Sophie Bernstein – Utilizing a 3.25-acre hydroponic food production greenhouse, Green City Growers (GCG) is the largest production greenhouse in an urban area and the largest covered greenhouse in an urban core in the country. They produce millions of heads of lettuce and specialty greens and hundreds of thousands of pounds of herbs in Cleveland every year, all year. Yes, all year! How is Green City Growers able to produce fresh, pesticide-free food all year round even in harsh Ohio winters? The secret to their success is hydroponic farming and the co-op model.We had the opportunity to chat with Matthew Licina, their customer service manager.
What is hydroponic farming? Hydroponics is an agricultural method that grows plants without soil using supplemental nutrients, artificial lighting, and water in a controlled environment. When using hydroponics, greenhouses control light exposure, water intake, temperature, humidity, and other variables that contribute to a plant’s success. This practice removes much of the randomness and unpredictability that comes with traditional farming without the use of pesticides. Matthew specifies that this technique requires almost constant oversight and hydroponic farmers are constantly trying to find the right balance between the external and internal environment. Hydroponics uses 70-95% less water than soil farming, which significantly reduces the amount of agricultural runoff produced. Plants grown with hydroponics have a quicker growth cycle, resulting in an abundance of fresh, local food. GCG cultivates a variety of leafy greens such as butter lettuce, NuFar Basil, mix bouquet (mixed greens) and their speciality: Cleveland Crisp. They have also started diversifying operations. For example, they are now offering organic herb packaging.
Green City Growers is one of five cooperatives under the Evergreen Cooperative Corporation (ECC) umbrella. ECC focuses on community-centered job creation and retention in low-to-moderate income areas in Cleveland. ECC is determined to create meaningful, sustainable jobs that are not only locally based, but also help retain community wealth. Keeping jobs, produce, and resources within the Greater University Circle neighborhood in Cleveland will increase individual asset ownership, strengthen the municipal tax base, and keep both food and financial assets local. The other worker-cooperatives in their portfolio provide laundry services to healthcare institutions, solar installation, retail food and beverage, and insulation and weatherization services.
What is special about GCG is that they operate using a co-op model, meaning that all employees are on track to becoming worker-owners from the day that they are hired. GCG follows the 7 cooperative principles established by the International Co-operative Alliance. Employees of GCG help make operational decisions, contribute to the direction of the company, and have their voices heard. Using open book management methods, Green City Growers aims to share and build financial literacy with their employee owners. They provide educational opportunities to their employees such as food safety training, hydroponic farming skills training, and involve them in Evergreen Cooperative’s home buying program. In the words of Matthew, Green City Growers is “growing more than lettuce and herbs here. We are equipping people with solid means and skills. We are stronger when we work together.”
Currently, Green City Growers employs about 40 local community members and is actively working on growing their capacity. They hope to expand the types of produce that they offer and are exploring how they can continually add value for their employee owners. You can find their leafy greens and herbs all across Northeast Ohio at Marc’s market, Kroger, and Meijer’s. They also work with wholesale distributors and institutions such as Premier Produce, Sirna & Sons, US Foods, Cleveland Clinic, and Case Western Reserve University to name a few. To learn more about Green City Growers and the other Evergreen Cooperatives, check out their website for more information!