Taking Root: A Glimpse at Agriculture in the Inner City


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Taking Root: A Glimpse at Agriculture in the Inner City

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Taking Root: A Glimpse at Agriculture in the Inner City

  1. 1. Taking Root: A Glimpse at Agriculture in the Inner City Erin Rudegeair Did you ever wonder how a city can change so drastically within the span of just afew short blocks? Standing within the limits of University City, the boundaries of theUniversity of Pennsylvania’s campus, it comes as a surprise that only a few blocks awaythere are declining low-income neighborhoods, crumbling abandoned row houses, andlittered, neglected streets. Such an area is commonly labeled a pocket of urban poverty,and despite a myriad of engines of economic growth – two universities, hospitals, charterschools, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Please Touch Museum, Fairmount Park, etc. – povertypersists. This is the region of West Philadelphia, where my research began. As students inthe Philadelphia Field Project: Rethinking Urban Poverty, we looked at the issue ofpoverty with the idea that economic development was not the sole solution. In a way, thisidea is legitimized by the very existence of these pockets of urban poverty whereopportunity exists but poverty persists. The Project brings a small group of undergraduatestudents from The Pennsylvania State University for the purpose of affecting immediatechange within the West Parkside community based on three fundamental goals:improving the quality of life, decreasing the cost of living and creating jobs. My projectfocused on urban agriculture. The remainder of this paper is to be read with theunderstanding that urban farming is not a new concept, it is actively on-going in the citytoday, but it can be improved upon and expanded. The project involved four weeks of research on four urbanfarms: Greensgrow in New Kensington, Weaver’s Way intoMount Airy, The Mill Creek Farm (MCF), and Preston’s Paradise,both located within walking distance of West Parkside. Theobjectives of the farm shape its model, its intended market and itsbusiness style. In order to satisfy the needs of the community andfulfill the goals of the Project a farm must be diversified in itsmarket, its production and its means of distribution. Figure 1: Preston’s Paradise
  2. 2. Rudegeair, 2Where to dig? Despite the openness and insecurity of public spaces, crops are typically notvandalized or disturbed. Ben Reynolds of Sustain London, a leader and advocate forsustainable food security, explained that crops grown in public spaces in London arerarely vandalized because most people do not know what kind of crop it is or that it is acrop at all. With that in mind, we can envision creative places to plant our crops such asroof-top gardens, sidewalks, windowsills, and spaces in between houses. Another option Figure 2: Greensgrow Before (1995) and After (2009)in West Parkside is the enormous Fairmount Park, an area with over 4,000 acres of land ajust a stone’s throw away. Preston’s Paradise (Figure 1) is located in its owners’ backyard. MCF is located on a plot of land where there once stood collapsed, abandonedrowhouses. And Greensgrow (Figure 2) lies on the site of an old galvanized steel plantturning inner-city rubbish into just some of the potential benefits that urban farmingbrings. These farms have turned unused and unsafe plots of land in the city into cleanerstreets and a more beautiful neighborhood while increasing local food supply.Who will do the digging? But who will do all this work? The harsh reality is that without youthinvolvement, sooner rather than later, urban agriculture will die out again. It does not takea high school diploma to plant a garden but farming is a primary industry. As Jade Rosen,a farmer at MCF, explained there is a rich history of farming in the area among Southernblacks and Caribbean island immigrants and Caribbean-Americans. The tradition is notbeing passed down to the younger generations (personal communication, June 2, 2009).One way to get youth involved is through educational tours and programs such as theones that all of the farms I studied have incorporated. Another critical aspect to engage
  3. 3. Rudegeair, 3youth involvement is to make it profitable. That means urban entrepreneurial agriculture.Profits and job creation do not have to be prioritized over the goal of local food securityfor low-income neighborhoods But a well thought out business plan is necessary tobalance the affordability of fresh, local food with the sustainability of urban farms. Butaffordable does not mean free (or almost free). People do not place value on things thatare free and fresh, quality food is definitely something to be valued.So what’s the plan? Whether this is going to be a non-profit or a for-profit venture, it must be treatedlike any other business. First and foremost, the farm’s distribution outlets must bediversified including wholesale distribution to local restaurants and stores, and sellingdirectly to customers via on-site farm stands, farmers markets, and community supportedagriculture (CSA). There is not a lot of familiarity with the CSA model among low-income communities but we could adapt the current CSA models to incorporate a pay asyou go system. People who live paycheck to paycheck cannot afford to pay up front fortheir next five months of food. Production must also be diversified and not just crop production. Value-added goods are a crucial component to business sustainability. Value-added goods can include a multitude of things such as: honey, baked goods, jams, preserves, canned goods, sauces, cheeses, hard candy and seasonal items. In addition to food sales, the farm could include a garden center for gardening tools and equipment. For example, Zack Seidenberg, an Figure 3: Weaver’s Way Farm with Mayor Nutter, City Hall Farmers’ Market undergraduate at Drexel University, explained thechildren’s pizza garden at Weaver’s Way Farm. The children’s garden produces all theingredients and toppings (except the dough and cheese) to make a delicious pizza (e.g.tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, red and green peppers, herbs, etc.). Ideally therewould be an oven constructed at the farm site to demonstrate cooking classes and even let
