Soil Survivor

 The City Paper Sends Out a Reporter to Work the Land: City Paper writer Sam Tremble volunteers at Mill Creek, then sits down to write about it.

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A tangled heap of bikes chained and locked to more bikes marks the entrance to Mill Creek Farm. There's no silo, no tractors, not even a weather vane. The land, about an acre and a half on the 4900 block of Brown, sits next to the houses on the street with no more separation than a chain-link fence lined with fruit trees. I had at least expected some sort of quaint country dirt path, but it's just part of the neighborhood, just like the abandoned lots I rode past on the way over. House. House. Farm! House.

It's about 10:30 on Sunday morning and already there are a dozen volunteers on their knees in the dirt a few vegetable rows over. I lock my bike to the pile and get to work.

The job: Remove the yellow-flowered stalks left behind by already-harvested brussels sprouts, remove weeds and aerate the soil. The stalks are about 3 or 4 feet high, but the roots don't go very deep, so they come out easily with a broad fork. I rip weeds out with my bare hands and smack the dirt from their roots in tiny brown explosions. I keep finding chunks of old bricks, splinters of wood covered in paint and candy wrappers. What else is in here that I can't see? How safe is this soil?

According to co-director Jade Walker, Mill Creek Farm grows on land that lay fallow for about 30 years. There have been no buildings here since the 1960s, when many of them collapsed due to the actual Mill Creek, which runs beneath the land. The Philadelphia Water Department gave Walker and co-director Johanna Rosen a 99-year lease on the land in August 2005, and back then the soil tested negative for heavy metals. Walker says they will conduct more tests this year, sending soil samples to the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Like many small farms, Mill Creek doesn't have actual USDA Organic certification, although they use no pesticides. Mill Creek doesn't even use petroleum — everything is people-powered. They pick insects off leaves by hand, they cover vegetables with blankets that let in light and air but keep out insects. Walker and Rosen spend half their year growing and harvesting, the other half doing paperwork. USDA certification is expensive, time-consuming and, some would say, superfluous.

"There's a lot of time spent keeping up with grants and the bureaucracy of being nonprofit," says Walker. "We want to move away from that."

Luckily, I don't have to worry about any of this — I'm just a volunteer. It's all stab-pull-bash, stab-stab-stab, twist-pull-bash for about half an hour until the row is completely aerated and weed-free, with a large pile of old brussels stalks on either end. I have dirt under my fingernails, on my knees and a little sweat on the ol' brow. Farm work is a good cure for a hangover.

I've always been a disciple of the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" school of toilet-flushing, and here at Mill Creek Farm my urge to conserve feeds the fruit trees rather than grossing out my roommates. There's a composting toilet in the toolshed, along with a small library, which includes classics like The Humanure Book, The Toilet Papers and Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots. After I've made my contribution, rather than flush 4 gallons of water, I dump in a cup of peat moss and sawdust. In about six months there will be fertile soil.

The shed itself is a model for green-building techniques. Seventy volunteers created the walls using cob; the roof is alive, absorbs heat and manages storm water; and the sink area is decorated with a found-object mosaic. Though the gray-water system won't be finished until the end of the year, all of the water is stored in a cistern and will eventually irrigate the field.

Volunteer time is over. Walker has a bunch of freshly picked asparagus peeking out the top of her bag and I ask if I can have a stalk or two for the road. They're huge.

"I swear you could watch it grow," she says.

I leave with a stalk between my teeth as if it's a piece of grass. As I'm riding and chewing, I can't help but notice all of the empty space around me. Not just the empty lots, but the empty roofs, the wasteful sewer systems and grass, so much stupid grass. Mill Creek Farm has no intentions of expanding, but it does intend to be a model. I can't wait until it catches on.

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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.