Over the Fence Urban Farm


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Reflecting on Food security from a Jewish Perspective

Friday night I had the honor of participating in an interfaith panel on food security hosted by The Ohio State University Muslim Student Association. My fellow panelists were Sister Dorothy Hassan (Muslim community activist with My Project USA), Bryan Snyder (Director of OSU’s Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation who happened to train as a Christian pastor), and Michelle Kaiser (Professor of Social Work at OSU).

I felt a bit uneasy and ill-prepared to represent the Jewish perspective*, but found in my preparatory reflections, and even more so in sharing them during the event, that I had unique ideas worth sharing. As an urban farmer who thinks of her work, not always but at least sometimes, through a Jewish lens, I wrestled with the questions the panel posed as I pulled together my talking points. These included:

  1. How is food security assessed? What makes an entity “food secure?”
  2. What is the most common misconception surrounding this issue?
  3. How can a community mitigate the stigma surrounding food insecurity?
  4. How does religion aid you in approaching the prospect of food insecurity? (ex. Religiously approved food).
  5. What entity should spearhead the issue of food insecurity?

Honestly these aren’t the kinds of questions I think of regularly in relation to Over the Fence. Mostly when such questions come up I feel guilty that I’m not doing more to help increase healthy, fresh food access to people in Columbus who live on public assistance in food desserts. But thinking about them in relation to Judaism gave me new this to think about and goals to work towards.

All on the panel agreed that food security is not just about having access to calories, but a regularly balanced diet of quality foods. Currently, an overwhelming majority of the USDA budget pays for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps). Seems the USDA ought to be doing more to support entities like OSU and other land grant university’s extension offices, working in partnership with community organizations and farmers to produce more food on the local level. We all agreed that the industrial food system is broken. At Over the Fence we are experimenting with one model for growing food differently, in community, ensuring food security for those who participate in our CSA program in the form of access to high quality food from a known source.

I shared my sense of working in relationship with the natural world as it is informed by Jewish understandings and traditions which celebrate, for example, eating seasonally, attending to the phases of the moon, and recognizing the powerful importance of water. Jewish blessings over food often make mention of the source of particular ingredients in the food being blessed such as wine being the fruit of the vine. While I don’t say them regularly, I appreciate the potential of those blessings to remind us that food doesn’t come from the grocery store; it comes from the earth, with help from the farmers who send it to our plates. At least real food does.

The other thing I thought of as I prepared was the saying, “If you give a person a fish they’ll eat today, teach that person to fish and they will eat for a lifetime.” I did some digging and found that the original sentiment of the phrase, though not this familiar wording, dates back to a medieval rabbi, Maimonides (check out Quote Investigator for a complete discussion). As luck would have it, Maimonides, who was born in Spain, did a lot of his work as a physician and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt, working with Muslims as well as Jews. Seemed like the perfect person to talk about at this event.

Maimonides wrote about 8 levels of charity, the highest being helping someone in need help himself. Over time, his ideas were converted into the proverb we’re familiar with today. Seems pretty clear that more people would be more food secure if they controlled the knowledge and tools to produce their own food. I hope that as time goes on Over the Fence can extend our capacity to make that happen. I feel proud of the tours we give and this blog for sharing our work, but I would love to engage in more direct action towards fulfilling the educational aspect of our mission.

*If you’re interested in reading more on this see: “I’m Not Really A Chaplain, I Just Play One to Pay the Bills.”

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Over the Fence @ Pecha Kucha Columbus

Last night I had the honor of sharing a story at the 43rd Pecha Kucha (PK) Columbus. It was based on an experience I had this past spring which I blogged about in Rabbit Roller Coaster.

For those unfamiliar with PK, speakers create 20 slide Powerpoints and set the slide transition timer to 20 seconds. So you have 20 seconds to talk about 20 slides for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Sounds like a nice chunk of time but it flies by!  My presentation wasn’t flawless and I cursed a few too many times, but I’m proud of my efforts. I had a good time and I hope that I got some folks thinking more about where their food comes from and the trials farmers go through to get it to them with my photographs and my remarks.

I’m posting a video of the presentation here for people who couldn’t make it out to the event. I’ll be writing more later about the experience of prepping for and delivering the talk on Art Education Outside the Lines. It was a creative experience I relished and would encourage others to try. Pecha Kucha is a great venue for our stories about farming and how our food gets to people’s plates.

