Quality Produce and Strong Relationships Sustain Swainway Urban Farm
August 7, 2016 | Stephanie Fenton
Being your local neighborhood farmer is a job that Columbus, Ohio urban cultivator Joseph Swain takes very seriously—and, to prove that, he may just bring one of his intensive garden designs right into your backyard.
“We can relate to our neighbors because we, too, are backyard gardeners,” says Swain, whose first backyard garden transformed into a renowned urban farm that now produces for farmers markets, food trucks, local health stores and approximately 15 restaurants. “I’ll advise people on how to best maximize their space; how to get two rows where they thought there could only be one.”
Inspired by the high-density ideas promoted by the likes of Eliot Coleman, Swain adds, “I think we inspire people to grow food for themselves.”
After planting his first backyard garden in 2007, Swain was hooked. Three years later, Swainway Urban Farm was born. Armed with a passion for farming and no formal education in horticulture, Swain became a farmer, a pioneer, a manager and a communications specialist—all at once.
“I read every (organic farming) book I could get my hands on, and I had a lot of ideas, but I had to first figure out which ones were feasible,” said Swain. “Urban farmers have their own set of obstacles, and I think you have to be innovative. You have to have a free-thinking mind about what you are growing. And you have to be outgoing, because half of what makes people buy from you at the farmer’s market is the quality of the food; the other half is their relationship with you, the farmer.”
On just a 1/3-acre of land, Swainway Urban Farm produces root vegetables from garlic and ginger to sunchokes and leafy greens such as lettuces, spinach and arugula. In a nearby 5,000-square-foot warehouse, saprophytic mushrooms and microgreens are grown year-round.
With a mission that “promotes the radical idea that organic food will restore personal growth and community health while building an economically viable business,” Swain set out to share his growing knowledge across central Ohio in 2010. As one of the first urban farming for-profit ventures in an area already keen on the farm-to-table movement, Swainway Urban Farm has, since its fledgling beginnings, helped other local urban farms turn from nonprofit to for-profit.
“Some of them were giving food away, and we kind of showed them how they could make for-profit more of a reality,” said Swain.
In 2014, inspired to do more than just bring fresh, organic produce to his community, Swain formed The Columbus Agrarian Society (CAS) to empower others to grow their own food, too—whether for commercial or personal use. CAS provides hands-on workshops for home gardeners, urban growers and farmers. Professional growers often head workshops at urban farm sites, and Swain bulk-buys hard-to-find supplies necessary for urban farming and brings them back to the CAS.
“The tools you need for gardening and for maintaining an urban farm are different, and sometimes, they’re hard to find,” explains Swain. “So I make it a little easier for people to get them.”
As to why he began the Columbus Agrarian Society, Swain says that food gives him a sought-after opportunity to give back to his community.
“You grow up, and it’s, ‘How do you serve your community? How can you give back to your community?’ This was my way of giving back to my community. Food gives me that opportunity.”
While a passion for sustainable growing has led to a successful business, Swain also emphasizes that urban farming is a lot of work—and that it’s rarely easy.
“We’re definitely limited by space, and we just can’t compete with conventional farmers by way of volume,” said Swain. In addition, with microgreens becoming more popular with growers, Swain says that his farm may have to slightly change focus in the future.
“I think we’ve kind of topped out on microgreen production, because more and more people are growing microgreens now,” said Swain. “But mushrooms are trickier to grow, and that area is really in demand for us.”
During the summer months, Swainway Farm’s compost—made of mushroom and other food scraps, along with help from chickens—naturally keeps away most bugs and unwanted parasites, and the farm focuses on specialty vegetables. Mushrooms, on the other hand, thrive in a range of cooler temperatures, says Swain, and they provide a solid winter crop that produces steadily, even in Ohio winters.
Looking into the future, Swain says that he would like to get into growing berries—a high-demand product at the moment—but that, with limited city land and hopes of keeping his land within a small range of space, that dream may not come to fruition.
“Not wanting to commute so far every day is one reason why I got out of my career and into farming in the first place,” jokes Swain. “Most of our growing and distributing is done within a limited radius. If I acquire additional land, I would like it to be close to where I am right now. I’d really like to get another ¼-acre or so going into next year.”
Whether he’s speaking in school classrooms, hosting a workshop for local growers or bringing product samples to area chefs, Joseph Swain is one busy urban farmer. When hiring employees to help with his workload, Swain says that finding others with a passion for sustainable, organic growing is an absolute necessity.“Let’s face it: No one here is getting rich,” said Swain. “We do this because we want to live this lifestyle and to be surrounded by good food. My employees have to have that passion, too, because it’s hard work and there’s not a huge profit.”
Still, for growers looking to get into urban farming, Swain recommends understanding the realities and the true reasons for glorifying this profession—reasons that focus on lifestyle and health.
“Urban farming isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme,” says Swain, “but it’s rewarding. We get to live good, and we get to manage the lifestyle we want and help the community. It’s work you have to do with heart.”