Natural farming means going back to the basics: stirring rich compost made from field and food waste (thanks to Oberlin’s dining halls), leaves and manure into the soil. It’s black gold for the earth, and the ground needed a nutritional boost. “The soil on this farm was kind of like cracked concrete,” says Sandy Kish Jordan, executive director of the New Agrarian Center, which is home to George Jones Memorial Farm and City Fresh, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
The farm and City Fresh are the main projects facilitated by the New Agrarian Center, which was started in 2000 by members of the Oberlin College environmental studies program and some city leadership. Since then, it has evolved into an educational farming enterprise that is setting an example in the community and beyond about how to treat farmland to get the richest rewards: fresh, nutritious, sustainably grown produce.
“We have really inspired a lot of what’s going on in this region, and I’m so proud of that,” says Kish Jordan of sustainable agriculture.
The concept isn’t so foreign to the public as it was years back when Kish Jordan became interested in CSAs and working the land. “More and more folks are coming to us and embracing what we have to teach them,” she says.
“Our philosophy of farming is that we try to mirror nature,” Kish Jordan continues. “We try to provide plants what they need to be healthy, and we give them nutrients that are from nature, whether that is fish emulsion or other types of natural fertilizers.”
So you won’t find a tractor sprayer on site. Farming at George Jones is quite rudimentary, but the rich, loamy soil today shows the old practices of planting cover crops that feed the earth and churning in compost can eventually nurse stripped soil back to life. It has taken about seven years at George Jones and a lot of labor from volunteers — there’s only one full-time manager on staff, Evelyn Bryant.
“We have developed a lot of support,” says Bryant, who has worked the farm for the past five years and built relationships with small-engine mechanics, Amish farmers, engineers, professors, you name it. “It’s a constant learning process here.”
Planting the Seed
Learning is the purpose of the farm — to teach and to show people of all ages what natural farming can accomplish. And that is delicious, farm-fresh food. Today, Oberlin’s food-service company, Bon Appétit, buys salad greens and other veggies from George Jones — nearly 40 percent of the dining halls’ food is locally sourced. The Oberlin Farmers Market is stocked with the farm’s produce. Some of the farm’s bounty goes toward City Fresh, and some is dispatched into the community in other ways, such as the flower baskets that will be sold to Oberlin restaurants and at Nature’s Bin in Lakewood.
The farm is constantly seeking creative ways to market its sustainable foods to the community, and to invite interested “farmers” (even those who have barely started a garden) to the land to find out more. There’s an art and science to natural farming.
“It’s not just throwing plants into the ground,” Kish Jordan says. So Bryant works alongside interns from Oberlin College who stay in the farmhouse during summers to work the land for 10 weeks. They learn about irrigation, natural fertilization and integrated pest management (IPM), which is a way of managing pests through cultural practices.
AmeriCorps Vista volunteers stay at the farm and help Bryant run educational programs and camps. There’s something for students of every age. Kindergarteners are wowed by the worms that help make the compost, and fourth-graders love taking insect nets and trapping preying mantis and grasshoppers, which they sketch. Third-graders get to see what a compost pile is really about when Bryant cuts away a slice from a mound to show its different layers.
High schoolers and college students come to the farm for learning experiences, studying wetlands, sustainable farming, groundwater, earth surfaces and more. Graduates of Oberlin College sometimes return to the farm for a couple of weeks or longer to help.
Kish Jordan remembers one student who spent the summer at the farm as an apprentice — his grandmother wasn’t so sure it was a productive use of time. “At the end of the summer, he went home and was visiting his grandmother and her garden, and it was awful,” Kish Jordan shares. “He worked there for a couple of days and turned it around. Now she says, ‘He learned so much…it’s wonderful.’ ”
Now, Lorain County Community College (LCCC) is training students to farm and garden the natural way through its certificate of sustainable agriculture, which includes a service learning component at the George Jones Farm. The 20-credit program runs one year (a growing season), and includes summer, spring and fall crop production and courses such as plant propagation and sustainable farming, which is taught in conjunction with The Ohio State University Agriculture Technical Institute in Wooster.
It’s still the pilot year for the program, but already students are taking away knowledge they can apply to their own growing experiences. “The George Jones Farm provides that hands-on applied learning experience for students entering this program, and it’s designed for students with little or no farming or gardening experience,” says Ruby Beil, an assistant professor at LCCC.
The class includes students who grew up on family farms and those who simply want to learn more about sustainability. There are adults looking for a second career and people who want to grow a little bit of food in their backyards. “It’s a very broad group of individuals,” Beil says, adding that 25 students are taking courses in the program.
One is a young man who brought ideas he learned in sustainability courses back to the family farm. “The farm is very commodity-oriented and he wanted to influence them to be more sustainable, and he wasn’t able to do that until he started to take these courses and learned basic skills for what would resonate in his family’s farm situation,” Beil says.
