By: Meredith Oglesby
Just four years ago, Kip Curtis, an environmental history professor at The Ohio State University at Mansfield, introduced the concept of a sustainable and productive urban farming system to solve challenges of social justice and ecology. Now, the Microfarm Project in Mansfield is already starting to meet Curtis’ goals of increasing residents’ access to fresh food, engaging community members in agricultural practices and improving the local economy.
The project, initiated with help from university's Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) and the Ohio State Sustainability Fund, is supported by a $2 million matching grant from the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR). Curtis, a Sustainability Institute affiliated faculty member, manages the project and is enacting plans to sustain the project beyond the funding provided in the FFAR grant. The goal is to have the Mansfield farming cooperative, currently subsidized by the grant, ready to run on its own by January 2022 and ultimately eradicate poverty in the local community.
“At its core this project is using food systems and the values of sustainability as kind of guardrails within which to help bring an opportunity to a low-opportunity neighborhood that also happens to be a food desert, has diet-related health issues and a whole series of educational challenges,” Curtis says.
The first year of the project focused on building the 10 microfarms and training the new farmers to grow market-ready produce. Now in its second year, the focus is shifting to increasing production for the entire Richland Gro-Op (RGO). RGO, created by a group of Mansfield farmers-in-training in early 2019, is an independent and private membership cooperative to serve the crop-planning, crop-marketing and crop aggregating role needed to maintain profitability and market access for microfarmers.
“What we are trying to do this year is have more accurate numbers for the whole system. Everything was kind of a guesstimate when we started,” Curtis says.
During year two, the farmers are also becoming more experienced with their farming techniques, and the market relationships are expanding.
“Each producer is its own small business,” Curtis says. “The incentive is, at their own specific site, they get really good at growing stuff and then they'll get more money when they go to the cooperative.” RGO has its own marketing team that focuses on selling the produce grown by the microfarm farmers to local restaurants, institutions and direct-to-consumer businesses.
“It takes a lot of the worrying out for things,” says Walt Bonham, a Mansfield Microfarm farmer and RGO board member. “We all operate as 10 individual businesses, so everybody can have their own goals, aspirations and things they want to do with their farm as well as grow the cooperative.”
The microfarm wove itself into the community and is creating rich experiences and stories for the farmers, families and kids. Vacant lots are transforming into plots for microfarms; one space, the NECIC Urban Farm, was a brownfield, a previously developed land that is unused and possibly contaminated, for 14 years before taking shape as a farm.
In 2000, Matthew Stanfield, a microfarm producer and the RGO board president, and his wife, who also trained as a microfarm producer last year, moved into a house on Mansfield’s north end, one of the most crime-infested corners in the city at the time. A short time later, a fire demolished two properties, leaving an empty lot — a perfect place for a community garden. Although people used the community garden for several years, the couple realized that for the project to truly thrive, they needed community support, which was what drew them to Curtis’ project.
“Kip came into the picture with this reform project, and it seemed like such a natural fit to everything that we've been trying to do with community gardens,” Stanfield says.
Stanfield shares that the microfarm benefits both the local neighborhood and his wife, who hopes to farm full time and not work a second job. They already see a transformation in the community as they work toward their personal goals and contribute to community development and revitalization.
“The people involved with the project have been very supportive and have provided resources,” Stanfield says. “Having Ohio State spearheading the project has really given us avenues to try to understand what is going on that we would not normally have access too.”
The project is already becoming an economic driver in the community as the microfarms grow and develop. “It is putting dollars where dollars didn’t exist before,” Curtis says.
The marketing team recently formed a relationship with Yellowbird Foodshed, which partners with growers and consumers to create a sustainable model that decentralizes the current food system. Mansfield Microfarm farmers sell their crops to the Yellowbird Foodshed, where they are included in the Ohio Farm Food Shares — boxes of Ohio grown fresh, local and sustainable food available for public purchase. The farmers have also begun providing fresh produce for Avita Health Systems' cafeteria at Galion Hospital.
“The grower needs to know that they have a place to sell their product, and, more importantly, someone they can plan with for their growing season, and that they aren't just putting something in the ground and hoping that come harvest time they have a buyer,” says Benji Ballmer, co-founder of Yellowbird Foodshed.
The microfarm also developed relationships with Ohio Health, local restaurants and Local Food Connection as they seek potential buyers for the growing output from the microfarming system.
Curtis acknowledges the challenges of expanding and bringing on more farmers. He would like to see local schools involved and have microfarms at the public schools in Mansfield. Curtis was recently appointed as a faculty fellow with Ohio State’s Office of Outreach and Engagement, where he will continue to focus on the development and implementation of a replicable model of community engagement that results in expansion of the Mansfield Microfarm to Marion, Newark and eventually to small cities in Ohio and beyond.
“Food has the magical ability to address a number of challenges,” Curtis says. “It’s culture, economy, biology, sustenance and human resilience.”
Meredith Oglesby is a former communication assistant at the Sustainability Institute.