When advocates of urban farming cite success stories, one of the first names they offer is Mansfield Frazier. The 73-year old took a vacant plot of land and turned it into an award-winning vineyard in the least likely of places—Hough, a predominately black community in desperate need in Cleveland’s inner city.
How Frazier wound up growing grapes seems just as unlikely as his vineyard. He had been in and out of prison multiple times – all for the same crime.
“I was a professional [credit card] counterfeiter and served five terms,” he said. He later settled down, married and became a community activist, writer and host of a radio program.
Speaking at the Growing Gardens Leadership Conference sponsored by the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership Saturday, Frazier regaled his rapt audience with his tale of turnarounds – the community’s and his own.
“It’s called the ‘Vineyards of Chateau Hough’ and that’s a political statement,” he said. “It shows that the land we occupy is just as valuable as Westlake,” an affluent Cleveland suburb.
What did Frazier know about grape-growing or urban farming before he started? “Nothing,” he said, “but I always had an interest in nature.”
Frazier said experts at the Ohio State University Extension Service suggested two types of grapes that could flourish in Ohio’s unforgiving winters. He went along with their advice, but took it one step further. He was able to secure grants for the vineyard by making it a “re-entry project” because his workers are men transitioning from prison sentences.
“I wanted them to know there is life after prison, but they have to work for it,” he said.
Chateau Hough is actually bottled by a winery in Solon that produces nearly 1,000 bottles, but Frazier said a small winery is under construction near his vineyard. When completed, he said, the number should increase to 20,000 bottles.
“This isn’t just about grapes,” he said. “It’s about saving inner cities and the people who live in them.”
Matt Martin, TNP executive director, said Frazier’s story shows why commitment is necessary for community gardens to be successful. He estimates there are nearly 20 such vegetable and fruit gardens in Warren, each offering more access to fresh food.
“We provide logistical support and help them pursue funding, but we expect them to be self-sustaining,” he said.
Sarah Macovitz of Youngstown, a therapist and the leader of a vegetable garden on Laird Northeast in Warren, agreed. “You have to have a buy-in,” she said.
Michelle Maggio of Warren, a student who helped develop a garden project on Warren’s east side, said she identifies with what she considers to be urban gardening values. “It’s innovative and sustainable,” she said. “It’s a way to make a positive transformation.”
In Frazier’s case, there was more than sustainability with his vineyard. In a 2013 blind taste test competition involving several hundred wines, Chateau Hough’s Traiminette, a white wine, took second place.