Now, the student reports that his family farm uses organic fertilizer from chicken manure and kelp. They’re spreading compost in fields and will cover crop with clover to improve soil content. He told Beil, “I never thought I would be able to accomplish these things.”
Cultivating a Life
The farm’s namesake, George Jones, was a lifelong naturalist — a birder who began teaching at Oberlin College when he was just 16 years old. Jones’ father, an Oberlin professor, asked his son to teach a course to his biology students. So Jones did, and he kept on teaching. Then he graduated from Oberlin with a botany degree and became a professor. When he retired, he immediately returned to the college as an aid until he was well into his 90s. Until the end — and he lived to be 100 years old — Jones led botany walks every Sunday.
“Anybody could go,” Bryant shares. “He’d take them to the Metro Parks, sometimes just around town, the arboretum. They’d go on these walks, and he would teach them about the plants.”
Jones died in 1998, and the farm and the sandstone learning garden on the property were named after him. Jones brought botany to the community — he was an innate teacher, passionate about sharing his knowledge of the natural world.
That’s exactly what the George Jones Farm aims to do today.
On the property, a learning garden — a snail-shaped snake of beds — is filled with bok choy, lettuce, onions, strawberries, a mish-mash of produce. Students can walk through the garden maze and see all of the fruits and veggies they buy at the store planted right in the ground. The lesson: This is where food comes from.
What Bryant loves best is showing people how this bounty goes from seed to sale, how the soil went from nutritionally empty to a healthful home for plants. “I just adore working with the interns and teaching kids how to do what it takes to make things work around here,” Bryant says.
The work of a farmer is never done. And there are plenty of projects on the farm, such as the pond that was built last fall thanks to a grant. A quarter-acre in size, and 9 feet deep at its center, it will irrigate the fields once a solar-powered pump is installed. There’s even a modest beach, where interns will be able to relax. In August, the fields are unbearably hot.
Then there is the pile of reclaimed wood from the Metro Parks — enough to build a barn. And that’s the plan, but this will means disassembling the wood, designing the barn and putting it together.
“I enjoy managing projects — putting in the driveway, getting bids on the pond,” Bryant says. “I have to talk to a lot of different people, and I learn a lot from them. I now know how a pond is built and what the regulations are. It adds to my store of knowledge, and I find that kind of stuff fascinating.”
The actual learning “center” at the farm is a straw bale house, which was constructed with help from the Cleveland Green Building Coalition. The property also has a straw bale cooler, which is kept at refrigerator temperatures by using only a window air conditioning unit.
But the farm could use more storage, and that will be a project — and all this must wait until plants are in the ground and growing. That’s the priority now for Bryant and volunteers.
Catering to Community
Beyond the farm’s property lines, the good works are carried into the community through City Fresh, which was born out of the CSA concept, for which people pay an annual fee in early spring to share in a farmer’s 20 weeks of harvest.
City Fresh makes the CSA model more affordable (those can run $600 to $800 per season). With City Fresh, you can order the week before the harvest arrives at each Fresh Stop. A family share bag is $28 ($16 for low-income) and a single share is $15 ($9 for low income).
City Fresh started as a New Agrarian Center initiative to deliver fresh produce to “food deserts.” These are places where people do not have access to fresh, local food unless they take multiple buses to get to a grocery store, Kish Jordan explains. The first Fresh Stop was at West 25th Street and Clark Avenue in Cleveland. The program has evolved with the public’s growing awareness of farmers markets and sustainable foods. Now, there are 17 stops in Lorain and Cuyahoga counties.
The George Jones Farm will supply kale to City Fresh this year, but otherwise the produce is sourced from Amish farmers in the Schwartzentruber Sect, located south of Lorain County. The program gives people access to fresh food, and these farmers access to buyers. “Some sects push boundaries for work, but these guys not so much,” Kish Jordan says, relating how City Fresh feeds the community’s income to the tune of $150,000 per year in 2011.
Each week, the City Fresh box truck, which runs on used vegetable oil, visits each Fresh Stop to deliver food share orders. The orders are compiled and taken to individual farmers to fulfill, depending on what they’re harvesting that week. Every year, those orders increase and keep farmers busier.
Kish Jordan says City Fresh has grown mostly by word of mouth. “When something is good, you tell your friends,” she says, adding that anyone interested in volunteering can fill out a form on the website at cityfresh.org, where a complete list of Fresh Stops and a map is posted. And this year, people can order food shares online and pay by credit card.
City Fresh essentially helps fund the George Jones Farm, which brings in little revenue. Its purpose, after all, is to serve as a learning center. “We are about growing and teaching people about natural farming,” Kish Jordan says.
“Everyone who has worked at the farm will not necessarily be a natural farmer, but they will all have backyards that are very different than the ones we had growing up,” she continues. “They will all have wonderful little food factories.”