A new breed of urban growers bring hyper-local produce to Columbus

G.A. Benton
Milan Karcic joins a new breed of urban growers bringing hyperlocal produce to high-end eateries and farmers market stalls.

With a gentle Indiana drawl as soothing as a cool breeze in July, Joseph Swain, the guru of the local urban farming movement, described the beautiful, delicious and highly nutritious organic produce he and his colleagues growwithin city limits by saying, “It's the freshest food on the planet.”

If you're surprised or confused by the phrase “local urban farming,” you're probably not alone. But it's a blooming food trend that could soon be as well-known as other local-focused sensations such as the Columbus craft brewery and artisanal distillerymovements.

Like those flourishing contemporary booze industries, urban farming generally attracts mainstream-averse people not afraid to jump into something new. And like their hooch-making predecessors, urban farmers can counteract a lack of previous experience with creativity, ingenuity and a hard work-embracing, DIY attitude.

Such “can do” characteristics come in handy in demanding start-up fields, and align with a philosophy that labor-intensive, higher-quality products (sometimes sold for higher prices), and a reduced distance between producer and consumer, can allow small businesses to stand alongside bigger entities.

Unsurprisingly, neighborhoods near progressive Clintonville — the “Portlandia” of Central Ohio (I say this as a proud “Clintonvillian”) — have become fertile ground for urban farmers and the enthusiastic fans of their hyper-local, cleanly grown, nutrient-rich groceries.

Planting the seed

During a Saturday morning visit in June to the burgeoning and bustling weekly street fair called the Clintonville Farmers' Market — where many pre-bagged portions of pristine produce go for only $3 a pop — I caught up with Joseph Swain at his Certified Organic Swainway Urban Farm stall. In front of just-harvested garlic scapes and sought-after mushrooms and microgreens, the local Johnny Carrotseed acknowledged that he became the first modern Columbus urban farmer in 2010 when he expanded his Clintonville garden to start a for-profit operation.

The 40-year-old Indiana native, who moved to Clintonville in 2007, warned that urban farming isn't for the faint of heart and shouldn't be seen as a “get rich quick” scheme, but business has been booming lately — May was the best month ever for Swainway, and June was on a record pace, too.

An outgrowth from harvesting loads of great local produce is that Swain's veggies can currently be found on the plates of some of the best restaurants in town, including The Guild House, Skillet, The Sycamore and The Table.

Swain explained, though, that when he initially launched his urban farming business, doubters seemed to outnumber potential customers. Back then, he had to lobby for a chance to convince board members of the Clintonville Farmers' Market (CFM) that a city farmer could produce an amount of food comparable to rural, big-acre farms. Long story short, not only did he prove this in spades, but Swain is now a CFM board member.

Having carved a successful path through intense study, nose-to-the-grindstone labor and trial-and-error methodologies, Swain has gone on to help promote and mentor the next set of Columbus urban farmers — several of whom have stalls at the CFM. The expanding list includes Freshtown Farm, a market newcomer whose vegetable grower, 31-year-old Marcie Todd, has a background that includes the Peace Corps and a degree in literature.

Foraged & Sown, another town-based outfit, is in its fourth year at the market. When I recently spoke with Foraged & Sown's 30-something owners, Kate Hodges (who has a videography background) and Rachel Tayse (a respected local writer), Tayse said, “I think there's a very clear connection between creative people and those who go into urban farming.”

Such a connection is abundantly clear in the following glimpses at two other urban farmers you can find at the Clintonville Farmers' Market.

Down on the farms

Milan Karcic of Peace Love and Freedom Farm

“Milan was the next one to show he could pull it off,” Swain said about second-wave Columbus urban farmer Milan Karcic. Swain recalled Karcic visiting his farm and picking his brain when Karcic was still urban farming on a part-time basis several years ago.

A Mansfield native whose degree in interpersonal communications from Ohio State didn't make his previous bartending gigs any more satisfying, Karcic is a four-year CFM fixture who's found richer fulfillment as a farmer. Part of his job now entails collaborating with colleagues such as the crew of Foraged and Sown, with whom he shares a tractor and pools resources to purchase seeds. “Milan leads with his creativity and passion,” Tayse said, “and he grows damn good crops.”

The apparently tireless 48-year-old practically singlehandedly sows, weeds, irrigates, harvests, divides and bags the produce he sells at CFM and deposits on the doorsteps of 30 subscribers to his CSA program (community-supported agriculture). Although he formerly sold to restaurants such as The Refectory (“It's high quality,” Richard Blondin, The Refectory's chef, has said of his stuff), Karcic finds that focusing on farmers markets and CSA customers currently works better for him.

