Tim Smith would like you to try something new. It’s a little green shoot with two bright, fleshy leaves that he’s just cut free from a tray carpeted with them. They’re sunflower sprouts, and they’re in season right now at the farm he founded, Community Greenhouse Partners, on the grounds of a former Roman Catholic church at E. 67th and Superior.
“Microgreens are the first stem and leaf of a plant. These are sunflower, and they’re super high in things like folic acid and vitamin B, and they’re 20% protein.”
How did a graphic designer and journalist get here, elbow deep in crunchy microgreens, pastor of the church of good food?
It started with his parents. They were intensive gardeners. “We didn’t have a backyard, we had a garden. I didn’t mow the lawn as a kid, I weeded.”
They were founding members of the Cleveland Food Co-op, and Tim’s first jobs included, at the age of 6, cutting one-pound blocks of cream cheese with a wire.
“So I couldn’t cut myself,” he says.
But running an urban farm? That idea he got from his work as a documentary film screener for the Cleveland International Film Festival, a gig he’s had since the early days of the festival, now in its 38th year. His graphic design and journalism work reflect his interest in storytelling, and he says that the screening is no different.
“You experience things through another person’s eyes. Film can provoke a visceral response. People get mad, watching movies. People cry, watching movies. People laugh, watching movies and it’s even more powerful when the thing that they’re crying laughing or getting angry about are real. So a documentary, where you can go deep in depth into a topic, you can learn more than in any college course.”
He and Dani had, on a couch one can imagine as ringed by empty popcorn bowls, seen a number of films, beginning about 2005, on the dangers of industrial-scale food production and factory farms. Those films reawakened his food movement roots, but not until 2009 did he see a film that had anything to say about what to do about it.
The film was called REALLY DELICIOUS and arrived in the usual box of DVDs to prescreen. It started with the usual “corporate food is bad” message they’d seen before, but about 10 minutes in, pivoted to profiles of people who were giving great thought and taking action on what to do to counter corporate food. Local food, sustainable practices, eating locally and bringing it to scale. In particular, the film profiled Will Allen, the head farmer and CEO of Growing Power, a nonprofit urban farm in Milwaukee.
“We’re 250 miles farther south, we get more and better sunlight, why isn’t anyone doing this here?” Tim wondered.
Inspired, he began seeking out ‘local food’ networking opportunities and exploring options for starting a cooperative garden and education center in Cleveland. A layoff from his day job in the spring of 2009 provided an unexpected opportunity to move forward. He sat at Café Aroma with the proverbial clean-out-your-desk box close at hand and shared his news with a friend.
“You realize this is your opportunity, right? Well, You’ve been talking about doing this greenhouse thing for almost a year, maybe this is God’s way of saying, it’s time to do it.”
“So I started talking to everybody I knew,” and kept finding people who had little pieces of the puzzle. “The great thing about 2009, even now in 2013 in Cleveland, because the economy stinks, there’s a lot of incredibly well-skilled people who don’t have anything to do.”
A colleague from the film festival turned out to have a masters in aquatic biology, and has joined his board. He was at an Entrepreneurs for Sustainability (E4S) local food networking night, when someone invited him to speak at a screening of a new movie about local food.
“Dani and I went, we sat down and ten minutes in, I turned to her and said, ‘This is REALLY DELICIOUS!’”
“We had given REALLY DELICIOUS low grades. It had technical problems,” with editing and pacing, that made it unsuitable for the CIFF, he said. But it had all this great information about how we can create a sustainable food system that doesn’t damage the food or the people eating or the animal you’re raising.
It said, “’Here’s a healthy alternative,’ and that’s what caught my eye. I had just read Omnivore’s Dilemma, I knew who the players were. When we watch movies, we have to write out a critique, with constructive criticism, that gets sent back to the filmmakers. So a year later, this new movie comes out, FRESH” that incorporated many of the changes Tim and Dani had included in their critique.
A deal to lease the former St. George Church, with its 19th century rectory, tri-level church building and vast parking lots allowed Community Greenhouse Partners to commence its mission to be a sustainable urban farm, applying green design and engaging the community to grow wholesome and low-cost food year-round. Their model improves individual health while generating training, mentoring and employment opportunities for the community.
At the moment, the church building is unused, but plans call for an aquaculture operation in the bright an airy former sanctuary. All around it lay the battered trappings of a working farm, evidence that they are working hard to balance their dual mission of producing good food in a ecologically-sensitive way, while educating people about sustainable farming practices.
The greenhouse, his Church of Good Food, is located in St. Clair-Superior, where NLC Class 19 grad Michelle Broome was a longtime organizer. She, along with her classmate, Erin Randel, who knew Tim from the film festival, invited Tim to participate in NLC as a way to build his skills and share his perspective with other grassroots leaders. He was a bit of a tough sell, with so much to juggle at the farm.
“I already knew what a community development corporation was and how they work. . . technical knowledge, I already had. But what I got out of the course was a strong connection to this cadre of grassroots leaders, and also some strategies about grassroots leadership that I didn’t have before. But also this amazing group of people that I didn’t know about that I’m happy to help if they need help, and who are happy to help me if I need help.”
“Here were all these other people, many of whom had the same sort of skill set, but none of us knew each other. I knew two people when I walked in there, but I left with a whole bunch of friends, who are all doing some pretty amazing work, pretty remarkable work. And the knowledge that there is a database of people, a group of people out there, who are all connected through NLI that are eager and willing to try to make a difference.”
Community Greenhouse Partners’ produce is available right at the farm (6527 Superior), as well at the Coit Road Market, 10-1 on Wednesday, 8-1 Saturday; and the Downtown Farmers Market on Public Square, Fridays through October from 11-2 p.m.