The little half-acre that could: Urban minifarms, like Mill Creek, are keeping many Philadelphians from going hungry

Where once was a desolate lot in West Philadelphia, Mill Creek Farm today provides - and has done so for the past four years - fresh food at an affordable price.
Where once was a desolate lot in West Philadelphia, Mill Creek Farm today provides - and has done so for the past four years - fresh food at an affordable price.
Posted: June 08, 2009

"WE'RE out here in the dirt all the time," said Jade Walker, standing amid the patch of topsoil on Brown Street near 49th that keeps hunger from the doors of neighboring homes in the recession-ravaged Mill Creek section of West Philadelphia.

"And every time we're out here," Walker said, "people are coming up to us, struggling with the idea that they can't provide for their families the way they want to right now. People who have never gardened before want to start a garden in their own back yard. Or they want to work here in this one."

Walker and her co-director, Johanna Rosen, said that the pocket-size half-acre they call "Mill Creek Farm" feeds hundreds of low-income neighbors - many of them elderly, living on government assistance.

As the recession's double-whammy of skyrocketing food prices and massive job losses raises the threat of hunger for thousands of city families, urban mini-farms from the Southwark Queen Village Community Garden to Las Parcelas, in Norris Square, put organic vegetables on many tables and donate their surpluses to keep overburdened church food cupboards from going bare.

Like Mill Creek Farm, most of these urban vegetable gardens were carved out of city blocks where houses once stood.

The houses that once stood on 49th Street near Brown were built on unstable fill.

Decades ago, an underground creek slowly swallowed the fill. Foundations cracked. Sinking houses were abandoned, then demolished. Weeds and trash took over. Years went by.

Hard rains flooded the land. Mill Creek overflowed the storm sewers, carrying urban contaminants into the Schuylkill.

The Philadelphia Water Department leased the abandoned Mill Creek lot from the city's Redevelopment Authority in 2003 for a storm-water management project. "We were in the right place at the right time," Rosen said of herself and gardening colleague Walker.

But a cloud of uncertainty looms on the horizon.

The land is still owned by the Redevelopment Authority, so it is always at risk for development. The authority's 99-year lease with the water department can be terminated at any time with 90 days' notice.

Rosen and Walker are hoping that the authority will transfer the title to the Neighborhood Gardens Association, a land bank that would protect it as green space and assure that it can continue as a farm vital to feeding its neighbors.

"We are always talking to our neighbors about self-reliance," Walker said. "We have this soil. We have these seeds. So folks around here pretty much don't have to buy food. They grow it and store it and use it year-round.

"Historically, some families have always done this. But as the recession continues, more and more people are receptive to urban farming."

A shoestring operation

"Jade and I teamed with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and proposed starting a farm on the site to grow food for the neighborhood and make the land better able to absorb storm water," Rosen said.

Water-department soil tests revealed no lead contamination. "With weeds growing and dying here for 30 years, a fair amount of topsoil had built up, and it was of fairly high quality," Rosen said. "We added mushroom topsoil to it."

The 15 community gardeners in an adjoining lot had to run a hose to a corner hydrant to water their vegetables, she said. The water department brought in a water line, which made growing vegetables much more doable for both the community gardeners and the Mill Creek farmers.

The water department also helped pay for construction of a toolshed, built from recycled and salvaged materials, which features solar panels, a compost toilet and a "living roof" planted with sedums and chives.

"When you use solar panels," Walker said, "you don't pay an electric bill."

In a shoestring operation like Mill Creek Farm's, that is one of many huge savings that help keep prices low for the fixed-income-neighborhood seniors who make up more than half of the farm's customers and the low-income families that use food stamps to buy vegetables from the little half-acre that could.

"I know we're small, by farm standards," Rosen said. "But for a city, we're big in terms of growing space. In another part of Philadelphia, I know a half-acre vegetable garden that is grossing over $60,000. We're not doing that because we keep our prices so low that you can buy a bag of most things we grow for a dollar."

Beginning its fourth season, Mill Creek Farm sells its produce from mid-June through Thanksgiving at its on-site stand (Saturday middays), its 52nd and Haverford stand (Wednesday afternoons) and at the Mariposa Food Co-op, on Baltimore Avenue near 47th Street.

"A lot of our neighbors told us there was no food in their churches' food cupboards," Walker said. "So we donate our surplus food to them, including Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, at 63rd and Callowhill."

Mill Creek produce ranges from fresh okra - "By far, our Number One best-seller," Walker said, enthusiastically - to mustard, turnip and collard greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and asparagus.

Mill Creek Farm manages to grow all this with a staff of two, and an army of volunteers - school kids, church groups, service organizations, neighbors interested in learning gardening skills and members of the Mariposa Food Co-op, who earn the right to shop there by working one shift a week at either Mariposa or Mill Creek.

"We have at least one volunteer workday a week from March through November," Rosen said. "Some days, we get three people. Some days, we get 30."

Somehow, they get by.

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