Urban Farm

Mansfield microfarmers Justin Ocheltree (left) and Walt Bonham are busy this spring at farms located at Sixth and Bowman streets on the city's north side.

MANSFIELD -- Justin Ocheltree and Walt Bonham were busy checking crops one early morning last week.

The status of carrots, kale and spinach were on their minds as the two men moved from farm to farm.

Checking crops in Ohio is not an usual site, though most of the state's farmers are now in planting mode.

But this microfarm is occurring at the corner of Sixth and Bowman streets on Mansfield's north side, part of a pilot project involving the farmers, the North End Community Improvement Collaborative, The Ohio State University-Mansfield and Gorman-Rupp Co.

It began when the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a matching grant to OSU-Mansfield to launch a $2 million dollar urban sustainable food system project aimed at increasing access to fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops while also supporting the local economy.

FFAR contributed $1 million to the project with the other half coming from OSU-Mansfield and the Mansfield community at large.  

The ribbon-cutting at the 12-acre site leased from Gorman-Rupp was last September. Already, four farms are well underway, featuring eight tunnels designed for year-round growing. A similar operation is underway at the corner of Fourth Street and Rowland Avenue on land owned and farmed by Matthew and Amanda Stanfield.

Two others are installed on small farms in Bellville and a third is nearly complete.

All of the farms have names and have become incorporated, such as the GrowthFourth Farms, LLC, Happy Mouth Microfarm, LLC, and Gro-Naked Farm, LLC.

NECIC Executive Director Deanna West-Torrence, who identified food shortages as a community issue years ago, is thrilled with the progress.

"We are just scratching the surfaces," West-Torrence said Monday. "To me, it feels like we are very much in the beginning because the overall vision is so big. It's nice to see things go from concept to reality."

The intent is to reuse the Bowman Street property to create a social enterprise that offers training, education and address the community's food insecurity concern. It lies within a target area emphasized in the organization's Community Economic Development Plan.

Kip Curtis, a professor of environmental history at The Ohio State University-Mansfield who brought the microfarm concept to the regional campus in 2017, is also pleased.

"Despite getting off to a somewhat slow start last year and then the COVID-19 crisis hitting this year, we have managed to stay on track, get our farmers trained and our microfarms built and our crops in the ground," he said. "Next stop is the market. It’s not only right on track, it’s already proving itself to be a resilient system comprised of resilient farmers. No one has missed a beat this spring."

Ocheltree, who grew up on a farm before becoming an engineer, helps guide the efforts at Sixth and Bowman as the only full-time employee associated with the project. Bonham helped launch NECIC's community gardens program.

As they moved from tunnel to tunnel on Friday, the men explained the valuable lessons already learned and pointed to outside beds being prepared for planting. Ocheltree pointed out how farmers there have learned how to expand the growing areas inside the tunnels by reducing the space between the beds.

"I believe in getting the maximum results out of minimum effort," he said with a smile, explaining how he had quickly reconfigured a wheelbarrow to work up and down the narrower rows.

West-Torrence said the farms are providing data necessary to determine how to expand the project and replicate it in other places.

"In terms of long-term vision, our goal is to see more urban farmers, people doing what the Stanfields are doing and growing right on their own property," she said. "We have an interesting model now and will be able to examine the pros and cons in the future."

"To me, this is so much more than just improved food access. It's also an economic justice initiative. How do we, as a community, adopt our policies to help someone take care of themselves and their familes."

As part of the project, farmers have formed Richland Gro-OP, which Curtis described as an old fashioned membership cooperative with a modern urban farming twist.

"The goal is to produce the best high-end specialty crops in order to bring the highest return for their producer farmers. But they are a key partner with NECIC and Ohio State University in seeking to make this a cooperative of microfarmers producing on small affordable urban microfarms," Curtis said. "To this end, we are seeking funding to formalize and institutionalize the training program we developed last year to begin working with a new cohort of potential farmers later this year or early next year, using the NECIC Urban Farm and OSU’s site as training locations.

"So it’s a traditional cooperative with a social emterprise core, seeking to help create opportunity for Mansfield’s north end and model opportunity generating systems for similar communities around Ohio."

The COVID-19 has not slowed the operations, according to Curtis.

"It has limited the ability of all of us to gather and meet in person, as we did throughout the past year and a half, but we have moved our meetings and trainings online," he said. "In terms of farming, we’re an essential service and its possible to do the farm work while social distancing.

"I miss seeing everyone off the screen, but I have watched their spring crops grow and new microfarms be installed virtually through photographs, videos, and Facebook."

What comes next in the project, even as the farms begin harvesting spring crops like spinach, carrots, kale, beets and chives?

"For the larger project, I would like to put at least six more microfarms into this system and onto the landscape of Mansfield’s north end before the end of next year," Curtis said. "We have some fundraising to do to make this happen, but we are optimistic that we will reach that goal.

"Much of the harvest is currently being sold direct to consumers through the Yellowbird Foodshed in Mount Vernon."

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"