Room to grow

Andrew Olson is fighting to save half of Farm 51. If it's sold, "it will negate what we've been able to accomplish over the years."
Andrew Olson is fighting to save half of Farm 51. If it's sold, "it will negate what we've been able to accomplish over the years."

Gardens on abandoned city lots have long been vulnerable to having the land sold out from under them. State and city efforts, such as the Philadelphia Land Bank, may put them on firmer ground.

Posted: July 25, 2014

Farm 51 was bustling on a Thursday in early July, as neighbors poured into the lush educational farm and market to load up on kale and collards, eggs in delicate shades of beige, cream, and blue, bunches of herbs, and jars of honey.

"This is the annual flower show, right here," said Shelly Nieves, who stopped in to buy greens and left with an armful of gifts: a bouquet of flowers and three kinds of sage.

It's hard to imagine that when Neal Santos and Andrew Olson moved to the 5100 block of Chester Avenue in West Philadelphia, this space - made up of two lots, one then city-owned, the other long abandoned - was a haven for crime and dumping. They've spent the last six years transforming it, felling weed trees, hauling away debris, and disposing of more disturbing finds: a bag of bullets, license plates, a loaded Glock pistol.

Now, though, they could lose it all. They finally managed to buy one parcel, through the 2-year-old Philly Land Works website. Then, in June, they learned the other was slated for sheriff's sale.

If someone builds there, Olson said, the farm won't survive. "It would be really difficult to grow vegetables, because we wouldn't have sun," he said. "It will negate what we've been able to accomplish over the years."

Their predicament is familiar to gardeners across the city growing on abandoned lots.

"Everyone's land-insecure," said Amy Laura Cahn, founder of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia's Garden Justice Legal Initiative. "It's the major issue for urban agriculture in Philly."

But new city and state initiatives - the creation of the Philadelphia Land Bank, a pending update to the state conservatorship law, and a new farm-preservation effort led by the city Department of Parks and Recreation - could soon provide relief.

"We as a city have tacitly accepted that gardening and farming are important to us for food access, cleaning and greening vacant lots, and making spaces safe," said Cahn. "We still don't have the mechanisms to preserve them, but we're right now on the precipice."

The urban-planning firm Interface Studio is already creating the framework for the Land Bank, which is expected to be operational by January. That includes building a database of all city-owned and tax-delinquent land, enabling the Land Bank to identify opportunity sites or determine appropriate uses for a given parcel.

The Land Bank is also expected to be able to intervene at sheriff's sales like the one facing Farm 51. Those sales have been a huge concern for farms, since the sales often come up unpredictably, sending gardeners scrambling to raise funds.

Sloan Street Community Garden in West Philadelphia was sold at sheriff's sale without gardeners' knowledge; they ended up moving in 2012 to a concrete lot next door.

Also in West Philadelphia, St. Bernard Community Garden members learned of a pending sale in 2012 by happenstance, just days in advance.

"We were almost lucky that we heard about it at all," said Phil Forsyth, one of the gardeners. "It would've been a pretty depressing and devastating experience [to lose the garden]. Some of us have been gardening there for 20 years."

Now, Cahn is working with several other gardens to try to avoid sales, or at least manage the process.

Even without the Land Bank in place, the city can choose to stop a sheriff's sale, bid the amount of its own debt - or even compound the debt with municipal liens to produce the winning bid.

St. Bernard Garden was saved that way, with help from Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.

But just as often, the city doesn't bid. Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez's office has sought dozens of city bids for garden and side-yard uses, and almost none have gone through.

When Philly Land Works launched in 2012, it offered a clearer path for purchasing city-owned land, cracking open the door for gardeners like Santos and Olson, who used it to buy their side yard. And, it helped others obtain temporary garden agreements. (The city has received 318 expressions of interest for those since 2012; so far, 17 have been successfully completed). But Cahn also found 70 gardens were listed for sale on the site. She scrambled to secure some of them.

Now, Parks and Recreation is working to create a formal process for taking gardens, particularly those already established on public land, into its inventory.

