To celebrate 10 years of local journalism, Richland Source is revisiting some of its previous coverage and updating the community on the stories we’ve told. In this article, we’ll revisit the urban farming movement and its impact on the local economy and food insecurity in Mansfield’s North End.
p.s. Join us this Saturday for SourceFest, a free block party we’re throwing in celebration of a decade in local news. Click here to RSVP.
MANSFIELD — Amanda Stanfield walked through the rows of raised beds at the side of her home, pointing out the various crops on her family’s urban farm.
“I’m a huge fan of polyculture, so nothing grows alone in my beds,” she said.
She gestured toward the rich, brown soil surrounding a row of cabbage and broccoli.
“I just took cilantro out, so I’m letting those rows rest a little bit, but there’ll be something else in there,” she said.
GrowFourth Urban Farm is located at the corner of West Fourth Street and Rowland Avenue near downtown Mansfield. Cars frequently whiz by. Right next to the high tunnels is a vacant, dilapidated storefront. Across the intersection is a liquor store.
The neighborhood is one Mansfield residents typically associate with crime and poverty. Stanfield said things are improving there, though the neighborhood still faces struggles. Two of Mansfield’s recent shootings occurred just down the road.
“When we moved here, the neighborhood was rough,” Stanfield said. “It feels like Woodland compared to what it was 23 years ago.”
The 4,000 square-foot urban farm sits in stark contrast to it all. Stanfield said that’s by design.
For her, community gardens and urban farming are about revitalizing neighborhoods and showing everyone that areas of blight can become areas of life.
“It stands out. It’s something that’s different, it’s positive,” she said. “It’s about beautification and what this means for a neighborhood like ours.”
Amanda said she and her husband, Matt, never planned to be urban gardeners.
About 15 years ago, the couple got a $250 grant from the North End Community Improvement Collaborative (NECIC) to start a small community garden a few blocks from their home. It was one of many community gardens the organization has supported since 2008.
In 2017, the staff at NECIC was thinking about how to expand that work. Kent Curtis, a professor at The Ohio State University Mansfield, approached the non-profit about creating an urban agricultural food system.
Tony Chinni, research and development manager at NECIC, identified the following as positive results of the North End Local Foods Initiative and the NECIC’s partnership with Ohio State Mansfield:
The North End Farmers Market launched in 2014 and attendance grows every season since relocating to the urban farm on Bowman Street. Partnerships with Area Agency on Aging and SNAP Match programs help boost attendance.
Farmers Market Vendors made $34,231.03 during the 2022 season.
The NECIC Teaching Garden yielded 983 pounds of produce, all donated to North End residents and food pantries.
The NECIC Urban Farm yielded more than 9,066 pounds of produce and $13,886.27 total sales in 2022.
Green Patch Gardens moved onto the farm in 2022.
Through a partnership with Mansfield City Schools, students have begun growing produce in on-campus hoop houses at Malabar, Mansfield Middle School and Mansfield Senior High School
The establishment of a 65 acre farm at the Richland Correctional Institution
Census Tract 6 is no longer a food desert. KV Market, a locally-owned grocery store, opened at 359 West 4th Street in 2019 with support from NECIC.
Both parties hoped to address the food insecurity and provide economic opportunities for residents of the North End.
Nearly six years later, Richland County is home to a growing cooperative of local micro-farmers. There are multiple year-round operations at the NECIC’s 12-acre urban farm on Bowman Street, along with the Stanfield’s downtown homestead and multiple sites in Bellville.
Curtis is confident the movement will continue to flourish. In fact, that he’s taken the lessons he’s learned in Mansfield and starting a similar initiative in Marion.
“We now have about a dozen beginning farmers who are halfway through their second year of training,” he said.
The professor predicted that years from now, those who study urban agriculture movements will look to Richland County as a model.
“Mansfield is on the cutting edge,” he said. “We’re creating jobs and opportunities and a food system and it’s going to put Mansfield on the map in a really positive way.”
So how did it happen?
NECIC partnered with the University and Gorman Rupp to launch the NECIC Urban Farm on a former brownfield site.
The farm opened in 2019 at 311 Bowman Street. It’s currently home to three separate micro farms and the North End Farmer’s Market.
