Carl Skalak owns Blue Pike Farm, an acre of income-generating vegetables and flowers in downtown Cleveland named after and extinct Great Lakes fish. Skalak has been growing onions, sugar snap peas, heirloom tomatoes and much more on E. 72nd St. north of St. Clair for almost 3 years. The land is owned by Even Cut Abrasives Co., which also owns the adjacent building. Skalak chose the land because it had a chain link fence, a fire hydrant, and weeds growing. He figured that if weeds could grow, so could produce. The landowner happened to have farming experience and quickly agreed to the idea. He provides Blue Pike Farm with a power source and access to storage space.
Blue Pike Farm’s single acre appeared to be flourishing in the midday heat. A nearly complete high tunnel towered above the crops, which looked impossibly green in the bright sunshine. A chocolate lab named Casey romped in the grass between the rows. “My produce is so fresh it doesn’t know it’s been picked yet,” Skalak said. However, not everything was going perfectly. Skalak lamented that the cool summer had resulted in a poor tomato crop, and Pat noted that many of their volunteers were on vacation.
Pat, the volunteer coordinator, got involved last April. She began by planting flowers, some of which, like nasturtiums, are edible. This season, she took on the position of volunteer coordinator. She said there are about 6-8 volunteers who work in the garden, and that they enjoy the kind of Zen experience of escaping into nature right there in Cleveland. Beyond the volunteers, there are occasionally children who come to help. A Montessori sixth grade class helped weed and move woodchips, and another group of kids planted a row of onions. Pat makes sure that everything runs smoothly and the farm has volunteers when it needs them. “Without Pat, this place would be a shadow of what it is,” said Skalak.
Skalak said that it was possible to make up to $75,000 a year on a farm like his if everything works out right, but that rarely happens. “The sad reality of this whole urban farming thing is that I don’t have the [necessary] customer base,” he said. He runs a 25-30 member CSA and sells his produce at a stand on the farm every Thursday afternoon, but at the moment it attracts too few customers spending too little money. He hopes that events like the heirloom tomato festival he is holding will help to draw in a larger group of consumers.
The problem throughout the agricultural world, according to Skalak, is that people don’t see the difference between fresh, local food and chemically treated food shipped thousands of miles. They simply see that the lower quality produce is cheaper and buy tomatoes from Mexico or California, even though the food produced locally that costs twice as much may actually have three times the nutritional value. Poor profits are a problem in all agriculture, but especially in urban agricultural where treatment of poor soil and other preparations are needed before farming can begin. Pat showed us a few chunks of old metal she had found in Blue Pike’s “virgin backfill,” as Skalak calls it. The soil was dumped there after the last building on the site was torn down, and no one has attempted to grow anything in it until now.
Blue Pike Farm has a variety of heirloom tomatoes, including Soldacki tomatoes, a Polish variety named after a local family, and another variety that Skalak has dubbed “Libby’s Pride” after Libby Nocce, who gave him the seeds which are direct progeny of those his forebears brought here from Italy. Libby’s Pride and Soldacki tomatoes and much more will be showcased at Blue Pike Farm’s heirloom tomato festival this Thursday, complete with barbeque ribs, a banjo player, Nocce, and one of Soldacki’s grandchildren.