At the Cuyahoga Land Bank, we encourage people to think outside the box when it comes to envisioning sustainable re-use of vacant land left behind after the demolition of abandoned and vacant houses.
Lakewood resident Justin Husher is among those turning unused city spaces into productive urban agriculture sites. But Justin, a horticulture specialist with the Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District, has taken his self-proclaimed “compulsive plant issue” far beyond the traditional vegetable garden, planting pawpaw orchards on two vacant lots purchased in 2014 from the Cuyahoga Land Bank in Lakewood’s Birdtown neighborhood.
Justin, who has a degree in botany, is no stranger to urban farming. He jumped on the urban agriculture bandwagon in 2009, growing arguably some of the best tomatoes around on a sizeable lot in nearby Cleveland. When Justin was unable to purchase that land he had cultivated for years, he began to look at other farming opportunities. Lakewood city officials welcomed Justin and agreed he could own his own land for farming.
Justin decided to focus his efforts on the pawpaw, a large custard-like fruit with a fragrant tropical flavor. “It’s kind of like a banana meets a papaya meets a mango, and it is delicious,” says Justin. “It’s unfortunate American agriculture has taken so long for pawpaws to be developed as an agricultural crop.”
Although you won’t currently find the pawpaw in local grocery stores – the easy-bruising fruit has a short shelf-life and is not widely grown in many parts of the country – Justin hopes one day to create a pawpaw industry and is exploring opportunities for a few acres of land in Cuyahoga County with some local conservation groups. “I am old enough to remember when the pomegranate wasn’t available in a supermarket,” he says.
After nearly four years of slowly cultivating the soil and fruit trees, Justin expects to harvest his first yield this month, which he plans to share with his family and his close-knit group of pawpaw enthusiasts.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, and I’m grateful to the Cuyahoga Land Bank and the city of Lakewood for this opportunity,” says Justin.