NECIC’s Executive Director Deanna West-Torrence worked with Curtis to secure a 3-year, $1 million grant from Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR) Seeding Solution grant.
The Ohio State University at Mansfield and other community entities matched the grant, providing funding to recruit, equip and train 11 local farmers over the course of three years.
As part of the grant cycle, the farmers formed a cooperative that shares staffing, resources and sells bulk produce to buyers.
Curtis said Richland Gro-Op was his answer to the problems of economic viability that often plagued eager and well-intentioned urban farmers.
“The idea of urban agriculture as a response to food insecurity took root in the 1990s and continued to gain popularity in the early 2000s, but early adopters often lacked a sustainable model to keep it going,” he said. “Creating a system that will be profitable can be challenging.”
Most of Richland Gro-Op’s produce goes to restaurants like Hudson and Essex and buyers in other Ohio cities.
“The cooperative aggregates it and then can sell it in bulk,” explained Matt Stanfield, who serves as co-op president. “They’re taking care of all this marketing and sales and the farmers can just focus on growing.”
Richland Gro-Op’s Jess Hudson handles orders and creates a crop plan, letting members know how much of which crops are necessary to fulfill orders.
The co-op currently consists of about eight farms. Some operate on the NECIC’s Urban Farm, others are in more rural areas parts of Richland County.
Walter Bonham is an urban farmer and consultant for both Richland Gro-Op and the NECIC’s Local Foods Initiative (NELFI). He said his goal is to help Richland Gro-Op recruit more farmers and increase production.
“We’d really like to produce around 60,000-plus pounds this year,” he said. “Our real goal as a cooperative is to get to over 100,000 pounds of produce going into 2025.”
Bonham said the cooperative is currently accepting new and experienced farmers throughout Richland County. He hopes to not only grow crops, but grow farmers.
Curtis said he also hopes to see more farmers in Mansfield’s future.
“I would like to see them expand and start to add more North End residents,” he said. “We have the ability to train them and get them in this opportunity.
“Farming is not for everyone. But for the people it’s for, it’s remarkably fulfilling.”
The Stanfields are quick to agree that urban agriculture has its challenges. Amanda’s love of farming keeps her going, but it’s not without struggle. The hours are long and the profit margins are slim.
“It takes a certain amount of tenacity,” she said. “You can do everything right and still have a failed crop because you can’t control the weather. You can’t control bad seed. Sometimes you’ve got stuff in your soil you don’t realize is there.
“There’s a lot of things you can do right and it still goes wrong.”
Stanfield said support from the local government and community will go a long way in determining the future of Mansfield’s urban agriculture landscape.
Starting up new farms is costly — the Stanfields have poured tens of thousands of dollars of their own money into the endeavor.
It’s why Matt believes the future of Mansfield’s urban agriculture won’t be single family homesteads. Instead, it will resemble the NECIC Urban Farm on Bowman Street, with multiple farmers sharing space.
“I think it’s going to be more aggregated farms on all industrial sites that can’t be used for really anything else.”
While the micro-farm movement has provided opportunity for local farmers and generated more produce for the North End Farmer’s Market, food insecurity remains a problem on the city’s north side.
Part of the issue is accessibility. Census tract 6 is no longer a food desert thanks to KV Market, which opened in 2019.
However, census tract 7 has since been classified as a food desert — a place where high poverty rates, a lack of grocery stores and a low rate of vehicle ownership make it difficult to access fresh, nutritious food.
“Unfortunately, with the loss of several neighborhood grocery stores and the proliferation of dollar stores, census tract 7 is now considered a USDA Food Desert,” said Tony Chinni, research and development coordinator for NECIC.
“With that said, tract 7 is the focal point of most of our food work. The Teaching Garden, NECIC Urban Farm and North End Farmers Market are located there. Tract 7 is the future home of the NECIC Community Impact Center.
“With any luck we will identify and support another investor/entrepreneur to open a neighborhood grocery store in tract 7, like the developments that occurred in tract 6.”
The future also includes a continued partnership with Mansfield City Schools, where high school students can earn career tech credentials in agribusiness.
NECIC is also in the process of starting a micro farm at the Richland Correctional Institution, where inmates will have the chance to apprentice and earn a certification through Central State University.
“If all goes as planned, NECIC and Mansfield’s local food journey is only beginning,” Chinni said.