Toledo Urban Farmer Faces Penalties After Turning Vacant Lots Into Growing Space [Video]

An urban farmer in Toledo, Ohio has been hard at work reclaiming abandoned lots in his neighborhood. Thomas Jackson went to school to learn how to be a master gardener, landscaper, and urban farmer.

“Thomas Jackson is the kind of person the city should lift up and celebrate,” a featured editorial in the Toledo Blade claimed. “Everyone who has met him or been to his neighborhood — Milburn Court, Auburn Avenue, and Macomber Street and their environs — and seen his work, from Congressman Marcy Kaptur, to the Green Party, to University of Toledo professors and students, to representatives of the Ohio EPA, says what he is doing is fantastic.”

The Toledo Blade went so far as to claim that Toledo should name him citizen of the year. Instead, the Toledo Blade reported on Monday, the city “is persecuting him.”

In order to turn the dirt on the vacant lots that he now owns into soil worthy of growing healthy food, Jackson has spread thick layers of mulch over the properties. The mulch, Jackson says, will turn into fertile soil. He says all of the lots he has been working on will be beautified. He will be able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to his neighbors and increase the values of their homes, he believes.

According to the Toledo Blade, the mulch is a problem for some residents and officials. He is now facing ordinance violations because of the mulch. One city councilman and some residents in the city fear that the mulch will attract rats. The city officials say he must move the mulch piles.

According to the Toledo Blade, when an editorial writer visited the sites, no smell was detected and there was no signs of rodents. Jackson claims that the properties were once over run with shoulder-high weeds and plenty of garbage. Jackson claims he has already improved the sites.

“My plan is to grow and sell organic food. The whole goal is to change the eating habits of the people around me,” Jackson told the Toledo Blade in a separate, earlier interview. “I’m not trying to hinder anyone’s enjoyment of their life. I’m trying to enjoy my right to make a living for my family and clean up my neighborhood.”

Urban agriculture instructor Bryan Ellis said that Jackson’s style of urban agriculture will increase economic development and help residents have access to nutritious, fresh produce.

“Thomas is setting himself to be one of the predominant growers in northwest Ohio, and he will be using some of my students as assistants,” Ellis said several months ago, speaking of students within Toledo Public Schools.

The Toledo Blade reported that over 100 residents have signed a petition supporting the urban farmer and that housing experts say that there are countless violations more severe throughout the city that are being ignored. The Blade editorial team says that people at Land Bank have reportedly called him a highly professional, superb landscaper who is easy to work with.

“Why is the city persecuting this man? He’s exactly the sort of pragmatic idealist we need.

“Because he is on the wrong side of petty power, and the city apparatus always stays on the right side — it is no more complicated than that.

“The danger is not only that this decent man will give up on his dreams and leave the city, but that other people like him will. There will be a chilling effect, not only for urban farmers but all visionaries who take a risk — at least the ones who haven’t the wherewithal to wire the system.”

“I received numerous complaints from the residents regarding increasing in the size and number of rodents in the area, a bad smell, and just overall concern about the condition about the neighborhood and the property,” Toledo City Councilman Tyrone Riley told the Toledo Blade earlier this year. “They’ve sent me pictures of trucks dumping mulch.”

Jackson told the Toledo Blade earlier this year that he believes he is being targeted by Councilman Riley because the councilman is related to one of Jackson’s neighbors. Riley reportedly called Jackson’s claims of operating an urban farm, “cute.” Riley said that Jackson never pulled the necessary permits to landscape his properties with the mulch.

Janice Hughes, the neighbor who complained, said that she contacted city officials, because there were trucks parked around Jackson’s house.

“The city has fined us for numerous things, and I don’t understand why he isn’t being fined, all those vehicles over there. I’m not against anyone being an entrepreneur, bettering themselves, but we’re in a residential neighborhood,” Hughes said.

Reportedly, Jackson has edged the properties with small trees and shrubs that are “meticulously pruned” in order to make sure that his growing lots are still beautiful for the neighborhood to look at after they have been harvested each fall. Jackson has planted hundreds of trees in his lots. The mulch that he is using to restore the soil with has been donated by local tree companies. It helps the companies get rid of their waste for free, and Jackson gets free mulch for his urban agriculture project.

His goal is to level all woodchips mounds at four feet in order to allow any fruit trees he plants to grow free of any contaminants that might be in the Toledo soil. Urban farming experts say that urban soil is usually contaminated with heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and chromium. Jackson says that he was taught that urban farmers can ensure that crops aren’t contaminated by applying cover soil two to three feet thick.

“Urban environments often have an increased median level of lead in soil (greater than 400 mg lead/kg) due to higher concentration of industries, age of and automobile traffic,” Samantha Langley-Turnbaugh wrote as an associate professor and chair in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Southern Maine. “Anything that can be done to eliminate bare soil will help reduce the amount of lead you are exposed to. For example, installing raised bed gardens and use clean topsoil is an option.”

Lisa Cottrell, administrator for the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commissions, said earlier this year that if Jackson intends to erect a hoop house or a greenhouse, he will need to pull a permit, but that there is no ordinance forbidding gardening in the city.

“Any building, any parking, we would have to see. But you can garden all day long.”

Some of the city officials don’t view Jackson’s actions as gardening, though.

“We have community gardens all over Toledo,” former city official Tom Kroma said. “There’s no gardening in what he’s doing.”

Esteemed local horticulturalist Michael O’Rourke, who is also known as “Garden Guy” on WUPW Fox Toledo, said that it might look to skeptics like the wood chips are nothing more than debris, but that Jackson is demonstrating proper urban agriculture technique.

Jackson was certified in 2008 as a master Ohio nursery technician by the Ohio Landscape and Nursery Association. He earned a certificate in aquaculture from the Ohio State University Extension Office and the Ohio Aquaculture Association in 2014. The OLNA and OSU Extension Office confirmed these certifications to the Toledo Blade earlier this year.

Cindy Geronimo, the commissioner of code enforcement in Toledo, suggested that Jackson find another location to remediate the mulch besides for on his own property.

[Featured Image by Polarpx/Shutterstock]