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Urban farms not an easy row to hoe

by Peter Van Allen Staff Writer

Article from The Philadelphia Business Journal

Philadelphia’s fledgling effort to create more urban farms will get a boost next year with a planned, $72 million fitness center being paid for with money from the founder of McDonald’s.

The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, which will open in the fall of 2010 at 4200 Wissahicken Ave. in the Nicetown neighborhood, will offer a fitness center and community services.

As part of that, the 10-acre complex will also devote nearly an acre to an urban farm. It is hoped that the site will teach participants how to grow and prepare fresh produce and about the nutritional value of vegetables. Job training will also be a key element, teaching people the steps in producing and selling produce.

“It’s a way to introduce urban gardening. We hope it will also teach people a way to earn money on agriculture,” said Dottie Wells, business manager for the project. “We want to put people to work delivering [the produce] to restaurants and farmers markets, which may then see how hard they’re working and give them a job.

“It fits well with the emphasis on site for nutrition. This way people can see they can grow food for their own consumption as well.”

The center was made possible as part of $1.5 billion willed to the Salvation Army by Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

In recent years, the “buy fresh, buy local” campaign has gained traction as a national effort supported locally by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. One of the basic tenets of that campaign has been to create more locally based, small farms that could serve farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) cooperatives, restaurants and grocers.

Urban farms have been slow to take hold in Philadelphia.

One such urban farm, the Somerton Tanks Demonstration Farm in Northeast Philadelphia, ended in 2007 after four years. The project, using half an acre surrounding two huge Philadelphia Water Department tanks, came close to breaking even each year, generating as much as $68,000 in sales a year. It supplied farmers’ markets, a CSA program with “shares” of the produce for members and some restaurants.

In a December 2007 study of the project completed by the firm Urban Partners, the authors said Somerton Tanks proved that local, sustainable agriculture was possible and that the farmers could earn a decent living — in this case, the husband-and-wife team earned about $40,000 in their best year. The study projected that Philadelphia could support as many as 10 such urban farms.

The couple that ran the Somerton Tanks operation quit after the 2006 season, choosing instead to farm outside of the city. Operations at the site were suspended.

Roxanne Christensen, president of the nonprofit Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, a partner in the Somerton Tanks effort, insists urban farming will take time.

“We wanted to show that it was possible to have revenue of $50,000 on a half-acre farm, which is about 20,000 square feet. Agriculture experts said it was impossible, but in our third year we generated $52,000. In our fourth year, we generated $68,000,” Christensen said. “We wanted to show that, when you’re looking at land policy, farming can be a legitimate use.”

She cites efforts in Newark, N.J., and Oakland, Calif., to create urban farms. It’s happening without policy change or government help, she said.

“There’s definitely more of an awareness among college generations,” she said.

Possibly the most successful urban agricultural operation has been Greensgrow Farms, which was founded in Kensington in 1998 by Mary Seton Corboy and Tom Sereduk. Using a former industrial site, it now has crops, a farm stand and nursery.

An urban farming effort that has expanded is the farm owned by Weavers Way Co-op in Mount Airy. Its Mort Brooks Memorial Farm, not far from the store, has a full-time farmer and volunteers. It has annual sales of $50,000 a year, according to Weavers Way. Produce is taken to Reading Terminal Market and farmers’ markets, sometimes by SEPTA train.


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