Ohio’s Greenhouse History

I first walked through the fields of Spice Acres with chef and farmer Ben Bebenroth in August 2014, days after he and his wife Jackie acquired the property through the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Initiative. We spent a couple hours traipsing through overgrown arugula and sidestepping old farm equipment that clawed through weeds as I scribbled notes on Ben’s vision for a newspaper article.

During our trek through what is now the vegetable production field, Ben stooped down to pick up a piece of glass, one of hundreds scattered throughout the two-acre center plot, and pondered its origin. He’s still a bit uncertain, but chances are, those buried shards are relics of Northeast Ohio’s storied greenhouse industry.

In the early 1960s, Greater Cleveland had the world’s third-largest concentration of greenhouses — behind Holland and England — with about 400 acres under glass and 1,000 farmers employed, according to Cleveland State University’s Center for Public History and Digital Humanities. In fact, a 1972 Cleveland Plain Dealer story referred to the area as the “Greenhouse Capital of America,” churning out 80 million pounds of tomatoes each year.

Today, most of those greenhouses are gone. Multi-generation family-run farms folded due to the unsustainable costs of farming; their legacies live on through historical accounts. Some artifacts remain, from the jagged vestiges at Spice Acres to weed-covered greenhouse skeletons. Some of the stalwarts, such as Dean’s Greenhouse in Westlake and Maria Gardens in Strongsville, have persevered.

Thanks to the efforts of entrepreneurial farming at Spice Acres and throughout Northeast Ohio — from microfarms to behemoths such as the Green City Growers cooperative in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood (one of the largest urban hydroponic greenhouses in the country), Northeast Ohio is recapturing its roots in the industry, albeit with a more mission-driven mindset at the forefront of their endeavors.

“Today’s farmers are separated from the land by a couple generations,” Ben says. “Farmers 50 years ago were expected to take over the family farm, continue the family legacy, and keep growing those cucumbers or tomatoes.”

Now, entrepreneurial farmers aren’t concerned about mass-producing one or two crops. Rotational farming, organic practices, animal husbandry, crop and revenue diversification, and social dynamics all are key considerations of the operation.

Ultimately, modern entrepreneurial farmers have a personal stake in the health of their community and environment.

“Farmers of today are farming because of an environmental calling,” Ben says. “We are more concerned about forming sustainable business models based on biodiversity, environmental stewardship, and the total ecosystem. We want to make a positive impact on the community and the land.”

A look back

Gustave Ruetenik and his son, Martin Luther Ruetenik, built Cuyahoga County’s first greenhouse in 1885 on Schaaf Road in Brooklyn Heights. The so-called “Celery King” continued to grow his greenhouse and truck farming operation, while others followed his pursuit.

Those growers formed the Cleveland Hothouse Vegetable Growers’ Cooperative Association, a scientific research and produce-marketing organization. Estimates vary, but by mid-1920s, Cuyahoga County was said to have somewhere between 80 to 160 acres of greenhouse production — more than any other county in the U.S. Those greenhouses mainly grew tomatoes, leaf lettuce, and cucumbers in rapid rotation.

Concentration peaked mid-century, with a patchwork of greenhouses flanking Schaaf Road, and more in Olmsted Falls, Rocky River, Columbia Station, Berea, Avon, Sheffield Lake, and Wooster. (My own grandparents relocated their Olmsted Township farm to a 100-acre farm in Wooster in the late 1950s, and operated Meadowview Greenhouse until 1996, when they retired and moved to Florida.)

“The farmers who invested their lives in this industry were more than amazing,” wrote Dennis Wagner, grandson of a Cleveland farmer, in “The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Greenhouse Industry,” published in 2013 by Cleveland State University’s Cleveland Memory Project. “Considering that most of these were small businessmen, they had to be growers, plumbers, welders, cement contractors, electricians, painters, glazers, and then raise financial capital and keep the books.

“Maybe it was because of the unity and skill of the marketing association that held them together,” he continued. “Maybe it was the heritage of the men willing to work hard, take chances and invest. For certain, there was money to be made in the industry, but the investment was huge. My father often told me that while growing up in the 1950s, an acre of greenhouses would cost $100,000. Keep in mind that a brand-new Buick was only $3,000.”

Farmers back then were under pressure to generate as much yield as they could in environments that were extremely temperamental. A single event — a boiler failure, tornado, freeze, fire, or compliance with new environmental standards — could force them to shutter their operations. Some improvements in technology bolstered production, such as Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s introduction of water-soluble fertilizer.

The energy crisis of the 1970s drove up the price of natural gas and oil so much that many greenhouse owners could not afford to stay in business. Meanwhile, price pressures from Florida and Mexico, debt accumulation, developers dangling cash for farm land, and retirement all contributed to the industry’s deflation.

Well1

All that remains of the author’s grandparent’s farm is their name on the oil well.

At the insistence of my great uncle, a Cleveland realtor who believed a thick vein of oil intersected the family farm in Wooster, my grandparents finally agreed to allow drilling on their property. I was a young child when they struck oil in the early 1980s. It was a windfall they needed desperately and kept them from selling off their farm and greenhouse (they received free gas plus $4,200 a month, which helped offset their heating bills).

My grandparents sold the remains of their farm, including five acres, two greenhouses and a 1900s farmhouse, still mortgaged, in 1999. Only after they passed away did we discover that they had sold $800,000 worth of property since the 1960s just to stay afloat.

It’s hard to estimate today just how many acres are dedicated to greenhouse production in and around Cuyahoga County. According to the USDA’s 2012 Agriculture Census, Cuyahoga County had about 22 acres under glass or other covering dedicated to growing floral and bedding crops.

Ben anticipates that figure will grow steadily with time.

“Farming is a valuable profession. But I think we’re still a few years off” from society really taking notice, he says. Fossil fuels are finite, and a shrinking radius for food travel will mean more community-scale food production and move more of the general population toward farming.

“I have a lot of hope for the future of agriculture,” Ben says.