorine and other chemicals harmful to plants but contains nitrogen, which is beneficial for growing. To catch the rain, he has built a 200-gallon catchment system. There are also 50-gallon drums in various places, catching rainwater. He says he is building a second large cistern. “City water will keep the plants alive,” he said, “but it doesn’t really make them grow.”

As for getting the plants started, some are begun inside the farm house on a grow rack. And some are seeded in pots and grown in greenhouses that are made of windows leaning against bales of straw.

“It works like a charm,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for years." He gets the windows from friends who are contractors.

His compost is stored on a neighboring property whose owner lets him use the space in exchange for mowing in the summer.

Members Keep It Growing

Doan said Urban Greens most recently had 75 CSA members, who pay a fee, paid at least partly upfront, and in return receive a weekly share of produce. In order to provide enough variety, Urban Greens commissions some items – half their tomatoes, half their peppers, all of their potatoes and cucumbers, for example – from three other farmers outside of the city.

“We’re already financially sustainable. We don’t have any debt. But every year at the end of the year we run out of money. But when we have excess funds, the idea would be we start paying our investors back just like any investment would.”

So what’s next?

“Keep building gardens, keep hiring people, keep training farmers, until we’re a big enough organization to where if we took a five- or seven-percent dividend it wouldn’t slow us down.”