It Takes a Community to Grow a Farm
By Nic Esposito
When giving a talk or presentation about urban farming, the top two questions I receive from audience members are, “Did you test your soil?” and “How do you make money on an urban farm?” The first question is easy. I answer with a resounding “Yes,” and then give the advice that you should never start growing in an urban area without a toxicity soil test. But the second question takes a bit more time because the answer has evolved so much since both my wife and I started urban farming in Philadelphia.
When I co-founded the organization Philly Rooted with my former farming partner Erica Smith in West Philly, this was one of the first questions we faced when developing the Walnut Hill Community Farm. We built the farm with funding from the City Harvest Growers’ Alliance program developed by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Building off of the wildly successful City Harvest Program where participating city gardeners and farmers are provided resources (soil, seedlings, technical assistance) in return for donating a portion of produce to food banks, the Growers’ Alliance provided the same materials in return for city gardeners and farmers selling food back into the marketplace. Although free is always a better price, the innovation of the Growers’ Alliance program was to serve a portion of the population stable enough to not have to rely on food banks, but low-income enough to not be served by high-end farmers markets or natural food-centric grocery stores, while also adding some financial sustainability to the programs and people growing the food.
When Erica and I joined, the question of making money on an urban farm was in stark focus. We both quickly realized that we did not want to be commercial farmers in Philadelphia. However, we also observed and interacted with the many unemployed young people in the immediate neighborhood. So we amended the question. Rather than ask, “How do you make money on an urban farm?,” we asked, “Who should make money on an urban farm?” And hence, the Philly Rooted Growers’ Cooperative was born. Through this cooperative, we subsidized the farm through the City Harvest Growers’ Alliance resources, our management, and fundraising from a local CDC to provide these young people with the resources to grow and sell food at local markets in an entrepreneurial and cooperative way. Erica and I did this for two seasons before turning it over to the CDC, which continues to run the program.
When my wife Elisa started Emerald Street Urban Farm in 2008, which I now co-manage with her, she was part of the Growers’ Alliance as well (it’s actually partly how we met). And although we shared the same mission of community food and economic security, she approached it in a different way. She and her farming partner at the time Patrick Dunn identified numerous businesses throughout the rapidly revitalizing neighborhood of Fishtown/Kensington where the farm was based. They set up accounts with these businesses to sell produce, reinvesting all sales back into the heavily subsidized weekly market that they ran for their immediate community. When I say “heavily subsidized” I mostly mean free, and when I say “immediate community” I mean a community that, according to the Philly City Paper, is positioned next to one of the largest open-air heroin markets in the entire country.
Although Erica and I, and Patrick and Elisa, are all very proud of what we accomplished at such an early point in our urban farm careers, these programs could not be sustained. Like many farmers, the Philly Rooted cooperative growers faced bad market days, crop failure, and the realities that it’s really hard to make a living growing food. Cooperative members also faced the challenge of winter employment. As for Patrick and Elisa, they dealt with the burnout that comes from having to stay consistent and productive when dealing with restaurants when the farm was their third, and sometimes fourth, job.
Since then, Erica has moved on to become the manager of the Tree Philly program for the city of Philadelphia, and still grows food in West Philly. Patrick is now on the West Coast working on farms. And Elisa and I have continued to run Emerald Street Urban Farm, spending the past few years refining our growing system into a site that now includes expanded communal growing spaces, a community garden with individual plots, a community kitchen space (with a killer cob oven), a community medicinal herb bed, and a greenhouse that is built using Earthship building principles. But we have also refined the question of, “How do you make money on an urban farm?” into “How do you sustain an urban farm?”
As we have both come to understand, making money does not mean making a profit that she and I use to pay our mortgage or get nachos at the awesome Mexican restaurant down the street. We both continue to work full time jobs. The money that we need to make is to sustain the farm as a community food source for our neighbors, as well as sustain the farm as something that we can manage in our daily lives. So we took a lesson from what I believe to be the most sustainable economic model for farming—the CSA.
Since the first American CSAs were developed in Massachusetts in the 1980s, they have grown to be one of the most profitable and secure models for small-scale farmers. Taking these lessons and best practices, we developed what we call our Worker’s CSA. Basically, we open the farm every Monday from 4-8pm right after the commercial workday ends, and we invite our community to come grow with us in our community growing area of the garden. We begin the day with a long list of tasks that need to be done, and we usually end the day by providing all participants each Monday with enough vegetables from the harvest to get them through the week. All other harvested produce is donated to a local soup kitchen around the corner from our house. We also have volunteers who entertain the 10-15 kids who show up every Monday by conducting cooking lessons and what we call “craftivity” hour where kids make everything from animal masks to pinwheels.
This system obviously benefits the farm through the built-in labor force that shows up consistently and helps us grow. But it also benefits the workers because their commitment is low, their experience great, their gardening knowledge is improved, their community has green space and they get to take home veggies. In Urban Roots, the documentary about urban farming in Detroit, one urban farmer interviewee said that he would take 15 people over $15,000 any day of the week.
Although Emerald Street Urban Farm has used community association donations to rebuild the compost system, our community garden water system and have written a grant for a new horticulture inspired fence, those 10-15 people who show up every Monday really make it work. And Elisa and I benefit, too. We have a farm right outside of our house where we can pick fresh veggies for dinner every night. I will also be releasing a collection of essays in November called Kensington Homestead, which was inspired by and made possible by all of the great and crazy stories of life on Emerald Street. But in the end, our neighborhood benefits from a farm that has been able to sustain itself for seven seasons and will for continue to do so for some time to come. And it’s the leveraging of people power that keeps it going.