He makes his CSA deliveries in the 2000 Camry owned by his wife, artist and musician Meagan Alwood-Karcic, 22 consecutive Mondays per year. As a multiseason repeat subscriber myself, I regularly enjoy Karcic's healthy produce, but had never visited his farm.

My opportunity came on a steamy afternoon in late June when I found myself driving through Karcic's dark horse Columbus neighborhood called — no lie — Baby Farms. On this tree-lined stretch of land south of Morse Road and east of I-71 near Clintonville and Linden, I scanned cute little houses with 1950s and '60s vintages until I located the address Karcic had texted me. In a neighborhood with large backyards, his stands out because, well, it's actually a baby farm.

Specifically, it's the Peace Love and Freedom Farm, a lovely third-of-an-acre garden that has earned a Certified Organic accreditation from the United States Department of Agriculture. Farmer Karcic, who is also a budding filmmaker and longtime musician (Peace Love and Freedom's logo uses a treble clef for an ampersand), began farming here full-time in 2012.

Stepping onto his sun-blasted property, I felt a kinship with the State of Ohio flag drooping near Karcic's cozy-looking white house. “It's really fucking stupid hot,” is how he laughingly greeted me.

Countering my dampening hand with a bottle of cold water plucked from a nearby cooler, Karcic didn't seem especially affected by the heat in the farming outfit that hung loosely on his skinny frame — a soil-smudged, long-sleeved, button-down shirt tucked into dusty khakis. Behind him, I noticed something I don't normally associate with a farm: a Slip 'N Slide. Off to his left was something stranger: a mannequin dressed exactly like him.

Surrealistic pillow

Fans of “Jimmy Glasses,” Karcic's surreal movie in which this mannequin appears — “Jimmy Glasses” premiered to a sold-out crowd at the Gateway Film Center last year — are probably shaking their heads now. Or scratching them again and giggling.

In that darkly comedic tale about a landlord-nagged “inventor and dreamer” who naps in plowed fields and pins his money-making hopes on pillows filled with arugula “so that you can sleepand eat at the same time,” the mannequin stands in for characters Karcic otherwise inhabits.

Karcic described this one-man-band cinematic opus that he shot on his iPhone, edited, scored and starred in as “a story about how high your dreams can take you.” Here's another way to describe it: cash-strapped, pillow-obsessed punk-rock Jim Carrey on acid.

In addition to Jimmy Glasses, Karcic and his mannequin play characters such as Principal Strimstipple, newscaster Sterling Platinum (“You can't afford my name”) and Joey Turd, aka Joey Peanuts.

No, I'm not making any of this up, and Karcic is currently working on a much-requested sequel. Yup, this is a ripe example of a nontraditional farmer who lives and works in a city. Still, don't be misled by Karcic's offbeat sense of humor, because underneath this talent to make people laugh is a guy who takes his day job quite seriously.

‘No running in the garden'

During a tour of his farm, Karcic told me his introduction to horticulture came as a moneyless college student and involved serendipity. “I just threw a $1 pack of seeds into my yard and they turned into a ton of tomatoes that weresodelicious,” he recalled.

Decades later, the vibrant kale, lettuce, carrots, chard, beans, onions, zucchini, mustard greens, ground cherries and “memorial orchard” of peach, plum and apple trees I was gazing at (each tree was planted in honor of a departed family member), were hardly the result of serendipity. Constant attention from sunup until, as Karcic said pointing, “That light-sensor bulb there comes on,” is more like it.

Further expounding on the rigors of urban farming, Karcic said, “It's the perfect profession if you want to work your ass off and not have any spare time,” and, “I don't want to discourage people from going into this, but I probably should.”

He insisted, though, that the rewards are worth it, among them: “I get to feed my family, friends and community with the most nutritious food in the world”; “I'm super-connected with mother nature”; “Taking a break means hugging my dog in the shade and looking up at clouds.”

After asking if I'd ever eaten a radish seed pod — I hadn't — Karcic began running to get one, while shouting, “There's no running in the garden, by the way!”

The pods are delicious — surprisingly sweet, even melon-y, but with a spicy finish — and are available as “Clintonville beans” at Karcic's CFM stall. Karcic also sells the gooseberries I sampled that day at his stall. They taste like something that someone like Karcic wouldn't know about outside of this hard-won, impressive urban farm: sour grapes.

Mark Van Fleet of Harriet Gardens

Where other people just see PVC pipes, Mark Van Fleet can see a musical instrument. And where other people just see an alleyway gravel pit, Mark Van Fleet can see a farm.

Van Fleet, 40, grew up in Youngstown and moved to Columbus to attend Ohio State, where he studied art and earned a degree in photography. After graduation, he wandered through temporary odd jobs around town and spent his spare time following his interests: making art, hanging out in galleries and DIY spaces and playing in performance-art noise bands, in which he generated sounds through electronic effects and by blowing into PVC piping as if it were a saxophone.

