The Way We Eat: Marcie Todd, Urban Farmer in Columbus, Ohio
Name: Marcie Todd, urban farmer at Freshtown Farm
Location: Columbus, Ohio
Who eats together? Two, Marcie and her partner Kate, plus sometimes four on the weekends when Kate’s parents join
Avoidances? Marcie does not eat pork products
Have you ever wondered if you have what it takes to be an urban farmer? When I sat down to talk with Marcie Todd, an urban farmer in Columbus, Ohio, I had shopped at her beautiful farmers market stand in my neighborhood three days before, and I was full of questions. What does it take to actually start an urban farm? How does the physical labor of farming affect the way that she and her partner cook and eat every day?
If you’ve ever had similar questions about the people who get up early in the morning to haul summer tomatoes, garlic, and greens to your market, read on for what turned out to be a fascinating conversation on what it’s like to actually grow food in an urban neighborhood and to feed your community from its own soil.
Marcie, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you started farming in Columbus.
Well, in college I studied literature, which is not farming. (Laughs) I needed a way to pay for room and board one summer, and a professor told me, “You should go live on a commune.” At the time I didn’t really know anything. I grew up in a family that ate a lot of takeout, a lot of fast food. I didn’t know what a lot of vegetables were, honestly.
So you actually went and lived on a commune? And farmed?
Yes, this community had a hundred people and the goal was to put away food for the whole year. Everyone works 40 hours for the community, and one member would just walk me around the farm every week and show me what needed to get done. After school I went into the Peace Corps. I had done a study abroad that let me learn for four months about rice farming. So in the Peace Corps I went into an urban farming role.
So did you go straight into farming for yourself after that?
No, I’m from Northern California and I was living in the Bay Area. It is very hard there to find a job paying you enough to do farming. And then I got hit by a car!
Oh my gosh, I’m sorry!
It was really hard. I had to relearn to walk and had a bunch of surgeries. During that time I just spent a lot of time working in our garden in the back yard.
So how did you get from the Bay Area to the middle of Ohio?
Kate [Marcie’s partner] and I were thinking we wanted to have a family sooner rather than later, and we went looking for a cheaper place to live. (We had five roommates in Oakland.) Both of Kate’s parents are from Ohio, and that’s just where we ended up. We moved here three years ago. Kate was going to grad school and it seemed like a good time for me to start the farm.
OK so how does one start a farm?
I had been saving money to start a farm. I definitely hadn’t saved enough, I learned very quickly! I took this class called the Master Urban Farmer Workshop through the Ohio State University Extension. I wanted to understand the land, what resources were available. You meet a lot of people and get to know the Extension office. That was a really important class for me to be able to come and start a business, not knowing anything about Columbus.
And then I got a job with the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. At that time they ran a few farms in town. I was working for them managing a farm, managing a bunch of employees and volunteers, meeting city officials and restaurants and other urban farmers. It gave me the confidence to do this. I had practice in selling produce and spreadsheets and all of this stuff I really learned from the food bank.
And so I just… did it.
How did you find the land where you farm now?
The city has a program where they take blighted properties and transfer them to people who want to do community gardens or really anything for the community.
I was able to get a property down the street from my house. But it didn’t have access to water. So I looked for another property to just get going and make some money so I could improve that property. I applied to a USDA grant and was able to put in a water hookup, and a fence, at that lot. And that really changed everything. This year we are able to do a lot of our quick greens production there, salad mix, spinach, baby brassicas.
Then through the Extension office we got another property where we work with New Salem Baptist Church in Linden. So 10% of our produce goes to their food pantry and also to For All People pantry on the south side.
So how much land do you farm now?
Just under two acres, over three lots. We grow everything in the city and distribute it within five miles of the growing sites. And then [Tracey my business partner and I] each have a greenhouse in our back yards to start plants.
Wow that doesn’t sound very big, and yet you produce so much!
They say to feed a family of four for a year you [only] need a 10-foot by 10-foot square!
That is kind of incredible. So, what are you growing right now? It seems like you bring a large variety to market, which I really appreciate.
We grow so many things — 112 varieties. It’s not necessarily the best business plan (laughs). Tracey [Marcie’s business partner] and I really love to grow, and you look at the seed catalog and it’s exciting to have different plants and to talk with customers about that and how you can use them.
It takes time to try new things out. We tried spigariello, an old Italian kale-broccoli type of vegetable. We had a hard time selling it in the spring. But it’s just the first season. Two seasons ago we did baby brassicas and sold maybe 10. Then the next season people were asking for them.
One of the things I was struck by in moving to Columbus from the Bay Area was an [initial] sense of lack of diversity of foods available. As I experience Columbus more, I see the mix of people and foods, but not all of those people intermix. Part of what’s really exciting about being a grower is to grow and experience the foods of many cultures.
Tell me about your business partner, Tracey.
