Walter Bonham

Walter Bonham is one of the leaders of the NECIC urban microfarm on Bowman Street in Mansfield.

MANSFIELD -- Kent "Kip" Curtis had a dream of self-sustainable microfarms in Mansfield.

Organizations like the North End Community Improvement Cooperative and local residents like Walter Bonham, Justin Ocheltree, Vincent Owens and Matt and Amanda Stanfield are helping make that dream come true.

"It's really been more successful than I could have imagined in many ways," said Curtis, an associate  professor of environmental history at The Ohio State University-Mansfield campus. "We have a really solid group of producers who have worked together for two years, six growing seasons.

"They are all farmers now ... pioneer microfarmers," Curtis said Saturday. "There is visible pride. That's what you see when you visit the sites. That's what makes the whole project live in the way it does."

The public was invited to visit the farm sites on Saturday as part of a two-day event to showcase community partnerships, urban farming, resiliency of farming, and co-op development.

The event, including a virtual symposium on Friday, was presented by the NECIC, in partnership with OSU-Mansfield, offered to display the second-year results of the three-year grant project.

Curtis brought the microfarm concept to the regional campus in 2017 when he and OSU students built a demonstration farm in a parking lot on the west side of campus, featuring two high tunnels and 20 additional raised beds on one-third of an acre.

The project got a huge boost when the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research 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.  

That concept has now been proven with multiple, viable year-round microfarms now operating on a 12-acre site on Bowman Street, under the auspices of NECIC; at the corner of Fourth Street and Rowland Avenue by the Stanfields; and multiple sites in the Bellville area.

Curtis said the pilot project has not met all projections in year two as beginning farmers figure out crucial timing issues "on the fly," expected learning curves and soil issues "that have been the toughest nut to crack."

"We anticipated challenges and learning moments," Curtis said. "That was the idea (of the project) to allow these producers to make mistakes and not lose their shirts ... all of these supports (marketing, growing cooperative, technical) that stay with them until the end of next year."

"They all seem poised to make it on their own in January 2022," he said, even as he plans to expand the project into the Marion area with additional investment.

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Justin Ocheltree checks on peppers ready for harvest at the NECIC microfarm on Bowman Street on Saturday morning.

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.

"This was the first full year of production," Ocheltree said Saturday morning at the farm. "There were beds that had soil being tempered. So we're not even growing at full capacity yet.

"Next year is going to be the first year where we're running at absolute full capacity," he said, adding the learning continues and changes are still being made.

To Bonham, it's been a learning year and a year of achievement, despite challenges that have included the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I feel like we were successful. Everybody kind of had to figure out what it was going to take and what what they needed to do to be a farmer, facing their own challenges.

"A growing cooperative is no different than any other business. You have to make investments in your first year and then you have to grind to get everything built and everything organized and see what challenges you need to face to be successful," Bonham said.

Owens had been gardening and growing on Mansfield's north side for 45 years. He was excited at the chance to participate at the NECIC with his own Fulfillment Farm tunnels and outdoor beds.

"It's been a blast working with all the professors and everyone. But we only have one more year left with them. So next year is going to be really important," Owens said. 'We have had some issues, especially with the soil, but we are overcoming them It's a learning process."

Amanda Stanfield

Amanda Stanfield washes carrots on Saturday morning at her family's GrowFourth farm at the corner of West Fourth Street and Rowland Avenue in Mansfield.

Amanda Stanfield, cleaning carrots Saturday at her family's GrowFourth farm at the corner of Fourth and Rowland, said they have seen farming success -- and neighborhood success in an area that needs positive factors.

"We have a place that is safe for the neighbor kids to play. That's been a really huge part of what we're doing here. The kids love to come and check out what we're growing and they love to shovel and they love to play in the dirt and they love to see where their food is coming from," Stanfield said.

"That's been really cool. I think that it's been a positive thing for the neighborhood as far as, you know, the beautification aspect of it," she said. "We're loving it. It's great. And we're having a lot of fun with it."

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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?"