City's new wave of farmers

Volunteers Lindsay Stolkey (front), 24, and Katie Jordan, 29, prune out the collard-green bed at the Emerald Street Urban Farm in East Kensington.
Volunteers Lindsay Stolkey (front), 24, and Katie Jordan, 29, prune out the collard-green bed at the Emerald Street Urban Farm in East Kensington. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Young, college-educated, they harvest food and more from empty lots, rooftops.

Posted: July 21, 2011

 On a steamy summer morning, Sarah Garton is kneeling in a strawberry patch, weeding and reflecting on why she moved to the city to become a farmer.

"Philly is a place where people want to be right now to grow food and make a difference," says Garton, 25, a Texan who majored in anthropology at Boston University and apprenticed at a farm in Rhode Island.

Garton, like many college-educated young people, felt drawn to the inner-city farming scene, a movement that is reclaiming vacant lots and warehouse roofs as growing spaces - and helping individuals improve their lives in the process.

Garton signed on as a farm manager for Methodist Services near Ford and Monument Roads, where she and a colleague grow produce for the mothers and children that Methodist serves.

Long a city of community gardens, Philadelphia is increasingly shining as a mecca for young people who are passionate about trying new ways to draw sustenance from soil, in the ground, or in raised beds, on vacant lots or rooftops - primarily for the greater good.

It is a movement that flies below any official radar but is bolstered nonetheless by established nonprofits, university research, and to some extent by initiatives from Mayor Michael Nutter, who wants Philadelphia to be the greenest city in the nation by 2015 but still hasn't perfected a plan to deal efficiently with apparently abandoned lots.

"I heard about Philadelphia when I was in Michigan," says Katie Olender, 27, a Michigan State University graduate who came here in 2008 to work for the Food Trust, one of several local agencies that are networking nationally to combat obesity and hunger - and spreading the word about Philadelphia's urban farms.

"At conferences and on listservs," Olender says, "people told me, you have to go to Philadelphia and check out what's happening there. I found it enjoyably overwhelming to consider the opportunities here."

Elissa Ruse, 28, didn't have as far to travel - she grew up in Wayne - when she cofounded the all-volunteer Emerald Street Urban Farm on five vacant lots in East Kensington three years ago, using seeds and supplies from City Harvest and attracting a core of college grads eager to learn on the job.

Some of the farm's weekly harvest is donated to the nearby St. Francis Soup Kitchen, and Emerald Street draws in its neighbors by hosting hoe-downs, free outdoor movie nights, and workshops.

"I came because I heard about the scene," says Lindsay Stolkey, 24, who moved from Michigan to run Emerald Street's Saturday morning farm stand, where produce is deeply discounted for families in this largely Latino community.

Sarah Finestone, 30, even bought a house nearby after learning about Emerald Street. A Dresher native, long-time California resident, and former AmeriCorps volunteer, Finestone reaches out to school-age children in the neighborhood.

And Katie Jordan, 29, a Wilmington native with a master's degree in clinical counseling from LaSalle University and experience in this city's public schools, says she considers the work at Emerald Street, growing okra, carrots, peppers and more, as an apprenticeship she hopes will lead to paid work as a farm educator.

Despite the difficulties would-be growers face in getting city officials to properly release some of the thousands of apparently abandoned lots, people who are determined seem to find a way.

Clare Hyre, a Lexington, Va., native and graduate of Guilford College in North Carolina, juggles two jobs - as a farm educator at a Weaver's Way urban farm called Henry's Got Crops; and as farmstand manager for the Food Trust. She and a colleague put their extra energy into a project they're calling Cloud 9, aimed at learning the most effective ways to raise crops on warehouse rooftops.

Cloud 9 is collaborating with, not competing against, Philadelphia Rooftop Farm, which is testing new planters designed for farming on residential rooftops.

"We're looking at whether this can be a viable business model," says Hyre, who is hawking Cloud 9 T-shirts and tote bags, "made with sweatshop-free materials," to raise money.