Special thanks to those mentioned in this story including:

Dan Spurgeon – Husband and Co-conspirator

Todd Shriver – Rock Dove Farm

Kate Hodges and Rachel Tayse – Foraged & Sown

Milan Karcic – Peace, Love, and Freedom Farm

Jerah Pettibone – Pettibone Urban Game


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Preparing for Persephone

This fall I watched from afar as my students in Texas and Florida prepared for hurricanes Harvey and Irma. I felt powerless to help them, and guilty that my house was standing tall, dry, and coursing with electricity. But as autumn settles into central Ohio, I’m preparing for the coming of another powerful force of nature: the Persephone Days.

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From The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki.

I first learned about Persephone Days from Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook (you can read an excerpt here). Put simply, folks who grow food in areas with sub-freezing winter temperatures must think as much about hours of sunlight in planning crop rotations as the cold. The Persephone Days are those with fewer than 10 hours daylight. (See a timetable for your zip code here.) Here in Columbus that means mid-November through late January.

If you plan right -Coleman has lots of recommendations – you can harvest greens and some root vegetables (including the most amazingly sweet winter carrots) grown in the fall and stored in your garden throughout that dark period. Just don’t count on your plants doing much new growing. Coleman suggests things be at least 3/4 of the way to maturity before the coming of Persephone.

I started paying  more serious attention to these dates last fall as we began using our high tunnel and did some winter-sowing for early spring harvest. This year I feel behind. I didn’t get a full crop of fall greens out early enough for our family’s winter harvest, let alone a fall or winter CSA, which has been a goal for the past few years. Looking back on this field report, however,  I realize I am ahead of where I was last year so… I’m learning.

This year I am homeschooling our daughter, Cora, 2 days a week. We have spent the past two months studying ancient history with a strong emphasis on the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses. Through the process I spent more time with Persephone. I got a refresher on her mother Demeter (goddess of the harvest and fertility) and Hades (god of the underworld) who, with permission from her his brother, the all-powerful Zeus, abducted Persephone to keep him company in the underworld. In her loneliness and suffering, Demeter caused a famine. Eventually Persephone was returned to her mother, but because she had eaten four pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, she had to return to the land of the dead for four months each year to keep Hades company. We experience these months as winter, the time when nothing grows. (Click here for an extended version of the story told from a contemporary and feminist perspective.)

Unlike the ancient Greeks, I don’t need a story to help me understand why the days are shorter and the nights are colder this time of year. I don’t need one, but it certainly makes things more interesting.


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When One Season Ends, Another Begins.

As my touring season ended, it was great to start gathering inspiration for next year from Bernadette.

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Kids’ Club Harvest Party

The Clintonville Farmers’ Market Kids’ Garden Club finished the season this past weekend with a delicious harvest party featuring fresh food from their garden.

First, they harvested lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, chives, and basil to make a colorful salad. They didn’t all agree on what to add to the bowl, but agreed they could just eat the parts they liked, and maybe, just maybe, try a bite  of something new.

They used pre-made tomato sauce and radish leaf pesto as toppings for pizzas we cooked outside on the grill.

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Some of the kids hadn’t tried pesto before our second market day in August when we ran a pesto taste test for people who stopped by our booth – radish leaf versus basil. The basil version won, but only by a couple of votes. The kids, the participants, and I were all surprised by the results. (If you missed the post about our first market day, you can find it here.)

The kids had a great time working together to put the meal together in between playing and feeding scraps to the chickens.

Since the party didn’t cost that much, we paid for the few supplies we needed (like cheese and beer for the grownups) out of our dwindling supply budget leaving the entire $84 dollars we collected in market profits available for a donation to the Clintonville Resource Center.

I’ll admit I had mixed emotions about running this program. I have wanted to add some formal programming to our farm activities – drawing on my experience as an educator and our mission to help others learn how to grow their own food. Until this time, however, I hadn’t made the move to offer any classes or workshops. This opportunity pushed me into that and I’m so glad! I learned a lot. I hope the kids did too.


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Remembering a Mentor: JCV

Whenever I give a tour of the farm, as I did last Sunday for a group of folks who came out for our leg of the Ohio Sustainable Farm Tour and Workshop Series, I talk about a friend who helped convert me from a black-thumbed New Yorker to a green-thumbed Ohioan.

