What if you just want to buy some vegetables?
Recently, I had the chance to visit three very different farming operations, all of which have a public retail component operating within Philly city limits. Community-oriented and independently operated, these farms exist slightly outside the mainstream market hype, but each exudes a strong, sincere passion for agriculture, education and, of course, eating.
For a change of farmers-market pace, pay one of these places a visit.
"Some weeks, it'll be all these hipsters. Some weeks, it'll be families. Some weeks, it'll be everyone."
There's no typical customer at Farm 51, now entering its fourth season on a remarkably green Southwest Philly corner.
That energizing sense of unpredictability also can be applied to what's living and growing on and around this 5,000-square-foot plot maintained by Andrew Olson, a landscape maintenance supervisor with the Delaware Center for Horticulture, and Neal Santos, a photographer.
Patches of zinnia, dahlia and nigella, which Santos is quick to twist into impromptu flower arrangements, sway in dirt a few feet from Chester Avenue, where the No. 13 trolley lumbers by more often than you'd think. On the 51st Street side, built beds are home to almost-there tomato and pepper plants.
Nearly every inch of land inside the chain-link fence - a lot completely filled with trash and rubble when Olson came here six years ago - is planted to capacity with specialty seeds: Asian eggplants, cylindra beets, collard greens, green rhubarb, even pear and persimmon trees, all raised without chemicals or pesticides.
Shady spots are occupied by the farm's handmade rabbit hutch, chicken coop and bee boxes (they're predicting a record honey harvest this year), plus a teeny pond for "Duck," Farm 51's resident mascot and the fowl apple of the 51 boys' eyes. (Three cats and three dogs live here, too.)
Olson lived next to the neglected lot for a year before he decided to take his work home with him, clearing out the mess with the help of neighbors and friends. "The landlord was cool with me doing whatever with the yard, and having chickens," he said. "That is what sold me on living here."
A City Harvest grant from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society providing upstart urban farmers with compost, seeds and starter plants made Farm 51, as it stands today, possible.
Olson and Santos have ambitious goals. They hope to frame 51 as an event space after some upgrades and renovations, but for now their main conversations with the community at large occur on Thursdays. That's when they recruit enthusiastic "junior gardeners" (neighborhood kids) to help them wheel and deal just-picked bouquets, cukes, kale, eggplants and fresh-laid eggs for cheaper than you'd ever find in any organic market.
Neighbor Peter Kromah, who came to America from his native Sierra Leone 30 years ago, makes most of his weekly purchases via the farm stand, but on this day the avid home cook's in immediate need of greens for soup. "I admire them. I know exactly the importance of farming, especially their type of farming. Everything is natural," said Kromah, a licensing analyst who also holds an associate degree in agriculture. "I call them brothers."
FIND IT: 51st Street and Chester Avenue
RUN BY: Andrew Olson and Neal Santos
FARM STAND: 4:30-7 p.m. Thursdays, May to September
Henry Got Crops
"When I'm out in the world doing something and I tell people where I work, they're like, 'What? I had no idea that was even up there!' " Clare Hyre said.
It's easy to understand how Center City types might be unaware of W.B. Saul High, an agricultural magnet school spread out over 130 Roxborough acres. But Hyre, farm education coordinator, doesn't technically work for Saul: She's an employee of Weavers Way Community Programs, which, along with the Weavers Way Co-op, operates the jauntily named, 2.5-acre Henry Got Crops.
HGC, overseen by farm manager Nina Berryman, accomplishes multiple goals. Roughly 90 percent of the food grown here supplies the farm's 130 Community Supported Agriculture subscribers, who pay $425 to $750 for half and full shares entitling them to a robust season of weekly produce. But there's also a farm stand, held every Friday in conjunction with the CSA pickup, that's open to the cash-paying public.
"A CSA is not the perfect model for everyone. It's a pretty big commitment," Berryman said. "The farm stand is a flexible option. We want anyone to feel like they can come and get vegetables here." (They currently accept Farmers' Market Nutrition Program vouchers and are working on approval to accept EBT payments.)
