On June 22, the Toledo Lucas County Public Library hosted a forum on urban agriculture. The lineup of speakers included members of the Toledo City Council, the Board of County Commissioners Pete Gerken, representatives of the Lucas County Green Party, and the Lucas County Auditor’s office. Commissioner Pete Gerken began his comments by saying, “pioneers get shot in the back.”, referring to Thomas Jackson, the urban farmer who was prosecuted by the City of Toledo for his urban agricultural efforts, making Jackson a champion of the movement.
Jackson stored large piles of woodchips on lots he owned in a residential neighborhood, which, according to neighbors, smelled bad, harbored rodents, and were an improper use of residential land. Jackson planned to use the chips to remediate the soil on three central city lots.
Before storing the wood chips Jackson, a certified master nursery technician and master urban farmer, had a vision for the combined 2.2 acres at 1446 Macomber St., 1505 Milburn Ct., and 2325 Swiler Dr. “I prayed,” he says, “five, six years consistently, every night, to beautify my neighborhood, redevelop my neighborhood and grow the food that’s going to change the eating habits of my neighbors.”
To achieve that goal, Jackson had to plant in uncontaminated soil. Soil remediation, part of Urban Farming 101, is especially important in the post-industrial lands of Toledo and the greater Rust Belt region. In the 20 months since the City filed nuisance charges against Jackson, the wood chips have decomposed and become the soil that now sustains 6,000 fruit and vegetable plants.
Jackson can’t help but laugh when he recalls the legal charges. “[(My plan] is) was to grow organics, amend my soil to make sure there’s no contaminants in it, no heavy metals, no toxins, no pesticides, no herbicides, to get a purely unadulterated organic product. That was the issue,” he says. “And that’s crazy.”
Jackson is a professional, and in Toledo’s central city food desert neighborhoods, his actions are viewed by most as laudable, and necessary. That the city government’s chose to cite him into court for lengthy proceedings instead of bolstering his efforts, is a telling demonstration of the difference between rhetoric and action.
After the charges were filed, Jackson dug deeper into the dirt, with local growers, activists, and leaders organizing around his efforts. This led Toledo citizens and politicians to explore the issue, and learn how neighboring cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, have linked urban agriculture to renewal efforts.
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