Tracey is from North Carolina and she has a masters degree in public health, but she realized she didn’t want to be in an office. She wanted to be around fresh food and the environment. She’s an incredible naturalist, knows everything about every bug. We met because she took my old job at the food bank, and I was realizing it would be so great to have a business partner. We can both take some weekends off. We’re 50/50 partners and work so well together.
So what makes the difference for you in business success as an urban farmer?
Food is too cheap. It’s cheaper than it should be, for many political reasons. But this is how our farm financially works: the CSA is about a third of the money we bring in. That money comes in before we’re selling a lot of produce [in the year] so it’s really mandatory for us. The money comes January through August, and some people pay up-front which is great in January when we don’t have any money coming in. The remaining income for us comes from the farmers markets.
What are you really excited about growing this season?
Sugar Rush Peach hot peppers, which are this heirloom North Carolina pepper which I found from a YouTube person who was trying hot peppers. We grew them as a test last year in our backyard, and they’re amazing — they are sweet, and hot, and juicy. I’ve never had anything like them. I’m really stoked about those.
- What’s the hardest challenge for you in cooking? Mostly time and energy.
- Percentage of meals you cook at home every week? 80 to 90%
- What are 5 things on your grocery list every week? Yogurt, half and half, cheese, a melon (in the summer), bananas
- Where do you grocery shop? Whole Foods or Saraga
- What’s the last grocery you splurged on? Chocolate milk
- Top 3 default dinners? Whatever veggie was have tossed in olive oil and salt and then baked with rice and soy sauce. Frozen pizza. Lately we’ve been making steak salads or watermelon salad.
- Best underrated snack? Apples and peanut butter
- Best cookie of all time? Mexican wedding cookies
- Favorite TV show? I watch a lot of cooking shows! Every cooking show! Chef’s Table and Mind of a Chef. Also the David Chang series, Ugly Delicious. I watch a lot of YouTube street food videos too.
- Favorite thing to eat while watching TV? Popcorn
OK so to turn to, you know, actually cooking and eating! How do you and Kate manage your cooking?
During the week I’m pretty exhausted when I get home, since I’m doing hard labor during the day. Usually we will prep during the weekend, and cut up the vegetables we have. I’ll often be the chef of the house. Kate is really good at making breakfast. Or anything that’s like, based off a recipe or baked, Kate will do. I have no patience for following a recipe.
Do you mostly eat from the farm?
Yes, throughout the whole summer, whatever we harvest for the CSA, we take home, and oftentimes there will be things left over from the farmers market. We take a few then donate. We always have fresh produce, but we don’t grow fruit so we buy that. We also don’t have cows or chickens so we buy milk and eggs and yogurt.
Talk me through your go-to methods for an average night of cooking. What do you know how to do so well it’s memorized?
Our two main go-to dishes right now are whatever vegetable we have, baked at really high temperature with olive oil and salt, over rice with soy sauce and butter. So last night we had eggplant that we cut into rounds, then put olive oil and balsamic vinegar at 450°F until soft and crispy at same time. I had some broccoli that I put in the oven on a different sheet and we had that over rice. That’s often what we eat or something akin to that, like carrots cooked that way.
At this time of season we often have a pepper appetizer, like broiled shishitos. I come home starving and that’s so simple!
How much do you preserve each season?
Kate had a little bit of time between grad school and starting her job and she taught herself how to can. She usually does 30 cans of tomatoes, she’ll do some salsa, maybe ten to fifteen jars. And then this year we did peaches. We got a good deal on the peaches. She just got a pressure canner that she’s super stoked about.
I saw these pictures of garlic on your porch (and then I bought some at the farmers market!). Why do you hang it like that?
Mostly to preserve it. When garlic comes out of the ground it’s actually quite soft. You can eat the skin of green garlic and that is really an amazing thing to have. But it’s only for a limited time in the season. If you want to preserve the garlic throughout the year, you have to dry it out so it doesn’t mold on the inside. Generally the garlic you get at the grocery store is 8 months to a year or even two years old at any given time. But ours is really fresh. When you cut or press it it will be almost translucent, which is a sign of fresh garlic.
One last question: America has this sort of agrarian fantasy of a farmer out on his acres of land (and it’s usually a he!), alone and independent. But farming for you looks really different: your farm is truly surrounded by homes and people. How does that change the experience and focus of what you do?
I think it’s both a privilege, and a headache! (laughs). One of our jobs becomes keeping things really beautiful and very clean, because we have a whole community of people that live around this. And that’s a really great thing because people will see what is happening. Sometimes people will show up with iced tea and just want to come and talk and that is so nice and good! That’s where it truly is a privilege. And getting to market is very easy for us.
But we do have to put in extra work that someone in a rural place really doesn’t have to. because we do need to be cognizant of our neighbors and understand that their property values are involved in what we do, and their lifestyle too. It’s not just us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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