Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Victory-Over-the-Virus Farming Report: April 3

Morning on the farm.

Well, we’re another week into the Covid-19 pandemic response in the United States and my email is overflowing with requests from individuals to join the CSA, purchase seedlings, and come work on the farm, as well as from organizations (including Green Columbus, Local Matters, and Ohio History Connection) interested in partnering on Victory-Over-the-Virus programming. I’m literally overwhelmed by the response.

As I wrote last week, one silver lining of this horrible disaster seems to be that people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and increasing their desire to grow more of their own and/or find local sources to purchase from. Environmental, spiritual, and culinary reasons aside, a friend sent me this image which appeals to our growing awareness of how many hands touch the things we touch and, in this case, eat.

I tried to find attribution for this but can’t. If anyone knows, please update me!

Last night, on a call with the Jewish Farmers’ Network (JFN), I learned of a national initiative to get more people planting food gardens in response to the virus. Cooperative Gardens Commission (#coopgardens) was started by a JFN member, Nate Kleinman of the totally amazing Experimental Farm Network and a veteran of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The initiative started with an Instagram post, moved to a Google Form, and within a week had 1,000 participants assigned to different teams to help convert supplies and expertise into action. The New York Times and Civil Eats have already reported on the project. I was thrilled to learn about it and I’m excited to see how our Victory-Over-the-Virus Garden initiatives might fit in.

This past Wednesday, I piloted “Live from the Farm!” a lunchtime program on Facebook, geared mostly for kids but also appealing to grown-ups who have watched and given me feedback. The first week’s theme was Seeds (click here to watch the recording), and next week we’ll be talking about Worms followed by chickens, bees, water, and compost.

Preliminary plans are also in the works for a sister series, “Happy Hour on the Farm,” in which I will answer questions from folks who purchased Victory-Over-the-Virus seedlings and others who are getting new and existing gardens going this season. Follow the farm on Facebook for more on that.

Over the Fence is quickly getting cleaned up and we have more than half the beds seeded or filled with transplants plus a few germinating spring cover crops (fava and cow peas). We moved most of an enormous pile of woodchips, but still need to clean the chicken coop which keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the list. (Sorry ladies! Totally unfair since you have been doing your part to supply us and the extended family with tons of beautiful eggs.)

Hope all’s okay where you are and that if you haven’t already, you find a spot where you can grow something to feed not just your stomach, but also your soul.


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An Invitation for Change: Could COVID-19 be the Next Green Market Influencer?

[WARNING: This post is not full of sunshine and rainbows. Sorry. If you want that, scroll through our archive or go to our Instagram feed and click on just about anything.]

Holy sh*t.

What a difference a week can make. I ended my last post with a minor reference to COVID-19 and now our world has screeched to a standstill at its feet. What still seemed like a distant possibility last week—that our food system might get disrupted—seems much more likely now as borders and industries of all kinds shut down at the same time as photos on social media show understocked grocery shelves across the country.

I haven’t personally been to a store in a week so I’m not sure what the reality is like day-to-day at this point. I hope things have leveled out as the initial rush to shore up the larders has passed.

I would like to pause here to give a shout out to all the people working to keep shelves stocked and customers checked out. Without them, we’d be feeling this even harder. Also PLEASE, please support your local famers! The markets have all been shut down and they are looking for new ways to connect with customers. Be patient as things unfold, but look for updates from them on their social media feeds and websites.   

I recognize the great privilege I, and so many likely reading this, have to be sheltering in place somewhere dry and clean, with beer and wifi. For awhile now I have been cultivating a practice of taking time each day, throughout the day, to give quiet thanks for seemingly small but really miraculous gifts in my life – clean fresh air, sinks with running water, time to think. How much more are we able to notice those things when our daily lived experiences change?

