Down on the urban farm | Community Spirit
Story, photo and video by Jack Ellenberger
Peddling under the soft rays of morning sun, Dylan Tennison winds down Cincinnati’s Central Parkway, his red Raleigh bicycle and deep brown eyes gleaming. Heading downtown to his garden plot, his long chestnut hair is tied, a single loose strand whipping behind his head.
At his plot on the corner of Liberty and Elm Streets, now under the hot and glaring mid-day sun, Tennison harvests his crops. Rainbow chard, French breakfast and cherry belle radishes, six varieties of lettuces, arugula, fresh garlic and Tot soy get picked and cut from the ground, washed, weighed and bundled.
Tennison walks his pounds of produce to the Findlay Market cold storage building two blocks away. It’s an easy way to keep his vegetables fresh before selling them at the market the next day.
His produce can be found in groceries, markets and restaurants throughout the city. He may not be looking over pastoral acres and mending fences, but he plows, plants, waters and worries over his crops like other farmers.
Tennison grew up in Columbia Tusculum until he was 6, when his family moved to North Avondale. He attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) for fine art from 7th until 12th grade and began experimenting with plant cultivation while still a teen.
“The first time I had a garden was my sophomore year of high school, and it was organic all the way through,” Tennison says. He continued his agricultural journey during his senior year of high school when he started a business selling sunflower sprouts at the Northside Farmer’s Market.
After graduating from SCPA, Tennison attended the Cincinnati Art Academy, and during his freshmen year he started his first sustainability project, and business, Cincy Rain Barrels. Teaming up with Park+Vine, Tennison created rain collection barrels that help offset water usage and reduce water bills while using screens to keep water mosquito-free.
He used barrels he recycled from a local pickle company. “I try to utilize the resources around me, and my creativity, to make things for people,” he says. “I try to have the least impact on the environment, riding a bike the most I can to deliver things or just deliver myself, and doing things to support people sustaining themselves.”
His sophomore year of college, Tennison began working with his friend Romaine Picasso at Findlay Market Garden plots.
He received grant money from Findlay Market for tools and seeds through the Cultivating Healthy Environments for Farmers program. He in turn sold the produce, and from his plots started his own agricultural organization, Maketewa Family Farms.
“Maketewa was the Native American name for the Mill Creek Valley in which we are situated, so we decided to pay homage to the ancestors of this land and call it Maketewa Family farms,” Tennison says.
The “family” part of the name comes from Tennison’s focus on building a sustainable community. He invited young people in Over-The-Rhine to come into the gardens and help cultivate the land while learning the value of growing food in a safe and open environment.
As Tennison gingerly walks through troughs between his rows of beds, he mirrors the work of farmers for generations, lovingly handling tender sprouts, shading them from the hottest sun, watering when there has been no rain.
He wears leather shoes old enough to let more than just his big toe to protrude from the front. His clothes are brand-less. He toils in the plots, sweating and laughing. The ruckus and turmoil that surround his downtown location don’t faze him; his pride in and love for the crops allow him to rise above distractions.
Now in his third year at Findlay Market Gardens, Tennison grows thousands of plants. He oversees the Findlay Market display and experimental garden, which welcomes volunteers.
He bikes his bundles and bushels north, to the micro-grocery Picnic and Pantry, to the restaurant Melt, and to the Northside Farmer’s Market, all in the neighborhood he now calls home.
While Tennison is away from his garden downtown, he maintains a greenhouse in Northside, and creates multitudes of prints, collages, paintings and carvings. He sells some of his artwork, but doesn’t create to sell as much as to express himself.
In the same way, Tennison views agriculture as more than a way to make money. He sees what he is doing as a vital piece of urban renewal.
“It’s entrepreneurship,” he says. “You can make some money selling your produce, but you’re also more connected with the food. It teaches the youth in the neighborhoods about where there food comes from, overall [making] a positive impact on the urban environment. And that’s it.”
Jack Ellenberger is a journalism student at the University of Cincinnati and on the staff of the department’s New Media Bureau.