On one square block in Philadelphia: bees and chickens, a farm, a nursery, a store and a 400-member CSA.
By David Hanson, writer, Michael Hanson, photographer
WhyHunger is partnering with the Breaking Through Concrete media team of “three men and a short bus” for a cross-country tour of American urban farms. Michael Hanson, photographer, Charlie Hoxie, videographer, and David Hanson, writer, will visit over fifteen urban farm projects from Seattle to Santa Cruz to New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Chicago.
It’s sunny and ninety-four degrees and the pavement steams after a thunderstorm rolled sideways through north Philly. Mary Seton Corboy wears a full-body, white bee suit. She stands atop a small trailer’s grassy roof on a vacant city lot. Smoke puffs from the antique-looking box in her hand and the bees calm down.
“We put these up here originally just for security,” she says. “Figured no one would bother the equipment with a bunch of bees around.”
Mary has created a small world here on one block. The trailer under the beehives holds farm tools. Beside the trailer, tanks for the bio-diesel conversion operation transform used cooking oil into fuel for Big Yellow, the delivery truck that collects fresh produce and meat and dairy products from farms within 75 miles of this square of green in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. That food goes into the homes of 400 CSA members, some low-income, and for sale at the farm’s market. That is to say, the Greensgrow farm and nursery is a little bit of everything, and all of it connected, somehow, like any good, old city.Farming in Kensington, now a low-income neighborhood largely of Russian and Polish immigrants, is no more new than it is throughout Philadelphia. Community gardens, backyard gardens, and “guerrilla” gardens on vacant lots have been producing thousands of pounds of fresh food annually for over a century. The Vacant Lot Cultivation Association began in 1897 and it helped people access land and start market gardens. War rationing during WWI and II spurred gardens, as they did in many cities. And the early-to-mid-century exodus of African-American farmers from the sharecropper south brought a new agrarian population to the city.
Then the community vacant-lot gardens took off in the ‘70s, just as the industrial boom imploded. Over 100,000 people lost their jobs, industries ran screaming, and many people bolted for the hills, or somewhere not Philly.
At the same time, another wave of southern African-Americans moved north, this time in conjunction with a Puerto Rican migration, and Southeast Asians escaping the poison aftermath of the Vietnam War. These newcomers grew their own food in their homelands and they brought that knowledge and ethic with them (please see note below).
The city, meanwhile, took little interest in its agencies’ land holdings, so they barely blinked at signing multi-year leases to neighborhood farmers on empty city lots. The 1970s made inner-city blightification as American as apple pie. In Philly, pirate farmers built soils and fed families and communities by pushing around a hoe. The common-sense food production continued into the 1990s. There weren’t meetings or board members or conference calls. Just a need for food, empty land, and people who knew how to dig in with a shovel and hoe.
Mary calls a shovel, “the idiot stick” and she holds it in high regard. She came onto the scene at the tail end of that mini-urban-ag revolution. Plenty of vacant-lot and community farms still exist but not on the scale they did thirty years ago. The decline is partly due to older farmers passing away and partly due to increased real-estate values, the subsequent interest of developers, and city agencies’ reluctance to continue signing multi-year usage leases on the empty lots. The rogue farmers have had to abandon soils they’d developed over a decade or more.
Mary Seton Corboy sweating in her bee suit on the living roof of the Greensgrow storage trailer.
Mary doesn’t like meetings and she looks more comfortable in the bee suit and mask than I imagine she would in a pant suit or dress. She’s a gritty farmer with a helluva business sense. When she takes off the bee suit, she reveals a dusty, wrinkled Subaru farm shirt. Two Subaru wagons sit along the curb between the bee and tool lot and the larger farm and nursery – the socially progressive Subaru company sponsors Greensgrow.
