The following is a portion of an interview with Heidi Jones, executive director of the Marion Chamber of Commerce and former executive director of Marion Matters in Marion, Ohio. Her words have been edited for length and clarity.

Marion Matters is a nonprofit organization that’s been working for the last 12 years as a Bridges community. We’ve brought Bridges Out of Poverty concepts to Marion, and now we’re making sure that our businesses, our agencies, our community understand what it means to use the concepts, not just as a training to check off their list. We offer Getting Ahead. We’re one of the communities in Ohio that offers an employer resource network. For us, it’s looking at our community and finding ways to holistically approach instability. In a nutshell, that’s what we’re all about.

This project is really cool. We are collaborating with Ohio State University. A couple of years ago, Ohio State University reached out to the community. They were part of a Big Ten venture that worked with Schmidt Trust to work on what they called realizing the American dream. How do we strengthen our middle class? And there was some money involved with it. How do we start an initiative in a community? Urban microfarming was something that was sort of born out of that. And over in Mansfield, Ohio, there’s a branch of Ohio State University, and they’ve been able to work with the community organization there to pilot the urban microfarming concept. And they’ve done it really well, and it’s something that can be duplicated. For us, it was kind of jumping on board to say, “Do we have the need in Marion for an urban microfarm, and how does this project work?”

We spent months working with our chamber of commerce as well and helping the community understand what a microfarm is. A full scale urban microfarm is four microfarms on up to 10 acres of land. And each of those can be operated by one organization, or it could be individuals who contribute. So one urban microfarm would consist of two high tunnels, which allow the farmer to have an extended growth season so they can grow into the fall and winter and early spring months. And there are 10 outdoor beds that go with that as well. If you don’t need raised beds, you can plant in the ground. One of those kits can be built on as little as a third of an acre.

It’s basically designed as an entry-level business opportunity. And along with that comes two years of training for all of the farmers. You just have to be willing to dedicate two years of time, and it’s free of charge. Again, we’re partnering with Ohio State University, and we are going to walk through the classroom pieces to understand how to grow, how to plant, what things need to be looked for, what pests are out there that can invade and can cost money, etc.

Since the farms are only on a third of an acre, they are workable by an individual and require only 20 to 25 hours per week. So it’s something that you could supplement your income with if that’s what you’re looking to do. Or maybe you say, “Gosh, I want to have two of those kits and have four of those high tunnels and 20 beds. I could work for 50 hours and this could be my total income.” If you did just the two high tunnels and 10 beds, you could earn up to $30,000 per year. So that could definitely be a great supplement, or that could be a good income for someone who’s only making minimum wage or just a little above.

Being able to work that business is for those who are able bodied. But it’s one of those things in which you could partner up with someone and you could bring some volunteers on to work your farm. If any communities have a land bank, that’s a great resource to look for. If you’ve got a farmer who says, “I don’t have land myself, but I would like to do this,” we’re collaborating with our land bank right now to take a look at what properties are available.

We are in a neighborhood in Marion that has been neglected. We are working to bring some commerce back. There’s really not much here, so we worked with our land bank. We acquired a property that we’ll be putting an urban microfarm on. We are bringing some commerce back to the neighborhood, and we’re going to work with the school system. Our city schools here got a $200,000 grant to implement urban microfarming into their curriculum as a career pathway. We plan to work with the schools to implement that into elementary school curriculum.

Anything that the students plant and sell they would take back to the school as part of a fundraiser. Any Grade B crop that we can’t sell to a restaurant or a grocery store we plan to give away to people in the neighborhood. So there’s going to be food access. We are in a food desert. And so having healthy food access is important for us as well. Ideally, farmers join a cooperative that allows them to kind of pay into that cooperative. It will hire someone who will design crop plans based on what buyers need. Part of this project, which makes it a little more unique than just farming on your own or by yourself, is, by being part of that cooperative, we have someone there who’s going to go out into the community and line up buyers for you.

Right now, we have 11 farmers who are in training. One of them is a Getting Ahead graduate, which is so exciting. What we’re working on now and what we’ve been doing is meeting with local restaurants and grocery stores to start lining up buyers. Once we’ve got all of our buyers lined up, the cooperative will meet crop and quantity needs. The cooperative puts the crop plans together, gives them to each of the farmers who belong to the cooperative and says, “This is how many carrots you need to plant. This is how much parsley or kale or beets or whatever. It looks like this is what you need to plant because this is what you’ve sold.”