  4. 4. Rudegeair, 4the kids make their own pizza and watch it rise! (Preston’s Paradise offered a workshopin August on cob oven construction.) Now, in order to sell to a variety of consumers at different locations there mustbe a lot of produce. In order to grow a lot of produce the farming technique must beintensive. In order to implement successful intensive farming techniques the soil must befertile. And in order to have fertile soil, either luck, or a fertile parcel of land is required;time, to implement remediation strategies; or resources, to truck fertile topsoil. Small plotintensive (or SPIN) farming is an excellent technique to maximize production. Inaddition, crop rotation must be implemented to give the soil a rest and to help replenishnutrients. There have been endless farming techniques developed over the years (in allparts of the world) to maximize production. One natural means to keep the soil fertile andits chemical composition in balance is companion gardening (i.e. planting agreeablecrops together) so oats are planted next to peas, rye with clover, and buckwheat withsoya. These crop pairs form symbiotic relationships sustaining each other’s lives (formore on this see Carrots Love Tomatoes and Roses Love Garlic1). Finally, let us to the idea of culturally appropriate food. It should be emphasizedthat this fundamental concept directly impacts the success of the farm. If a farmer growsfor a particular community, he/she must know that community; know what it wants;know what it eats; and most importantly know what it does not eat. All of the farmsstudied incorporated this concept very well but it is something that is never to beforgotten. The documentary The Garden2 is a moving story about the South CentralFarmers in Los Angeles and their fight to save their fourteen acre community garden. Atone point in the documentary, Senator Maxine Waters (D-CA) visits the garden and herfirst question is “Do you guys have collards here?” Naturally, this group of Hispanicfarmers does not grow collards simply because this crop is not a part of their culture. Butgo to West Philadelphia in the summer and you will find collars growing in every gardenyou pass.1 Riotte, Louise. (1998). Carrots Love Tomatoes and Roses Love Garlic: Secrets of Companion Plantingfor Successful Gardening. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, LLC.2 Kennedy, Scott Hamilton. The Garden. USA: Oscillo Scope Laboratories.
  5. 5. Rudegeair, 5So, what’s the problem? There are many criticisms about urban agriculture and the alternative foodmovement. Many of these critiques are noteworthy but it is also important to keep inmind that it is far easier to critique than it is to come up with your own viable solutions.Many say that farmers’ markets are spaces of whiteness. The values pursued by thosewho frequent these markets, mostly white, middle-class Anglo-Americans, are whitevalues that are universal and normalized and as argued by Julie Guthman, associateprofessor of Community Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz (2008).When those “seemingly universal ideals do not resonate, it is assumed that those forwhom they do not resonate must be educated to these ideals or be forever marked asdifferent” (p. 391). It would be absurd to claim that African Americans do not frequentfarmers markets in proportion to white customers because African Americans do notknow the benefits of locally grown food. I would agree with Guthman that there arefundamental structural problems at play rather than perception-related issues. Forexample, where the market is located, what type of clientele the market caters to andhence, what food it sells and at what price. Guthman states that “no space is race neutral”(p. 389) and instead of striving to reach race neutrality, I think we should strive fordiversity because no person is race neutral. Even in West Parkside where the majority ofresidents are African American, there is diversity in their community so there must alsobe diversity in the businesses that cater to that community. In conclusion, it has not been determined if an urban agriculture venture can fullyencompass all three goals (increasing the quality of life, decreasing the cost of living, andcreating jobs in low-income areas). I believe that urban agriculture is an undervaluedcommunity asset, even unheard of by some. Food insecurity is not an issue mostAmericans have to deal with, yet. When we do not value the food we eat, we must askwhy. Despite current trends of increasing inequality, erratic climate change,overpopulation and worse, overconsumption; there is comfort in these four farms, thework they’re doing, and the lives they’re impacting. In the words of Minnie Aumônier,“when the world wearies, and society ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden.”33 Smith, Alisa and J.B. Mackinnon. (2007). Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet. New York:Random House, Inc.
  6. 6. Rudegeair, 6 About the Author Erin Rudegeair is a senior at the Pennsylvania State University with a major inGeography and a minor in Spanish. She has studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina and hadtraveled several times to Honduras with the non-profit organization Global Medical Brigades. Sheis planning to graduate in May of 2010 and hopes to intern with Global Brigades in Honduras orPanama for a minimum of one year before continuing her education in graduate school.
  7. 7. Rudegeair, 7 Works CitedGuthman, Julie. ‘If They Only Knew’: Color Blindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions. The Professional Geographer, 60, 387 – 397.Rosen, Jade, personal communication, 2 June 2009.Reynolds, Ben. “How can we feed Philly?” Urban Sustainability Forum. Philadelphia. 21 May 2009.Seidenberg, Zack, personal communication, May 2009.