A new crop of agricultural advocates is attempting a bold experiment in Franklin County: the preservation of farming amid rapid population growth and development.

Drive down North High Street and you'll see it; visit just about any Columbus suburb and it's happening. Commercial and residential development is underway all over central Ohio. And for good reason. According to insight2050—a project supported by Columbus 2020, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the Urban Land Institute Columbus—1 million new bodies will arrive in the region by 2050, and those people need to live somewhere.

As Columbus grows new buildings, however, it continues to grow in the way it first knew how: crops in its rich topsoil—on hundreds of acres surrounding the city, and on small plots in inner-city neighborhoods. This movement isn't just a nostalgia trip, either. Not only are its adherents preserving a part of the region's heritage, they also contend agriculture's continued presence in Franklin County provides clear, tangible benefits, even within city borders and in the face of the expected population boom. Whether in Hilliard or the Hilltop, locally grown crops can offer healthier options in “food deserts,” add to the cultural and economic diversity of the region and serve as an ecological buffer against the encroaching concrete jungle.

The phenomenon creates a tricky balancing act. As cities expand, farms traditionally are expected to make way for more urban and suburban uses, from shopping centers and subdivisions to industrial parks and office complexes. And that's happening in Franklin County, where many traditional, large-scale farms are struggling to hold on amid suburban growth. Cities, meanwhile, are a tough row to hoe as well, with urban farming pioneers facing a slew of obstacles, such as unwelcoming neighbors, strict zoning rules and a complicated supply chain.

Can Columbus accommodate both population and agricultural growth in an age of rapid expansion and development? And should it even try? The answers aren't clear yet, but a crop of agricultural true believers is forging a new path to find out.

Ohio has always been a great place to grow things. Zoom out and the entire Midwest has some of the most ideal farming conditions on the planet.

“To understand the Midwest, to understand central Ohio, you've got to understand the importance of dirt,” says Ed Lentz, a local historian and former executive director of the Columbus Landmarks Foundation. “When settlers came over the mountains in the years after the American Revolution from New England, these guys thought they had died and gone to heaven because they were used to a land that had been farmed over for a couple hundred years, whose primary crop was rocks. They come to Ohio, and there's topsoil three feet, four feet, five feet deep. This is some of the best topsoil on earth, and it still is to this day.”

Although agriculture has always been prevalent in all parts of Ohio, Lentz says Columbus' reputation as a “cowtown” is a bit misguided. By the turn of the 20th century, the state capital had a population of 125,000 people with four steel mills on its south end and Ohio State University on the north side. “If you'd asked somebody who lived here 100 years ago, is this place a cowtown?” adds Lentz. “They would have looked at you like, ‘Say what?' ”

Since then, of course, the urbanization has continued, with the building out of suburbs and the redevelopment of the city's core in more recent years.

Fourth-generation farmer Jeff Schilling has seen those changes firsthand. On his own land in Galloway, a Franklin County community west of the city, Schilling farms mostly hay, which he then sells to horse owners no more than 60 miles away. The homestead has two houses sitting side by side, where his family members have lived since 1958. Before that, his great grandpa owned and farmed the land that is now the Heritage Golf Course in Hilliard. He says he has a picture that hangs in his house of the four generations of farming men.

Schilling's 1,400 acres has shrunk since he graduated high school in 1996, when his family farmed in various spots around central Ohio. Now, he owns 500 acres, a change due in part to development. Houses now sit on a portion of his family's former Hilliard farmland.

To survive, Schilling earns additional income working on a sod farm owned by someone else. He says he knows many other farmers who also have taken on extra farm jobs as it has become more difficult to sell cash crops like corn, soybeans and wheat. Though Schilling says the Galloway area hasn't seen much new development—due in part, he thinks, to its location near the less desirable West Side of Columbus—he has seen areas like Grove City and Hilliard change from farming communities to growing suburbs.

“It seems like people want to move back into the metro area, which is good because it seems like there is so much land there that could be redeveloped,” he says. “That saves the farm ground out here.”

Suburban growth is even more directly affecting Neall Weber, a Hilliard farmer. He farms 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, and is trying out hops this year. He says Franklin County farmers pay exorbitantly higher property taxes than farmers in other places. “I've talked to people that farm in different states, such as Illinois or Indiana, and they pay right around $18-$20 per acre to farm a crop,” he says. “We pay $130 an acre. … In essence, a farmer that farms in Franklin County—whether it be organic, what we grow, or pumpkins or whatever it might be—they need to be that much more productive just to make it fair.”

But he's glad he can sell his valuable land, should he need to. “It gets more and more difficult to farm in Franklin County. [Selling] is something that is an option, and a lot of farmers have taken that option.”