The most successful of these avant-garde groups, Sword Heaven, engaged in wild, fevered drumming and horror movie-style primal screaming through throats constricted by garottes. Easy listening it wasn't, but touring with Sword Heaven allowed Van Fleet to see Europe and a large part of America.

Eventually, he'd land a more stable job as an art gallery registrar at Ohio State's Wexner Center for the Arts. While spending 10 years at this position, he'd get married to Jen Burton, co-owner of Seventh Son Brewery, and the two would buy a house in Clintonville and have a daughter they'd name Jane Harriet. Like the corny commercial says, life comes at you fast.

But Van Fleet's registrar job was starting to drag. Late one December, while staring down the barrel of 30 gloomy consecutive days spent in front of a work computer, he decided to visit an old bandmate (from a short-lived group named Faceplant) who'd recently found a way to exit the rat race maze: Milan Karcic.

MINT condition

Prior to visiting Karcic, Van Fleet had begun to catch the farming bug after growing tomatoes behind Seventh Son and dabbling in vegetable gardening outside his house. In an early July interview, he fondly recalled that introductory Clintonville garden: “At first I just did whatever Jen told me to do, but I eventually took it over. Then one night, I'm making dinner and I realized tomatoes were only 20 feet outside my back door. How great is that!”

Fast forward through Van Fleet being inspired by seeing Karcic's “be your own boss” urban farm, then running home to plan his own. And Van Fleet reading up on horticulture and scouting for a farm location. And Van Fleet grasping that this location could be an abandoned field in Merion Village behind a building he knew very well: the former space of the artists collective called MINT, whose manifesto suitably includes, “to remain persistently disobedient to traditional thinking.”

“He carved a Shangri-la out of nothing,” said Jodi Miller in a recent interview. Miller, a photographer whose work has often graced the pages ofAlive — she's a serious gardener herself — periodically helps Van Fleet harvest at Harriet Gardens, the half-acre farm Van Fleet named for his daughter. With wide-eyed respect, Miller described the relentless work ethic and meticulous techniques that allowed Van Fleet to transform what was a rock-filled urban wasteland in 2015 into the well-manicured, surprisingly large, three-year-old farm I toured in late June.

Walking past what Miller called “a shit-ton of tomatoes” — actually 575 plants, most destined to supply top local restaurants — I saw delicate red lettuce leaves peeking up near row after neat row of kale, cucumbers, collard greens, arugula, basil, turnips, beans, radishes and more.

Showing me where his carrots grow, Van Fleet said he'd never known how delicious a “real” carrot tasted before he ate one of his own. “It was a revelation. And not that long ago,” he said pointing to his carrot patch, “that was just an overgrown field of three-foot-high grass.”

Groundhog Day

“Oh god, those carrots — they're multicolored and look like something from a storybook,” Steve Nicholson recently said over the phone, “and Mark's Harukei turnips are killer!”

Nicholson, the executive chef at Flatiron Bar and Diner, one of several eateries that eagerly await regular Van Fleet deliveries, continued: “Mark's stuff is so great we don't need to doctor it up. We simply roast his carrots with their edible tops on, and even people who say they hate carrots love them.”

Nicholson said he also pickles Van Fleet's spicy greens for fried-chicken sandwiches and makes pesto with Van Fleet's basil and garlic scapes. And he frequently tries to push a pulled pork sandwich on Van Fleet during his produce drop offs because, “Jen tells me he's so focused on work, he hardly remembers to eat.”

That's because the other side of the carrot is the stick, and to grow beautiful produce, Van Fleet must constantly whip his sprawling farm into shape. The routine of sow, weed, water, harvest, and repeat as quickly as possible — over and over in the blazing sun — is brutal. “I love the physical work,” he said, “but you have to be the kind of person who gets enjoyment from running marathons.”

You also have to be the kind of person who can fend off pests. “I've learned so much about groundhogs,” the soft-spoken farmer said and laughed self-effacingly after aggressively chasing off yet another sneaky groundhog from a stolen feast during my Harriet Gardens tour.

Given the need for such incessant troubleshooting and labor — and not always getting fat-city paydays — Van Fleet said the independence of the urban farming lifestyle was sometimes its own reward. Seeing his sales double from year one to year two, and go up another 30 percent already in year three, attests to a method to what some might see as his madness.

After telling me how much he's learned about harvesting through Instagram, Van Fleet provided this succinct bottom-line comparison of born-to-it rural farmers and self-taught urban farmers like himself: “I don't know how to operate or fix a tractor,” he said, “but I can grow beautiful lettuce.”