That man was John Vogel.

John was an Ohio State trained landscape horticulturist who offered me some of my first lessons on identifying and growing plants. He taught me how to lift sod – which became my obsession for a time – leading to a complete overhaul of our yard, including, eventually, Over the Fence Urban Farm. John implored me to pull a weed whenever I saw one. “Don’t plan to come back and get it later, you never will.” This is a lesson that plagues me – the weeds are never all gone! – but has also helped me keep the farm looking like something my (sub)urban neighbors don’t mind living next door to.

John left us last week without warning. I’m sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye. I’m sorry I didn’t share more of my harvest with him. I hope he knew that without him none of it would have been possible.

So long John. I hope you’ve found Eden.

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City Council Farm Tour

Following my on-site meeting with Columbus City Council Member Elizabeth Brown in May, I was asked to plan an advocacy tour for other members of the council on behalf of the loosely-affiliated Franklin County Urban Farmers Network. I worked with Carl Williams from Council Member Priscilla Tyson’s office to recruit and organize the participants and Mike Hogan from OSU Extension who reserved a 25 seat bus to take us around. And so it was that I found myself downtown Friday morning at 9am picking up Council Members Tyson, Shannon G. Hardin, and Jaiza N. Page. Representatives of the rest of the council members were also with us as well as folks from the City Clerk and Legislative Research Offices, the Public Health Department, Ohio State University College of Agriculture, Local Matters, and Franklin Park’s Growing to Green Program.

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Following invitations from 10 operations around the city representing a mix of farms, community gardens, and homesteads, I decided to focus this tour on self-identified working farms in the city. Those of us who grow, sell, and regularly distribute produce through CSAs, farmers’ markets, and wholesale agreements face different issues than individuals and neighborhood collectives. The five sites we visited provided a mixed view of non- and for-profit operations, larger and smaller scale operations, on public and private land, in more and less densely populated neighborhoods around town.

Our first stop was Franklinton Gardens (FG), soon to be renamed Franklinton Farms. FG Director Nick Stanich described FG as a scattered-site farm that currently occupies 12 lots which total 2.5 acres of growing space, and more in the works. I have visited FG a few times over the years, but it had been awhile. I was amazed to see sites that were not in production a year ago filled with mature tomatoes, squash, okra, and corn. FG is a non-profit organization funded through an impressive combination of grants and donations, market sales, and a 40 member neighborhood supported CSA program. FG was a good place to begin the tour. Participants were visibly impressed and energized by the work Nick and his team are doing along with community volunteers and AmeriCorps VISTAs. Together they are transforming vacant lots of nutrient rich rich, flood-plain soil and run down houses which they have converted into meeting spaces and housing for their volunteers.

On the drive to our next stop, Mike Hogan spoke a bit about defining urban farming and differentiating it, and its challenges, from community gardening. He also raised issues related to zoning for high tunnels and on-site sales in residential areas (like ours) as they relate to the Food Action and Green Business and Urban Agriculture Plans City Council  recently adopted. I was happy to hear conversations are underway with the zoning office to set guidelines for people interested in erecting high tunnels; checklists stating what’s needed with regard to review and permits for structures under and above certain size thresholds. At this time, high tunnels under 2,000 square feet are not restricted so much as the rules around them are vague.

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Our second stop, Clarfield Farms, is operated by the MidOhio Foodbank as one mechanism for reaching their overall mission of ending hunger in Central Ohio. The farm sits on land beside a former Columbus City School building, breathing new life into an underutilized civic space. Before the farm was established in 2012, the school had been vacant for nearly a decade. While I have been invited to Clarfield at least half a dozen times, I never made it down before this tour. I’m glad I finally got to see what they have going on and hear more about their programming. Along with 3 – 20×96′ high tunnels and field crops, they host a u-pick plot for neighbors, and a weekly pay-what-you-can farm stand. The farm works with other branches of the foodbank (see for example South Side Roots),  partners with other local non-profit organizations, and maintains relationships with local chefs. The farm also hosts a summer youth program that gives teens with 10-week apprenticeships during which they learn life skills they can apply to various personal and professional situations. We heard one young woman  report on the impact the apprenticeship has had on her; at 15 she was able to clearly tell us direct and indirect ways she’s developed as a result of her time at Clarfield. Through its portfolio of operations, Clarfield demonstrates myriad ways urban farms can connect with and serve their communities.