Those of us who grow food have been feeling change for awhile. We have seen our USDA Hardiness Zone in Central Ohio jump from 5 to 6 in the past few years. Despite what the deniers say, temperatures have gotten measurably warmer on average. We have seen more severe weather with drier dry spells and wetter rainy seasons. We’ve been talking about this amongst ourselves and sharing with those who will listen. The government has recognized it in the form of subsidies to farmers who have suffered major crop loses as a result.

But the average American has generally failed to consider changes this might bring to their lives. Here, for example, are a few commonly referenced scenarios: Life without coffee (extinction of many varieties threatened by a combination of diseases and pests combined with warmer weather and the end of the popular Cavendish banana (succumbing to a spread of Fusarium fungus). Environmentalists also warn about decreasing fresh water supplies (already a reality in many parts of the world), a thought that terrifies me more than any other. Apples are suffering from unpredictable spring frosts. And the list goes on…

I’ve been thinking a lot and writing a little about climate change and sustainable small-scale agriculture since the fall when Greta got everyone seriously thinking about it for the Mother Earth News blog. I’ve lost sleep wrestling with guilt over wanting to do more but not knowing how or what to do. I bike or walk rather than drive when I can. I have used cloth shopping bags since the ’90s and I refrain from purchasing some things I or my family might like if they are overly packaged in plastic. I compost. I donate to environmental organizations with a wide range of missions. I keep the thermostat under tight control. I don’t eat a lot of meat and when I do it is locally and regeneratively raised and humanely slaughtered. I buy local and organic dairy and produce as much as I can for things I can’t grow myself. And when I’m feeling really hopeless, I tell myself that these, and so many other little things I’m doing, add up to something.

But then I look around me and see so many other people living differently, with seemly little concern for the things that keep me up at night. A headline last week read, “What would happen if the world reacted to climate change like it’s reacting to the coronavirus?” It’s a thought-provoking read and I encourage you to click through (once you’re finished with my diatribe…). As the author notes, “If the world was responding to climate change like it’s responding to the coronavirus—the level of urgency that the science says is necessary—things would look dramatically different.”

I don’t write this to shame people into caring about the climate or changing your behaviors. Although I hope you will be inspired to do those things. I write it as an invitation; an invitation to use our current crisis as an opportunity to pay more attention to our habits.

As we all limit our trips to the stores, take time to practice more mindful consumption. If this sounds like a fancy term for rationing, that’s because it kind of is. Most of us haven’t experienced that in our lifetimes but you don’t have to go back too far to see examples. So, consider where you might reduce your consumption. For example: What’s been sitting in your pantry for awhile and what creative way might you put it to use? What happens when you use a little less of the jam you love to make it last longer? Do you need that 4th cup of coffee? Does your child need another cheese stick or juice box?

Then consider other small steps you can take to enact change – commit to walking to do an errand when possible, find a way to repurpose your kitchen scraps, take Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers when they reopen, and of course, plant a garden or find a local farmer to grow your food for you.

During World War II, ordinary Americans grew nearly half the produce we consumed. We can do that again. And we should. The Green New Deal includes ideas about reclaiming lawns for food production. A public works program like that could help us dig out of the mess we’re in now. We’re going to have a lot of work to do rebuilding our communities and our economy. Knowing how slowly things get done in Washington these days, we might as well getting started, planting wherever we are.


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OTFUF Supports Local Matters

Five years ago, The Spurgeon General and I attended our first Local Matters Harvest Ball. We bought tickets to the event to force ourselves out of the house to which we’d been tethered for some years by our love children – one human, the other agricultural.

That night we learned about the organization behind the bumper stickers as we wined, dined, and danced. Each year since we have become more invested in the mission of this organization that partners with so many central Ohio organizations working on issues of food security, health and wellness.

This year, we donated $1,000, about 1/4 of our CSA proceeds, and challenged our friends and followers on Facebook to match us. While we didn’t meet our goal of $1,000 in a weekend, we got pretty darn close. Check one more box in the “Hope for Future” column. (Click through the link for another example from OTFUF history.)


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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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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.