Green in the ghetto

Features - community heroes

An urban farm is restoring hope to a blighted, crime-ridden community.

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January 3, 2018
Matt McClellan
Damien Forshe, one of the founders of the Rid-All Green Partnership, shows one of the fish grown in his farm’s aquaponic tanks. Rid-All sells the fish to locals and restaurants.

The spirit of renewal drives the people behind the Rid-All Green Partnership to transform the neighborhood they grew up in from a food desert into an urban oasis.

Rid-All began 20 years ago as an exterminating business, but it has evolved into much more. The company’s founder, Damien Forshe, got his start working for Orkin when the pest control giant needed local workers for a Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority contract. A few years later, he got his own pest control license and certification and Rid-All was born.

The Cleveland neighborhood Forshe’s friends and family grew up in was known as the “Forgotten Triangle” – 23 acres of abandoned industrial buildings, boarded-up houses and an illegal dumping site where everything from rusted refrigerators to dead bodies could be found. There was a park there, but the community’s members were afraid to frequent it.

Within this neglected pocket of the city, a seed was planted. With some nurturing, it grew into the Rid-All Green Partnership: a 3-acre farm and educational center that evolved into a model of how urban agriculture can make an economic and health impact on a community.

Forshe’s cousin, David Hester, learned how to grow his own food from their grandmother. She had a passion for food, and homegrown and homemade was the best kind. He picked up the nickname “Dr. Greenhand” along the way.

Hester worked in his cousin’s business, canvassing the area’s low-income housing projects with him on extermination jobs. And because of the nature of pest control, they got a first-hand look into what the people who live there eat.

“I’d open up the cabinets and refrigerators and all I’m seeing is Oodles of Noodles and potato chips,” Hester says. “I said, ‘This is what hopelessness looks like.’ They think this is it, right here. They think they’re not going to go further and a part of it is because of their diet.”

Randy McShepard, another member of the Rid-All Green Partnership and vice president of public affairs at RPM International, formed a public policy think tank in Northeast Ohio called PolicyBridge. The group reports and offers recommendations on urban core issues.

The data he brought to his friends backed up what Forshe and Dr. Greenhand had seen with their own eyes. The people of “Forgotten Triangle” had nowhere nearby to get the produce they needed to improve their health, and they didn’t understand the necessity either.

That was the spark that led to the idea of an urban farm. Better food could make a difference in their community.

“There’s a 20-year life expectancy disparity between people here and in communities 8 miles away,” says Marc White, Rid-All farm operations manager. “People aren’t experiencing longevity because of a myriad of nutrient deficiency diseases. We’ve been eating empty food for 20 years.”

Forshe, McShepard and Keymah Durden founded the Rid-All Green Partnership with the goal of growing food and growing minds. Forshe had a background in construction, which came in handy, because decades of illegal dumping had turned the land they had purchased for the farm into a contaminated mess.

“I had to dig out the whole area and replace it with what we thought was good soil,” he says. He tried everything, but couldn’t get it right. The key turned out to be laying a ground cover of wood chips, which did wonders for remediation of lead and arsenic in the soil. Since 2011, Rid-All has produced more than 500 tons of compost. In 2014, the facility gained its Class II Compost Facility designation from the EPA – the only such license in the greater Cleveland area. The Soil Brothers brand has become one of Rid-All’s biggest revenue streams, helping the company stay economically viable.

The community park between the urban farm and composting facility has been renovated with green infrastructure elements.

Besides soil and compost sales, the Rid-All umbrella includes project management for other communities that want to try the model in their own neighborhoods, nutritional health drinks, even vegan ice cream. But one of the biggest income drivers is aquaponics. The farm can grow 1,000 to 1,500 fish per aquaponic system. With a larger facility under construction, it will move from producing about 5,000 fish annually to up to 300,000 with yellow perch, blue gill, bass and tilapia.The fresh fish are sold to locals and restaurants.

There’s only so much you can farm on 1.3 acres, so these other ventures are crucial, as are the partnerships formed with organizations like the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. Rid-All Green Partnership helps the conservancy with tree planting in Cleveland neighborhoods. It teamed with the sewer district to develop green infrastructure to manage stormwater runoff in the area surrounding the farm, the neighboring park, and the composting facility. The plants used in the project are all Northeast Ohio natives like monarda, echinacea, rudbeckia and Hydrangea quercifolia.

“There are perennials thriving in what used to be a dumping ground,” Hester says.

Dr. Greenhand loves taking children from visiting schools on tours and explaining how the water from the sidewalk is collected and routed back into the plants. There is an outdoor amphitheater for lessons, and students are often given issues of Rid-All’s “Brink City” comic books. The comics, which are registered with the Library of Congress as educational tools, feature Rid-All’s team helping ordinary people tackle issues like healthy eating and water conservation.

The team believes its true strength is breathing new life into communities that lack hope.

“We like to use the word ‘transformation’ because we believe that that's the real business that we're in; it's transforming communities,” says Keymah Durden, one of Rid-All’s co-founders. “As society has shifted and the economies have changed, a lot of neighborhoods got left behind, so we believe that we can go into those neighborhoods and transform them from desolate to places of hope.”

From left to right: Keymah Durden, Damien Forshe and Randy McShepard, the founders of the Rid-All Green Partnership, inside one of the farm’s greenhouses.
Laura Watilo Blake

Forshe is happy that his group of friends and family has been able to transform the once-desolate community into a model that has attracted city planners from Buffalo, Detroit and Atlanta, who want to learn from the Rid-All model.

“We took a blighted area and turned it into something now known as the urban agriculture innovation zone,” Forshe says.

The Rid-All group recently completed construction and training on another urban farm in Columbus, Ohio.

The transformation of the “Forgotten Triangle” neighborhood over the last five years has been astounding.

“Since we’ve been here, the families have come back,” Hester says. “We barbecue, kids play basketball. It’s a safe environment now.”

“Not only did we revive an area and make healthy food available, but it expanded out beyond that to now creating and bringing to life a whole community that was dead and forgotten,” Durden says. “The residents take great pride in saying, ‘I live in an area where the urban farm is, where Rid-All is.’ Now, where maybe a resident wouldn’t have wanted to say anything about where they lived, now there's a sense of pride, which we believe that also, in the long term, will help increase property values. What started out as growing tomatoes, turned into salvaging the playground, bringing life into a new neighborhood, and can go as far as increasing property values.”

There is a certain spirituality in everything that the Rid-All Green Partnership does. From environmental stewardship to educating and training hundreds of students and adults, the sense of reconnecting with the earth and improving people’s lives is at the core of their mission.

“The juxtaposition is that this spiritual oasis, if you will, is planted right in one of the most crime ridden neighborhoods in the city of Cleveland,” Durden says.

For more: www.ridall.org