Urban Farm Tills the West Phila. Soil

 An Article from the Daily Pennsylvanian by Kathy Wang

 September 23rd, 2008

Mill Creek Farm is not much different from any other farm.

Patches of okra, cherry tomatoes, eggplant and more than 50 other crops rotate with the season. The smell of basil permeates the air, chirping crickets are the closest thing to noise and the greenness of the crops can blind your eyes on a sunny day.

But there's one big difference. Mill Creek is located on just a half-acre of land - in the heart of West Philadelphia.

The phrase "urban farming" seems at first to be somewhat of a contradiction - but it is this idea of a sustainable, green oasis in the middle of a bustling city that lends the practice such popularity among its followers, including those who founded Mill Creek at 49th and Brown streets.

"Urban farming is a great way to supplement city living," said Lisa Merrill, a graduate student in Penn's School of Education who recently discovered Mill Creek.

"You can have a connection with the community and with where your food comes from while still enjoying the advantages of living in an urban environment," she added.

There are four well-known urban farms in Philly: Mill Creek, Greensgrow, Weaver's Way and Flat Rock, in addition to 300 community gardens, down from 500 a decade ago.

Plowing forward

Urban agriculture has a long history from the days of World War II, when "victory gardens" mitigated the pressure of food shortages. The practice is still a niche market in the United States compared to cities like Havana, Cuba, where 90 percent of fresh produce comes from urban farms and gardens according to the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture.

City farmers cite several benefits to urban over industrial agriculture, including the offset of carbon footprints through reuse of resources, the creation of local jobs and the promotion of community interactions.

Indeed, that community connection is evident in the eclectic mix of people who help out at Mill Creek on market days. Most of the farm's labor is provided by local volunteers and co-op workers.

And to those like Urban Studies professor Michael Nairn, the food also tastes better.

According to Nairn, most people participate in urban farming for one of two reasons: "For people in neighborhoods of higher wealth, they come together not out of necessity but out of fun and community building and grow things like heirloom tomatoes that they can't get anywhere else," he said. "In the rest of the city, you're just growing tomatoes out of necessity."

The latter is likely more true for places like Mill Creek. The land that it sits on was vacant for more than 30 yProxy-Connection: keep-alive
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rs, unsuitable for development due to underground waterways. So co-founders Johanna Rosen and Jade Walker wrote the city a proposal to use the land to start an urban farm.

Now in its third growing season, the non-profit farm tries to keep prices affordable by selling items in neighborhood markets for lower prices than those at most farmer's markets. It also sells wholesale to a nearby food co-op and cafes in the area and makes regular donations to local shelters.

Industrial to irrigated

Mill Creek is a testament to the viability of urban farms - plants grow on a living green roof with solar panels, and not only is there a compost pile but also a compost toilet. Instead of signs warning visitors of dogs, a handmade "BEE Careful" sign greets visitors upon nearing the three beehives, which produce dozens of pounds of honey a year.

For Rosen, the farm's main goals are to improve access in the community to healthy and fresh produce and to educate the community about urban agriculture.

Mary Seton-Corboy, a "home-grown superstar" and cancer survivor, operated on similar principles when she opened Greensgrow Farms with partner Tom Sereduk after growing hydroponic lettuce - without soil - and selling it from the back of a truck.

"We were looking for a way to grow high-quality food closest to the end market as possible," said Corboy, who operates on the "KISS" rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

What they found was a one-acre plot on what was formerly a galvanized steel plant, with a monthly rent of $150, which they still pay to this day. The farm, now in its 10th year, generated a revenue of $450,000 last year and has garnered publicity from The New York Times and ABC News.

"We're still trying to convince people that creating a working green space like this is a good idea," said Corboy, who added that urban farms provide cheaper options to low-income neighborhoods like Kensington, where Greensgrow is located.

"We're closing the loop - we make our own fuel, compost our own waste, raise bees and make our own honey. This is something that didn't cost $10 million to do and that people can do in their own communities," said Corboy.

Sowing local seeds

"A lot of students don't see this - I really didn't know about urban farming until I did the PennGreen pre-orientation program," said College sophomore Sarah Kounaves, a member of the Penn Environmental Group. The club, which piloted PennGreen this summer, included a hands-on tour of Mill Creek in its itinerary.

"For a lot of students who want to get involved in Philly, urban farms are a great way to see what's actually going on, especially on a nutritional level because there's such a great disparity socio-economically," she added.

Kounaves also works with the Urban Nutrition Initiative through Penn's Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which runs outreach programs at Philly high schools teaching urban agriculture and has a relationship with Mill Creek.

"It's important for communities to have greater control over their sources of food, especially in an era like today when food is costing more and more," said Urban Studies professor Domenic Vitiello, who teaches several courses on community development and urban planning.

He added that Penn actually owns two farms: one at the Veterinary School's second campus in Cheshire County and another attached to the Morris Arboretum in northwest Philly.

Vitiello is currently working with Mayor Michael Nutter to figure out how the city can support more urban agriculture and to connect urban farms with industrial ones.

Both Mill Creek and Greensgrow offer a myriad of opportunities for those interested, from tours and volunteer opportunities to longer-term internships. Open to the public from early spring through fall, both have also hosted field trips from Penn classes, including those of Vitiello.

"Their future is kind of uncertain - communities have to be really involved to maintain them," said Kounaves.

Penn seems to have caught on to the movement. The 2007 Penn Reading Project book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, centers around the question of our food's origins.

Several student groups, including PEG and FarmEcology, are also involved in urban agriculture, and Nairn advocates for food demonstration projects on campus, such as illustrating how a farm runs.

Penn Dining does not currently obtain any of its food directly from urban farms, though it does work with various organizations centered on local foods such as UNI and several farmer's markets, according to Business Services spokeswoman Barbara Lea-Kruger.

There are also an abundance of online sources, including Farmadelphia and cityfarmer.org, as well as local markets like Wednesday's farmer's market on 36th and Walnut streets and weekly markets in Clark Park. White Dog Café also receives about five percent of its produce from Greensgrow and other farms.

"Your college experience should not be devoid of the area you're living in," said Merill. "There's a lot to learn when you leave campus."

Upcoming Events

Mill Creek Farm is an educational urban farm located in West Philadelphia that is dedicated to improving local access to fresh produce, building a healthy community and environment, and promoting a just and sustainable food system.

All charitable donations are tax-deductible. The Mill Creek Farm is a program of A Little Taste of Everything, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.