Meanwhile, at 51st and Chester, horticulturist Andrew Olson and photographer Neal Santos created Farm 51, an urban farm with a strong educational component.

Nearby Pocket Farm, at 49th and Kingsessing, recently held a Garden Party to raise money to buy a wheelbarrow.

The Philadelphia Orchard Project, which came on the scene in 2007, plants fruit and nut trees throughout the city for community groups willing to use and maintain them - and held a music festival fund-raiser last weekend, too.

Local urban farmers learn about each other's projects and fund-raisers via the Web-based Philadelphia Urban Farming Network and support one another with a distinctively noncompetitive spirit.

Garton went to the network's Google group site recently for help when her crop of Red Norland, Yukon Gold, and Rose Finn Apple fingerling potatoes showed signs of a blight she thought might be verticillium. In came word from another urban farmer suggesting the problem could be leafhoppers, which could be wiped out with a spritz of neem oil, a natural pesticide.

That did it, Garton said.

Methodist Services director Anne Rice Burgess says the idea for a farm on the property arose when she learned that in 1879, the young residents of the agency's orphanage raised crops on-site to supplement their meals.

So starting another farm here made sense, Burgess says.

Methodist still serves three squares a day to women transitioning from homelessness, as well as lunch and snacks for children in day care and summer camp. For years, Methodist relied almost exclusively on Philabundance for help, but in recent years, as hunger grew in the economic downturn, Philabundance ironically saw its resources dwindle.

"I thought I had to come up with another plan" to augment the Philabundance donations, Burgess says, and Heritage Farm was it. Garton and Chloe Cerwinka, 33, came on board in January. Both had apprenticed at urban farms run by Weavers Way, the Mount Airy food co-op.

Garton and Cerwinka dove right into the project: buying inexpensive starter plants from a prison-based program, connecting with Penn State Extension to build a high tunnel - a kind of passive solar greenhouse that extends the growing season; linking with City Harvest for supplies, and with Farm to City for help developing an on-site farm market that sells to employees as well as residents.

"That's what's cool about Philly," Garton says, "that this network, these supports, already exist."


Read previous "Food and the Farm" stories at www.philly.com/farmfood.


Cucumber Soup

Makes 4-6 servings   

3 large cucumbers

½ cup scallions, minced

3 tablespoons butter

6 cups chicken broth

1½ teaspoons wine vinegar

¾ teaspoon dried dill

4 tablespoons quick-cooking cream of wheat

1 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons dill weed, minced, for garnish (optional)

1. Peel all the cucumbers. Cut one into 18 to 20 paper- thin slices and set aside for garnish. Cut remainder of cucumbers into ½-inch chunks.

2. Cook scallions slowly in butter until tender. Add cucumber chunks, chicken broth, vinegar, and the dried dill. Bring to a boil and slowly stir in the cream of wheat. Simmer partially covered 25 minutes.

3. Allow the soup to cool, then puree in a blender, working in batches if necessary.

4. Before serving, simmer and beat in ½ cup sour cream. Garnish with more sour cream, dill weed, and cucumber slices.

- From chef Sharon Keiser, Methodist Services in Philadelphia

Per serving (based on 6): 204 calories, 8 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 832 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Shirazi (Persian Salad)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

5 Persian or 2 English cucumbers (both are types of seedless cukes; or use regular cucumbers and remove the seeds)

4 round tomatoes

1 medium red onion

1 tablespoon dry mint, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup fresh lime or lemon juice

1 teaspoon olive oil (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Note: Quantities of vegetables may be increased or decreased, depending on availability and number of servings desired.

1. Dice or mince all the vegetables. Toss vegetables, mint, and garlic. Chill for 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, juice the lime (or lemon, if using). Add the juice and the oil (if using) to the vegetables. Add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate for at least one hour.

3. When ready to serve, taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve in a large lettuce leaf.

- From chef Sharon Kaiser, Methodist Services' Heritage Farm

Per serving (based on 8): 53 calories, 2 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, no cholesterol, 7 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211, dmarder@phillynews.com, or @marderd on Twitter. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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