New farms to take root in Baltimore

Officials aim to turn over 10 vacant acres to farmers

April 20, 2011|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

On a bright spring afternoon, Denzel Mitchell tugs clumps of purple-flowered chickweed from tidy rows of spinach. An earthworm wriggles through clumps of dark, crumbling soil under his fingers.

His business partner, Michael Singleton, stoops over a bed of pansies nearby, plucking the bright blossoms to take to a bakery.

While the local food movement has spurred the growth of small farms across the state, Mitchell's Five Seeds Farm is in an unlikely spot: a corner lot in the Belair-Edison neighborhood of Baltimore.

"Most people [in the neighborhood] either find it extremely strange or very exciting," said Mitchell, 35, who supplies produce to Woodberry Kitchen, Clementine and other Baltimore restaurants.

Baltimore officials are working to make urban farming more familiar to the city. Baltimore's food czar, the health department and the Office of Sustainability hope to turn 10 acres of city-owned vacant lots into farmland. They now are seeking farmers to tend the plots.

The officials hope that urban farms like Mitchell's will foster healthful eating habits in neighborhoods where liquor stores and fast-food restaurants far outnumber grocery stores. And they believe that the process of transforming trash-strewn lots into beds of nourishing produce will provide uplift to blighted communities.

"In some of our neighborhoods, before you can start talking about redevelopment, you need to improve the social structure," said Beth Strommen, the city's sustainability director. "Farms are a wonderful way to do it."

Holly Freishtat, the city's food policy director, said many gardeners have expressed an interest in growing produce in the city.

"We're starting to see more and more people who started with community gardens and said they wanted to start a farm," said Freishtat.

Officials will accept applications until early next month from those who would like to cultivate city plots. They say the potential farmers should demonstrate knowledge of the practical and business aspects of managing an agricultural operation.

Officials have not announced the location of the 10 one-acre plots yet, but say they have identified as many as 40 acres that eventually could be farmed.

Freishtat said the farms would be near the city's "food deserts" — urban expanses bereft of stores that sell produce and other healthful foods. Eventually, she said, the farmers could sell their crops at new farmers' markets in these areas.

The concept of urban farming has gained traction nationally over the past decade. More consumers are demanding fresh food that is raised by farmers they know, not trucked in from farms hundreds or thousands of miles away.

San Francisco, Boston and Detroit all have implemented plans to encourage farming within city boundaries. Detroit officials have given vast plots of vacant land to farmers. Websites and lectures are devoted to the challenges of teasing plants from urban soil. And "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer," Novella Carpenter's 2009 book about raising turkeys and pigs on a vacant lot near a freeway in Oakland, Calif., became a best-seller.

Several farms have sprung up in the city in the past couple of years, including the Whitelock Community Farm in Reservoir Hill and the Free Farm in Hampden.

Big City Farms, backed by Brian LeGette, the entrepreneur behind 180s ear warmers, is raising lettuce and microgreens in hoop-shaped greenhouses near a former public works garage on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. The first crops are being sold at Whole Foods in Mount Washington and Eddie's of Mount Vernon, among other spots.

The granddaddy of Baltimore's urban farms is Real Food Farm on the campus of the former Lake Clifton High School. Students at the schools that now occupy the Lake Clifton building help farmer Tyler Brown cultivate radishes, kale, collard greens and other produce that is sold at a farmers' market in Belair-Edison.

"We've had a lot of excitement over the fact that there's fresh healthy food in the neighborhood that comes from the neighborhood," said Brown, who began growing berries this year at the request of customers.

The farm, which is run by the Civic Works nonprofit group, will host an urban farming seminar Saturday, with lessons on growing micro greens and setting up an irrigation system, among other topics.

"Being the biggest farm in Baltimore for a year and a half, we've seen a lot of people come through who have an interest in urban farming," said Brown.

On most of the city's plots, Freishtat said, farmers are likely to take a cue from Real Food Farm and heap new soil over cloth barriers and avoid soil that could be laced with contaminants.

They will not be allowed to cultivate bees and chickens in the first year, Strommen said, but both might be allowed in subsequent years. About 30 city residents currently have permits to keep chickens, she said.

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