A need still exists for corn, soybeans and wheat to be used in foods and products. But should those things become less profitable, both existing and new farmers may be able to grow in-demand higher-value crops like fruits, berries and dairy in the Columbus market, says Shoshanah Inwood, a rural sociologist and assistant professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University. “If you have a larger grain farm, that's really hard to maintain the acreage that you need to support a family on it,” she says.

“Urban encroachment has really continued,” she adds. “There's been a lot more development pressure. … We are losing our farmers. But at the same time, you also see new farms coming in; you see [farmers] adapting their existing farms to do more direct marketing and also taking advantage of a bigger customer base.”

Brian Williams, a former journalist and longtime food and farming advocate, also sees untapped opportunities in local agriculture. While the farm-to-table movement gets lots of attention, many don't fully understand what's involved—in particular, the “to” portion of the equation. About a year ago, Williams started a farming consultancy called Local Nexus and is gearing up to research the viability of a more robust local farm-to-table distribution operation right here in Columbus. “When you say farm-to-table, that's not going to be the case with pork and beef or poultry—we need the meat processors and the distributors. I want to focus on how we build up that supply-chain infrastructure.”

It's not just meat, either. Most types of products need some kind of processing to be used by institutions like schools and hospitals. Williams wants to figure out how much processing they'd need—he already knows there is a growing interest from these institutions in providing local food. Ohio State alone has a $39 million food budget. He wonders: What if those dollars—and many more—stay circulating in Columbus?

“I want to … really quantify the potential demand for local food,” he says. His goal is to come up with a figure that accurately reflects the overall potential dollars that can come out of this unmet demand in central Ohio. He guesses that it could be tens or even hundreds of millions. “That would let lenders and public officials realize this is an economic development tool,” he says. “There's a lot that can happen here.”

City and county officials are thinking about farms, too, and plans are gaining traction. The Columbus and Franklin County Local Food Action Plan, currently being finalized by the city, aims to create a more robust, more sustainable local food system by increasing the role of food in Columbus' economic development and strengthening communication between food resources and agencies already in existence. Built into the plan are targets that affect Columbus farming directly, including a goal to “grow capacity and enhance viability of civic agriculture to allow more residents to grow food for themselves and their neighbors.” Another goal is to revise zoning codes and permit requirements that work against farming in the city. Along with the Local Food Action Plan, the Columbus Green Business and Urban Agriculture Strategic Plan was put into place to identify potential updates to policies and regulations that would promote green businesses in Columbus, including food production.

A food system like this will be good for the economy, says Williams, but it will also be good for city residents who don't have access to fresh food.

“I want to see a distribution system that gets food readily to major buyers like OSU and its $39 million-dollar food budget, but also the little corner grocery store in a food desert,” he says. “Very often, it's difficult for them to sell fresh produce, because they're so small. It's hard to find the distribution network that will accommodate the smaller stores, so I want to see a system that fits the mainstream but also serves the small-scale farmers and the residents of struggling neighborhoods. And at the same time, keeps the local food dollars circulating and re-circulating in the local economy.

“I won't say the city has formally changed a lot of the regulations or zoning codes [yet], but in practice they are very aware of this and are becoming much more supportive,” says Williams. “It is on the agenda of the political leaders as well as in the city departments. I think people are more aware of this and more interested in it.”

Where could all this potential local food come from? Large-scale operations on the outskirts of town, yes, but also from many growers right within the city limits, where they are currently much more limited, even in spaces that could accommodate more.

Rachel Tayse and Kate Hodges own the urban farm Foraged & Sown in North Linden on Tayse's East Cooke Road property. The two grow mostly culinary and tea herbs and berries, along with currants, saffron, squash for Mid-Ohio Foodbank donation, and some personal vegetables. They also forage stinging nettles, wild onions and pawpaws. One of their moneymakers, black raspberries, is growing in Hodges' yard in a place that interferes with vision clearance, a violation of a city code. After four years of growing black raspberries in that spot, Tayse and Hodges had to remove the plants, which can't be replanted in the middle of their productive season.

“There's been a lot of talk about the Local Food Action Plan, which is aiming to address food and security from all levels of the food system—that is pretty ambitious and great on paper,” says Hodges. “But one of the main things that isn't seeing any motion is changes to any city policy regarding the actual production of food.” Tayse adds that a fellow urban farmer in Franklinton has faced similar zoning compliance issues. “Just when you think you've figured out what you need to do to be compliant, something else pops up,” Tayse says.

“There has been a lot of like, ‘You should try farming, it's better for your family, it'll make you healthier, you can develop economically,' ” she adds. “We are four years in and turning a profit but not enough that even pays our property taxes, so it's not economically very viable. And, we're facing costs and societal pressure that seems to say it's a good idea—but don't actually do it to scale. We could be more productive if we felt secure in investing in these spaces.” They both say they would like to invest more, but feel it's too financially risky without more protection.

