Farmer Mark Van Fleet started growing vegetables at Harriet Gardens on Columbus’ South Side two years ago. He came to this once-vacant lot with about a decade of experience in gardening.
Van Fleet gave up his job as an arts administrator because he did not like working inside all day. Now he spends his days tending to his vegetables.
“I felt this scale of operation was something I could handle with my limited amount of experience,” says Van Fleet. “I never worked on a farm before starting this one. I don’t know how to drive or fix a tractor.”
He won't need to drive a tractor for this one-acre garden, which sits between a car body repair shop and an old industrial building on Jenkins Avenue. Though he hadn't worked on a farm, Van Fleet is one of hundreds of graduates from the Ohio Master Urban Farmer workshops series, which is offered by Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Services (CFAES).
“Every day I learn things out here, and I think that as I do things smarter and get better at it, I think the opportunity exists for me to be able to support myself doing this,” Van Fleet says.
About 30 urban farmers tend land in Columbus, up from just five a few years ago. About a quarter of the farmers grow vegetables full-time for their income.
This year, Van Fleet planted kale, Swiss chard, collards, lettuce, arugula, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, turnips, beans and cucumbers. He also grows some herbs like basil and dill, selling his produce at the Bexley Farmers' Market and North Farmers’ Market, as well as to about a dozen local restaurants. His most popular produce is heirloom tomatoes.
The Ohio State University Extension office, the outreach arm of CFAES, wants to encourage more people to start an urban farm.
“We have a project right now where the university is committed to buying about 40 percent of its food purchases from local sources," says Mike Hogan, associate professor at Ohio State Extension in Franklin County. "And we’re working with families very close in the University District to help them develop microbusinesses where they learn how to grow food that the university is willing to purchase."
Hogan says urban farmers can face several barriers, including following zoning rules for land use, paying a higher cost for city water and making sure their land rental agreement continues.
“I think as the number of urban farms increases, you know, the infrastructure increases, it’s a whole lot easier for small producers to ban together and maybe buy supplies together,” Hogan says. “It’s easier for service people to service and sell to a larger industry, so I think growing is a good thing.”
Hogan says the availability of vacant lots in Columbus makes it easier to become an urban farmer.
Since 2014, the Extension Office in Franklin County has graduated 228 Master Urban Farmers. A new class begins in September.