My summer as an Ohio City farmer

by Bill Huesken ’14

A piece of Swiss chard weighs about as much as a feather. On a recent day at the Ohio City Farm, my task was to pick 15 pounds of  it. Yes, 15 pounds. The task took all morning.

Swiss chard is just one of dozens of fruits and vegetables cultivated at the farm at Bridge Avenue and W. 24th Street. Several organizations tend parts of the six-acre plot, including The Refugee Response, a non-profit that helps settle refugees in the Cleveland area. This summer, I volunteered with Refugee Response two days a week. It was an eye-opening experience.

The farm manager is Maggie Fitzpatrick, a Saint Joseph Academy graduate. She figures out what to plant when and oversees the farmers who plant, weed, and harvest. The refugees I worked alongside came from Liberia, Burma, Bhutan, and Burundi. Most of them were farmers in their native countries. In addition to providing jobs for them, Refugee Response teaches them English and other skills they need to live and work in the United States.

The immigrants are constantly working to improve their English skills, not just during the several hours of classes they take each week. When they learn a new word, they aren’t just happy to add it to their vocabulary, they also want to know similar words and the opposite of the word. They might learn to say, “put on the glove,” but they also want to know “take off the glove” and “remove the glove.”

While I worked next to them picking and washing everything from head cabbage to cilantro, they would ask me all kinds of questions about English, about geography, and about the United States.  They often asked me to quiz them on all things having to do with the United States and its government. They would review the basic names like president, vice president, governor of Ohio and mayor of Cleveland and important dates like Independence Day. But they could also name people like John Boehner (Speaker of the House) and John Roberts (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.) Those are names that, sadly, many Americans don’t know.

The refugees do not talk about the situations in their home countries. They are all extremely happy to be in Cleveland, and they work very hard and take great pride in the crops. But they also have fun while working. It is not uncommon for a hose to douse an unsuspecting worker when plants are being watered.

Much of the produce grown at the farm finds its way to local restaurants. Ms. Fitzpatrick and some of the farmers use a hand truck to deliver produce to such establishments as Great Lakes Brewing Co., Market Garden Brewery, Nano Brew, and Flying Fig. The farm also sells its produce to the public on Fridays and Saturdays from the purple metal building on its site. This summer, it opened a stand inside the West Side Market.

Working at the farm was a great way to spend  two days every week of my summer.  While the farm work was interesting, the work was really about the people. The workers are such kind and positive people, which is truly amazing considering everything that  they have been through. Their attitude should serve as an example for all of us. If I had to spend my morning picking swiss chard, I  am glad that it was with them.