Swainway Urban Farm
Article Written by Christine Laymon
Affiliate Scholar with The Rural Life Center at Kenyon College
In an unassuming building tucked into a strip mall just off a busy intersection in the Clintonville neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, a thriving urban farm is proving that American agriculture is changing.
A man flags me down in the parking lot, and waves me into an empty space between two vehicles and a box truck. I’ve already driven up and down the length of the strip mall twice, checked my GPS and sheepishly considered sending out an S.O.S. via Instagram. I trustingly follow the bearded, ball-capped man, who is talking on his cell phone through the unmarked door. There are no signs that announce that you have arrived at the doorstep of Central Ohio’s premiere mushroom and microgreen farm, however, as soon as you enter you know just by the earthy aroma of the place.
Joseph wraps up his phone call and shakes my hand. I glance around, the room holds two large hoop houses, doors open to rows upon rows of mushrooms in various stages of growth, a large vent kicks on loudly circulating air through both rooms. Towards the front of the building, I can see the glow of grow lights above trays of microgreens. The space is tidy and utilitarian – a mixture of backyard ingenuity and futuristic food production. A large whiteboard rests along one wall, a detailed schedule of deliveries for the week. I’m here specifically to interview Joseph about the products he produces for Yellowbird Foodshed, but I’m also interested in learning how this man turned his backyard garden into a successful farm just minutes from downtown Columbus. The answer I would find is that Joseph Swain pays very close attention to the details.
Swain has been farming since 2010, and for the past six years, he has been a full-time farmer. The operation began in Swain’s backyard with a successful home garden. Encouraged after his first season at the Clintonville Farmer’s Market, Swain did his research and sought out crops that he could produce in large quantities in a small space that were not currently being offered by other vendors. Mushrooms and microgreens became Swainway Urban Farm’s niche market. In the beginning, all the mushrooms and microgreens were being produced in Swain’s house.
“I was growing mushrooms in my basement, I was using a second-floor room as a hot room, we were growing microgreens in the hoop house seasonally. And I was experimenting with these new crops. It went well and we doubled [the amount] the next year, and then doubled it again, and doubled it again.”
“After three years of growth Swain made the move to the warehouse in order to increase production to meet the demand. The new farm location allows Swain to grow a larger amount of mushrooms and microgreens year-round. Transferring the microgreen operation to the warehouse also freed up space in Swain’s backyard for more production there. “
“I’ve got two hoop houses in my backyard where we do the seedlings in April and May, my whole property is just blown up, every square inch is … tight raised beds. I used to grow on another quarter acre down the road for the last seven years, but I’ve pulled away from that because I want to put more energy here [the warehouse farm], and I’ve got a family now – two kids under two.”
“In 2012, Swain added two additional niche crops to his enterprise: turmeric and ginger. Again, Swain had paid close attention at the farmer’s market for what products were not being represented and when he read an article on young mainland ginger he decided to give it a try. “
“In 2012 I got 15 pounds of seedstock with no intention of selling it, just to see if it would grow in Ohio – and it worked. Boom! That was it from there, we took a few pounds down to the farmer’s market that year and people went crazy. And [like mushrooms and microgreens] it became our thing and we built on that reputation.”
"It would be easy to say that Swainway Urban Farm’s success is due to its niche crops. But that is only a small part of the equation. The larger portion of their success is because of the attention Swain puts on producing the highest quality crop. When I asked Swain what sets his mushrooms apart from others, he said the following:
“Freshness, it’s the freshness. You can get a lot of mushrooms from a lot of places but what we are focusing on is quality and freshness. [Mushrooms] are shelf limited…so if you have a mushroom coming from Pennsylvania, and maybe it was in their possession for however many days before it got shipped out, and it took that many days to ship it here and then it took that many more days for the distributor to handle it and get it to the end consumer. We deliver twice a week, so our mushrooms are getting to the consumer within a couple of days to within a couple of hours. An imported mushroom cannot compete with that. The flavor of our mushrooms is so fresh…so light and clean…they are so clean, and meaty and delicate, so buttery, just gorgeous. “
Growing mushrooms and microgreens is a seven day a week job, with a set order in which tasks must be performed.
It's just staying on point with your weekly [chores], you’ve got to be harvesting every day, blocks have to be cracked every single week, they have to be shocked every single week. So it’s a matter of staying on schedule with the different pieces of the process.
We step inside of the mushroom growing rooms. Bags hang from wooden frames. Each bag will fruit mushrooms for about one week before being cycled out and into the compost. The hanging bags produce oyster mushrooms while the blocks placed on shelves are shitake. Recently, Swain has been experimenting with some additional varieties of mushrooms including chestnuts. Swain lights up as he starts describing the mushroom growing process in detail. Even in brief conversation is evident that Swain has fully immersed himself in learning as much as he can in the decade that he has been growing mushrooms, and he adamantly will tell you that he is always learning something new, experimenting, and seeking out ways to better himself and his operation.
Next, Swain takes me into the microgreen room. Large metal racks hold shelves of microgreen trays and grow lights. Each tray is carpeted with thousands of young green plants. The shape and colors of their leaves vary depending on the variety. Microgreens, like mushrooms, have a short and predictable timetable of growth making it easy for Swain to plan ahead and grow to his exact needs each week. By maintaining a high level of organization Swain is able to provide the freshest possible product with the least amount of waste. Microgreens are harvested by hand and take approximately five hours to cut, wash and bag. Today, the bottom shelves also hold numerous seedlings that Swain will plant on his urban farm and sell at the farmer’s market. Seedlings are just another way that Swain has been proactive in finding products that produce high value crops in small spaces.
The Swainway Urban Farm currently produces 150 pounds of mushrooms per week, for the seasonal farmer’s market, grocers, restaurants and, of course, Yellowbird. Almost every week Yellowbird includes either fresh microgreens or mushrooms from Swainway, and for those who have had the pleasure, you know that once you’ve tried a Swainway mushroom you are ruined for any other kind of mushroom. The taste and texture are a direct result of the commitment to excellence that sets Swainway Urban Farm apart from the competition.