Tom Sereduk, co-founder of Greensgrow, and Mary starting digging into Kensington in 1998. The two had restaurant experience and they saw a market for salad greens. Since they knew hydroponic growing methods (growing in water, rather than soil, with mineral supplements), they could bypass the immediate concerns over the lot’s EPA Brownfield status. They opened during the growing season and sold to white-table cloth restaurants for a profit.
But kids threw rocks at them over the fence. Mary and Tom were the energetic hippies rolling in for half the year to grow fancy lettuce for fancy restaurants. Though Tom opted out of the depressing situation, Mary stuck with it and she kept her vision open.
“Over time, we never really invested in any one thing so when the winds of change moved in – more and more interest in local foods – we shifted. We started growing more heirloom tomatoes and micro-greens. Then we built the greenhouse, grew flowers, stayed year-round, and the neighbors got interested. We saw what people grew in their pots here in the neighborhood and we offered them in the nursery. As we’ve grown, we’ve tried to keep one foot in this community and one in the greater city.”
At the corner of the farm, the chickens peck at the soil on one side of the chain-link fence while neighbors cruise on bikes or stroll the sidewalk a foot away. It’s an easy symbol of the urban farm but it actually does what you’d think it would. A few women sit on the steps of their row-houses a block away. Their young kids bump Razor scooters over the sidewalk cracks and they love the chickens.
Janice Teague has lived here for twenty-five years. She likes the farm. She goes every week to the Thursday market for fruit and vegetables and she buys tomato plants to grow in her backyard garden, a six-foot-by-two-foot sliver of soil in the tiny concrete-floor-and-cinder-block-walled back patio. She doesn’t have a car so she can’t get to Home Depot to buy potted plants. Greensgrow lets her use the wagon to roll her purchases home and the nursery prices are no more than Home Depot’s or Lowe’s.
The nursery is the economic engine of Greensgrow, earning the farm over half a million dollars a year.
“I’m not into the butter and milk and cheese stuff,” Janice says. “I get that from the regular grocery store. My daughter gets her soap from the farm. I get fruit and bread and I get flowers that I plant in my backyard. I get peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes. They’re fresher and they’re a little more money but I like Jersey tomatoes from the farm market better than the supermarket ones.”
Janice doesn’t see many neighbors at the Greensgrow market. The people she sees there are from elsewhere. They’re nice, but she can tell that they’re “uppy.”
I guess I see that as I look at the Thursday market shoppers: young folks with mustaches on their faces and baskets on their bikes, a double-date popping out of a Prius, a mom with a stroller the size of a Pugeot. But there’s also a policeman and the owner of the auto detail shop across the street.
Mary has always intended for Greensgrow to be profitable. She wants it to be a model for sustainable profitability, in fact. All 19 staff members are paid by the for-profit side of the business, from nursery and farm sales, which grossed one million last year. The CSA (community supported agriculture) has 400 members. 400. That’s enormous for a city-block farm. Greensgrow has created a 75-mile web of farms and producers with the Greensgrow CSA as the mothership distribution point. It’s so big that they’ve achieved the holy grail of the CSA model – a low-income option.
It’s been a dozen years since Mary ducked rocks while hanging plastic over the greenhouse. The bees help, but mainly she and her staff and her chickens and the nursery’s petunias have put a face on the farm and the neighborhood.
“In the short term I see a positive change. I got a Google alert last night. I don’t usually check those, but I did this time. It was from a real estate listing. It said, ‘Great house, great location right next to Greensgrow Farm!!!’ When you become an asset to your community or neighborhood then you’ve done something. I don’t do this just to be tan.”
Note: Historical information sourced from the Community Gardening in Philadelphia, 2008 Harvest Report compiled by Domenic Vitiello and Michael Nairn of the Penn Planning and Urban Studies, University of Pennsylvania. October 2009
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An afternoon thunderstorm ripped through Kensington neighborhood but only partially slowed down the Thursday market. Mary says these storms and winter blizzards add to other urban farm challenges: poor soil, vandalism, insects.