With Berryman and her apprentice, Emma Dosch, logging 12-hour days on the land this time of year, Hyre lends a hand in addition to running the educational portion of the farm for Saul students. She organizes lessons, ranging from hands-on labor in fields and raised test beds (the kids bring home the produce they grow) to classroom lessons in cooking and food justice.
"You won't find another high school like this," Berryman said.
In a pickup building just off Henry Avenue one recent Friday, CSA members perused bins filled with bright yellow and green zucchini, beets, cucumbers and dandelion greens. Soon, they'll be filled with leeks and "Orient Express" eggplants; a couple of weeks after that, it's tomato time.
"We'll have tomatoes," Berryman vowed. "A lot of tomatoes." And, by the end of summer: potatoes, melons and sweet peppers.
Berryman chooses what to plant based on a survey of her CSA shareholders and her personal vegetal interests - red salad turnips, salanova lettuce and purple sprouting broccoli are a few of her picks. They've also started a fruit orchard that they hope will be ready by next season.
The HGC staff believes that there's no "typical" Saul student, as they come from all around the city. The only commonality each shares is a sincere interest in agriculture.
Katelynn Elliott, who's going into her junior year at Saul, works outside and in the CSA three days a week as part of a paid summer internship. An aspiring horticultural therapist, she comes all the way from Port Richmond. Her aunt graduated from Saul and encouraged her to check it out.
"I used to go to Catholic school - it was strict, and you were always inside," she said. "Then I went on a tour [of Saul] and just fell in love with it. There's a lot more room. You can move around here."
FIND IT: Walter B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences, 7100 Henry Ave.
RUN BY: Nina Berryman and Clare Hyre
FARM STAND: Fridays, 2-5 p.m., May to October
Like Farm 51, La Finquita ("The Little Farm") benefits from grants, both from the PHS and the Gardens For Food program. But this plot, founded nearly 30 years ago by the Catholic Worker Movement on the former site of a rubber factory in South Kensington, boasts a unique blend of contributors.
Around 20 percent of the farm is still maintained by locals, mostly Latino families who have passed the tradition of growing in this dirt down generations. "Everyone has some kind of connection to this place," said Natania Schaumburg, director of programming at South Kensington Community Partners and manager of the weekend farm stand.
La Finquita began developing into its current form - Schaumburg refers to it as "a community farm experiment" - when Cliff Brown, an experienced farmer, carpenter and metal worker from Portland, Maine, met longtime caretaker Danny Rodriguez. He invited Brown to contribute his own plantings to Finquita, which inspired its current hybrid status. "I started working, trying to improve the garden as a whole," Brown said. "We put a lot of work into the space, getting it to be more productive."
Currently, the farmers are cultivating beans, turnips, chard and carrots, as well as slightly lesser recognizable produce like sunchokes, purslane, cowpeas and the South American tuber yacón.
Grant support has helped Schaumburg, Brown and their partner, Zach Prazak, introduce multiple improvements to the farm, including a storage barn - a necessary addition to keep vandals from stealing tools and hoses - a watering system and a youth education program.
Last Sunday, 11-year-old neighbor Kalena Donaldson sat with artist Anamaya Farthing-Kohl, scraping bark from an overhanging mulberry tree and dunking it in buckets of water to create paper, which they hope to use for prints and lanterns.
La Finquita also supports organizations in Kensington, regularly donating food to the Catholic Worker's soup kitchen as well as the Drueding Center food pantry across the street.
"We want people to enjoy it as a green space, but also as a place to buy produce," said Schaumburg, whose positive relationships with Finquita's longtime gardeners translates to them donating a portion of their own harvests to the farm stand, raising cash that's in turn invested back into La Finquita. "We're just trying to find a model that respects everyone, and helps people realize this is the most productive use for the space. It makes it a community."
"There are so many hands here, it becomes a place to communicate," Farthing-Kohl said. "It's a display of the way that working with a lot of people can yield an incredible result."
OPENED: 1988 (in its current form since 2010)
FIND IT: Fifth and Master Streets
RUN BY: Cliff Brown, Zach Prazak and Natania Schaumburg
FARM STAND: Sundays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., May to December
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @drewlazor.