Being part of the project and being part of the cooperative gives you access to being able to save money and really guarantee that you’re going to make a little bit of money. Just like every business, there are startup costs. So to build a microfarm, it’s anywhere between $35,000 and $50,000, depending on the condition of the land. If you’ve got water and electric already on the property, you’re going to be more in that $35,000 range. But if you have to run water and electricity, you’re going to go more to that higher end. With any business, you’ve got to recoup startup costs before you start making money. It’s a business venture, and folks will become entrepreneurs and will be empowered with the skills that they need.

You also put a business plan together, which will help you as you’re looking to go out into the community to get support. We, as a microfarm project and task force, are looking to get some of that support lined up as well. Being a Bridges community, I want to bring any opportunity that’s available back to the individuals that we are serving and working with. One of the questions that I had early on was, “This sounds amazing, but I know most of my Getting Ahead graduates do not have enough credit built to get a loan for $35,000 or $50,000. So what can we do about that?” One of the pieces that we’re working on here is a revolving loan fund.

We’re looking for community support to help fund that. We’re working with a local credit union that has been a partner of Marion Matters for years. They have agreed to do the loan management piece of it. If we have a farmer who completes the two years of training, then that’s another perk for them. They would have access to that revolving fund that they do have to pay back. It will be at a lower interest rate and accessible to anyone. Whether you’ve got perfect credit or you’re still building your credit, that makes it a little bit easier for you to be able to start your farm. That’s all of what we’re able to do as we put this together as a project.

I think a lot of people say, “How’s this different than community gardening?” Community gardening is great, but you’re depending on the community to take care of it on a volunteer basis. This is an actual business, so you have to look at it that way. You have to plan for time to work your crop and things like that. We have community gardens in Marion. Microfarms are not community gardens; they are part of economic development. Urban agriculture is on the rise, and the USDA is considering it in lots of areas. There’s funding out there that we can begin to look at through the USDA. One of the benefits of a microfarm is that it shortens the supply chain. Our restaurants and grocery stores have access to produce much quicker.

For each of the farmers, no matter where they’re located in our community, their crops go into what we call an aggregation kitchen, which is part of being in that co-op. Everything goes to the aggregation kitchen, where it gets separated, weighed, and marked. So we know which farmer it came from, which high tunnel it was in, which bed it was in, which row it was in, so that we can identify if there is an issue or something like that. Part of that cooperative is being able to do that. We then get it to local buyers much quicker.

Through this program, we can also work on specialty crops. So if there are things that maybe you can’t find in our grocery store, like, for example, ghost peppers, our farmers can cater what they grow to the need of the restaurant. If we’ve got a restaurant that has a specialty dish that requires ghost peppers, one of our farmers can grow and provide that. It’s really a great opportunity. Community support is needed in everything that we do, so we’ve got all those means necessary to help people succeed and thrive.

One thing that I love about it is that Grade A crops are what we are going to sell to restaurants and grocery stores. For example, we’ve grown some things over here at Marion Matters, and we have our Grade A crops that we’re going to sell, and we also have some Grade B crops. In our neighborhood, we can give away fresh produce in an area that is considered a food desert. There’s nothing for over two miles away for someone to get groceries, and being able to give back to the community is so helpful as well.

There are so many benefits to a project like this, and, I will tell you, I, I knew nothing about microfarming before I was asked to join the task force, and I was asked to join just to help identify potential farmers. I kind of stayed on with the task force for several years, and they said, “Well, you know, we’re looking for a community organization that would oversee this project and we just feel like it lines up nicely with what you’re doing.” And of course, you know, our mission here is to provide leadership in developing and sustaining pathways out of poverty through education and support. And what better way to create a pathway out of poverty than to join forces with a major land grant university to bring a curriculum that’s free of charge so that all people have access to it?

For us, we felt that it really aligned with our mission. It was a win–win, and we just want to continue to see where it goes. Our farmers will be done with their training at the end of 2023. In 2024 we should see more farms popping up. We plan to own a community farm as well. Sisler Companies, a local company, has graciously agreed to lease 12 acres to us for a dollar a year to house a full-scale urban microfarm. That gives us some extra acreage for farmers who don’t have their own land.

If they want to add onto that community farm, they can certainly do that. They own their farm. That’s something I think too that I would like to mention because people get confused. Those high tunnels, those beds, those are owned by the person. So even if they’re in the Marion Matters community, the urban microfarm, they own it. They don’t have to pay us for use of the land they get to make a profit from. I think that’s a cool component as well, and if they decide that maybe microfarming isn’t for them, they can sell the kit to someone else. There are other opportunities as well. I think it’s just a win–win for the community and all the people here in Marion.

It’s going to look different in every community. We’ve certainly had to tweak things here and build as we go, but it’s something that’s doable anywhere.