On the way to the next stop I talked a little more about deduct meters – which came up at our first two stops. With this device installed on our water lines, urban farmers can avoid sewage charges for water that goes into the ground. Having these permitted and installed is time consuming and costly, but can save lots of money over time. Making that process easier, maybe even giving farmers a a subsidy  to help pay for installation, would go a long way in supporting the work we do in our communities. I also reiterated the needs Mike set forth for clear guidelines regarding high tunnels, noting a recent round of federal grants that were offered to urban farmers in Columbus, some of whom passed up the money due to uncertainty about regulations.

Our third stop was another from my bucket list – Project Aquastar (PA) at St. Stephen’s Community House in Linden. The project has a relatively new manager, Max Slater who has a degree in urban planning and identifies as a self-taught farmer. PA is going through some restructuring including moving it aquaponics production into a new greenhouse. The project currently distributes produce through a new buy one/give one CSA program and through the St. Stephen’s food pantry. Like Clarfield, they host teen apprentices in the summer months. They have great infrastructure and it will be exciting to see how they reinvent themselves in the coming years.

Between this and our next stop, Adam Ward, Director of Government Affairs for the OSU College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences spoke for a few minutes. He talked about the university’s Discovery Themes, specifically the Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation (InFACT). InFACT recently received a major grant from the Kellogg Foundation for the Buckeye ISA (Institutionally Supported Agriculture) program to help mentor low-income families interested in growing food for themselves, their neighbors, and the university. This proposal generated a lot of questions from the council members and staff, as it has in the urban farming community, and served as an interesting point of transition to our next site.

Foraged & Sown is a for-profit venture led by two women in North Linden – Kate Hodges and Rachel Tayse. The pair sell wild edibles (foraged) and grow their own (sown) culinary herbs for chefs and home chefs and tea drinkers along with other value added products like seasoned salts and jams. Like other of us farming on the north end of town (Swainway Urban Farm, Peace Love and Freedom Farm, Pettibone Urban Game), Kate and Rachel grow in their front, back, and side yards – anywhere there is soil. This kind of amped-up edible landscaping, like what we do at Over the Fence — using available space to grow food, rather than lawns — builds capacity for sustainability and resiliency in the city.  But it’s not always appreciated, nor profitable.

Kate and Rachel shared challenges of dealing with formal and informal complaints from neighbors initially skeptical of their activities. Over time those have diminished, due largely to their persistence in speaking with agents who came out to investigate the complaints and inviting neighbors to see what they are doing during open house tours. Foraged & Sown provides an example of issues addressed by individual residents interested in farming on their property as opposed to the other operations we visited growing on vacant lots obtained from the city land bank, leased land from public entities like the school district, or non-profit managed properties. Legislative Analyst Sandra Lopez suggests folks like us go to our local area commissions to introduce ourselves and let those groups know what we are doing and what impact it makes on our neighborhoods. Adam Ward echoed this saying, “The worst time to build relationships is in times of crisis.” Council Member Tyson agreed suggesting “Introduce yourself when you don’t need anything, so that when you do, you’ll have relationships to fall back on.” That’s what this tour was largely about.

Our final stop was a quick swing by Over the Fence. On our short drive over, I told everyone a bit more about how I got started farming, a bit about the finances of my operation, and the ways CSA members help me keep things going and looking good. I hope I made clear that our community kitchen garden is not only providing produce to 18 households this season including my own, but also providing a space for building community. It truly takes a village to run this farm. Over the Fence is not a 501c3 but isn’t really a for-profit enterprise either. My profits are not easy to calculate; the come mostly in the forms of food and friendship. That’s alright for me, a middle-class woman with another job as well as a well-employed spouse with great health insurance, but it wouldn’t work for everyone. It requires not only additional income, but also a reimagining of how we define, and measure, profits. I’ve struggled with quantifying this in the past but I think such numbers would speak volumes to legislators, community organizers, funders, and potential future farmers.

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Photo credit: Michelle Moskowitz Brown

All the farmers we visited with have already expressed interest in working together to continue communications with City Council.  You can be sure I’ll blog about it here.