Still, they are excited about the sweet-smelling tulsi they are clipping as they talk. Once they harvest an herb, they dry and bag it themselves to sell at the Clintonville Farmers' Market. “Coming out and doing the act of farming is so good,” says Hodges. “It's a huge mental uplift. … There's a huge, huge, huge set of knowledge, which is extremely intellectually stimulating to pursue.”

Hodges and Tayse aren't the only people who feel this way—of the roughly 25 urban farms growing in Columbus, about 10 of them are three years old or younger—and they can be found all over the city, often in unusual locations.

One of the most surprising spots is on the patio of a Worthington townhouse. Tabitha Harris and Patrick Rainbolt live in the nondescript complex where they also manage Modern Twist Farms. In the front, the standard mulch beds are home to much more than just decorative bushes—mint, squash, kohlrabi and more—but it's nothing compared to the back. The first tipoff to the unusual patio is the leaves of the sweet corn that protrude from the edge of the fence. Rainbolt says that there are roughly 700 plants on the property (which includes their patio, inside their house, the vacant patio next door and the beds in front, along with a few odd buckets propped against a metal utility box). All the plants grow in containers, since growing in the ground generally isn't allowed on the property—using the beds in front was a privilege they were granted.

Some plants sit in homemade fabric pots, others grow in Tupperware bins or plastic buckets with holes drilled into the sides. The sweet potatoes climb a homemade wire cage. Harris and Rainbolt say it has taken an enormous amount of research to figure out how to grow each plant out of a container. Sometimes, they even pollinate the plants themselves if there aren't enough bees around. Among the cornucopia are green and yellow onions from seed, ground cherries, fennel, sorrel, oregano, thyme, salanova lettuce, little pawpaw trees, kale, cilantro, parsley, an assortment of tomatoes, sugar snack carrots, Italian eggplants, sweet potatoes and more.

Initially, the two wanted to purchase a farm in Highland County, and nearly did, until the sale fell through last-minute. “We still had the ‘I-want-to-grow-things' bug,” says Harris. “We decided we were going to see what we could do with the least amount of money possible. We went to the local hardware store and some local nurseries and bought plants. We went to some other stores and bought plastic tubs and drilled holes in the bottom, threw some rocks in there and put soil in and thought, ‘We're growing stuff.' We learned a lot that first year.”

Now, their knowledge has grown so full that they teach others about urban farming at the Idea Foundry. They also have hopes similar to Hodges and Tayse at Foraged & Sown to launch a more substantial agricultural operation. “There are so many things we'd love to do, but a lot of that [needs] large dollar signs and backers and people [who] would be interested in it,” says Harris. To date, Rainbolt and Harris have never turned a profit. “We love to experiment and learn. We would like to [make money], but we don't expect to,” says Rainbolt. They sell their mint to a local restaurant for cocktails and the rest through word-of-mouth.

“We are seeing fantastic niche markets,” says Yvonne Lesicko, policy vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau. “We have all these fantastic, creative individuals. Right now a lot of that market is farm markets, [but urban planners are] trying to figure out how do we look at these really focused markets that people are clamoring for, but [also] how do we make that a broader scope? How do we allow these people who are doing this at this level at farm markets transition that into being a wholesaler for groceries and restaurants?”

It's hard to tell what farming will look like in the 35 years it will take to add 1 million people to Columbus, but it is a growing thought in the minds of city leaders and others. Perhaps the addition of more people will make Columbus ripe for a more robust local food industry. Inwood, the Ohio State rural sociologist, says it's important to strike a balance between development and soil conservation.

“Franklin County has to deal with the zoning and the planning issues, especially as we have more farming in the city,” she says. “How do we recognize those as opportunities? … That's something as a county we have to figure out how to balance. Because planning and zoning regulations can determine a lot about where development happens, how development happens. Are we conserving our soils? … How are we making it easier for people who want to grow food? Those types of things I think are pretty important for the county.”

And the way to be sure that soil is preserved is to be sure that farming is profitable, says Williams. Any farmer will tell you that. “If they're making a good living off the land, if the developer comes looking to buy land, they're going to say no,” he explains. “I see local food as one way to help farmers stay profitable and viable and to keep that land in production.” He also says more awareness of local food could lead to more awareness of local farmland, which could lead to more support of policies that preserve agriculture.

“Once you pave it over, you don't get it back,” says Inwood. “One of the things that we really learn from ecology and biology—or even your own stock market portfolio—is diversity is key. Heterogeneity is the key to resilience. We really want to keep our farmland, we want to have different types of farms, because we want to be resilient to any type of shock that comes to the system.”

Chloe Teasley is staff writer.