It stepped in at the request of the Department of Public Property and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

"They contacted us because they were getting inundated with requests but weren't equipped to respond. Land protection is really not in their bailiwick, but it is closer to ours," said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis. "We'll work to be a one-stop shop, instead of bumping around from agency to agency."

Meanwhile, farmers could soon have another option: A state law that lets court-appointed conservators rehab blighted buildings could soon be amended to include vacant lots. The House already approved the bill, and Philadelphia Republican Rep. John Taylor, who introduced it, expects it to pass out of the Senate this session.

Cahn filed a petition on behalf of Farm 51, hoping to stave off the sale until one of these reforms takes effect.

Santos said without that aid, he would be at a loss.

"All of a sudden, this can happen without you ever knowing."

That would affect not just Santos and Olson, but also neighbors who receive free or discounted produce and kids who work at the farm, earning money, learning about horticulture, and holding competitions to see who can eat the spiciest turnip.

Santos and Olson want to do even more. If they own the land, they could start a nonprofit and add more educational programming.

"It almost feels with all the poverty and tragedy . . . that planting a garden almost feels trite," Olson said. "But it's something."

Braised Turnips With Butter and Soy

Makes 4 servings   

1 or 2 bunches young turnips with greens attached, washed

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 clove garlic, minced, plus 2 whole cloves garlic, peeled

1 star anise

1/2 cup thinly sliced leeks, white parts only

Kosher salt

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon dark brown sugar

1. Tear greens into 1-by-2-inch strips and quarter or halve turnips. If the turnips are small, they don't need to be peeled.

2. In a large skillet or wok, melt 1/2 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. Add minced garlic and turnip greens and stir-fry until tender, about 2 minutes. Remove the greens from the wok and set aside.

3. Add another 1/2 tablespoon of butter to the skillet with the star anise, whole garlic cloves, and leeks. Stir-fry for 30 seconds, then add the turnips. Season with salt, stir until coated with butter, and add the stock. Bring to a simmer, partially cover, and cook until the turnips are just tender, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, soy sauce, and brown sugar. Stir and continue cooking at a simmer until the broth has reduced to a thin glaze, 7 to 8 minutes. During the last minutes of cooking, return the greens to the pan to heat through. Adjust the seasoning and serve immediately.

- From Tara Duggan's Root to Stalk Cooking

Per serving: 152 calories; 4 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams sugar; 6 grams fat; 15 milligram cholesterol; 702 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.

Confetti Kale Slaw

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 large firm apple, shredded (1 to 2 cups)

1 cup shredded green or red cabbage

1 cup shredded carrots

1 cup minced celery

1/4 cup minced scallions

3 cups shredded kale

1. Whisk together orange juice, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and black pepper in a large bowl.

2. Prep apple and vegetables; then place them in a bowl as you go. Peel the apple and carrot and shred each on the large-holed side of a hand grater. (To prevent apples from discoloring, toss well with the dressing.) Thinly slice cabbage; cut across the slices every inch. Mince celery and scallions.

3. Rinse kale, shake off excess water, and strip leaves form large stems. Pile leaves on a chopping board and thinly slice, then cut down across the slices, into 1- or 2-inch pieces. Add to bowl and toss well.

4. Serve right away, or refrigerate up to three days.

- Moosewood Restaurant Favorites

(St. Martin's)

Per serving (based on 8): 93 calories; 1 gram protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 6 grams fat; no cholesterol; 101 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.

Roasted Carrot Fries & Dipping Sauce

Makes 3 to 4 servings

1 pound carrots, peeled, trimmed, and cut into pieces 2 to 3 inches long and 3/8-inch wide

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

1. Heat the oven to 475 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a mixing bowl, toss carrots with olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Spread in one layer on sheet pan. Roast until carrots are well browned and tender, tossing once with a spatula, 26 to 28 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes on the sheet pans and sprinkle with salt.

3. While carrots are roasting, combine mayonnaise, lemon zest, mustard, honey, and ginger, and stir well. Let sit for several minutes and then refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve carrots warm with dipping sauce.

- From Susie Middleton's Fresh From the Farm (Taunton)

Per serving (based on 4): 190 calories; 1 gram protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 14 grams fat; 5 milligrams cholesterol; 305 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.



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