Intensive Learning and Gardening at Co-op’s Urban Farm

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Walking down the rows of raised beds, blanketed now with cover crops and a light morning frost, it’s hard to believe that just a few weeks earlier the Weavers Way Farm was bustling with volunteers weeding and harvesting, school children learning about where food really comes from, tours of local dignitaries, and even the occasional co-op social function. Although a far cry from the bushel upon bushel of tomatoes, squash, basil, and other produce it brought forth over the summer, the farm is still producing lettuce, bok choy, and plenty of root vegetables well into November.

The late crops are inching up this year’s harvest, with a value approaching $50,000. Another thing that’s hard to believe is that this rustic scene is inside the city of Philadelphia, just a mile and half from Weavers Way Co-op, where most of this farm’s bounty is sold.

Weavers Way’s Mort Brooks Memorial Farm was started in 2000, inspired by Norma Brooks and named for her husband, a pivotal figure in the early years of Weavers Way who had died the year before. The seed money for the farm came from donations given in Mort’s memory.

Located in Awbury Arboretum on land that hadn’t been farmed in over 50 years, the farm began as little more than a garden patch, tended by volunteers and intended as a place to learn about organic gardening, a place where kids and others could get their hands dirty and connect with their food. Led by Norma Brooks, those volunteers embraced their garden, and over the next few years it grew, expanding in size and in scope.

By 2005 the farm was already popular with local school children, including many who volunteered over the summer, and the annual Propagation Party -- where each year’s seeds were started -- was a popular event. As the farm’s production increased, Weavers Way produce manager Jean Mackenzie worked with part-time farm coordinator Emily Neuman to integrate the harvest into the product line at the store. The produce was hugely popular-organically grown less than two miles away and sold just a few hours after harvest-but the supply was meager and so inconsistent that many said it was almost more hassle than it was worth (one exception was Jean, who said unequivocally it was more hassle than it was worth).

But while the farm had previously been appreciated in large part for the organic methods it employed and advocated, a new ethic was gaining increasing prominence at Weavers Way and across the country: Buy Local. Weavers Way had already been locally sourcing as much of its product as possible, including much of its produce. But wouldn’t it be great to grow our own produce in our own neighborhood?

From novelty to the next level

The farm was at a crossroads, and Weavers Way general manager Glenn Bergman was faced with a decision: Should the farm remain a charming and valued novelty, or could it move to the next level?

In fall 2006, Weavers Way purchasing manager Norman Weiss and Emily Neuman visited Somerton Tanks, an urban farm located on land owned by the Philadelphia Water Department and an innovator in the SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) Farming method. SPIN Farming uses labor-intensive, low-capital, mostly organic farming methods to reap huge harvests from small urban plots. In its fourth year of SPIN farming, Somerton Tanks had gross sales of over $68,000, all from a single half-acre plot.

Norman and Emily were impressed, and after they reported back to Bergman, he knew which direction the Weavers Way Farm should take. Not long after, Bergman met with representatives from Awbury Arboretum and added another half acre to the quarter acre already in use. In January 2007, Weavers Way hired a farmer -- Dave Zelov, a horticulturalist with a degree in natural resource management and ecology and a variety of relevant experience that included running a series of rooftop gardens in New York City.

Long before the first seed of the 2007 growing season was planted, Zelov was hard at work ordering seeds, procuring tools and supplies, finding greenhouse space, and developing a crop plan. He also put together a budget that included a small amount of money for a part-time helper. This help came in the form of David Siller, already a member of the farm committee. While Siller’s job was limited to his direct work on the farm, he took it on himself to greatly expand the farm’s educational mission, working tirelessly on his own time -- leading tours, reaching out to schools, creating education programs, and hosting hundreds of students from over twenty local schools.

With the help of workers from Awbury Arboretum and dozens of volunteers-and many generous donations of tools and equipment-Zelov and Siller worked hard over the next two months, removing stumps and brush and preparing the new plot for planting.

The annual propagation party took place as scheduled on a snowy Sunday in March. By then there were already 10,000 seedlings started in a greenhouse at nearby Wyncote Academy, where student volunteers helped Zelov tend and nurture them.

In late March, the planting began -- radishes and peas directly into the soil, followed by transplants of lettuce, bok choy, beets, and scallions. The activity kicked up a notch in April with broccoli and kohlrabi, then beans and squash, and in early May came tomatoes, peppers, and the rest of the warm season crops. At the same time, Zelov and company were weeding, preparing raised beds, laying irrigation lines, and gradually transforming the cleared land into farmland.

As word got out, the farm began attracting more and more volunteers, some who wanted to learn and practice farming techniques, some who just wanted to get their hands dirty, and even some like Brandon, 13, who used the farm as a shortcut until curiosity got the better of them and he had to ask, “What’s going on in this place?” Brandon became a fixture at the farm, volunteering every day after school. Other volunteers included Jennie Love, who worked every Saturday to help out at the co-op’s farmstand at Headhouse Square in Center City and who even started a blog (straightfromthefarm.wordpress.com) with updates, photos, recipes, and other info on many of the items grown on the farm.

The farm attracted attention elsewhere as well, including visitors from colleges and community groups and coverage in the local press. Unfortunately, it attracted other attention as well. Urban farms face many of the same pests as their rural counterparts, but they face additional pests as well. The farm endured several setbacks from theft and vandalism, but by June all the tools were locked in a steel shipping container purchased by the co-op. The occasional smashed watermelon remained an unfortunate cost of doing business.

Midsummer was a busy time. The farm was an almost constant buzz of activity producing bushels a day, all of it snapped up by happy shoppers within a couple hours of hitting the shelves. Soon, the farm encountered a wonderful problem: it was producing more product than Weavers Way could sell. Soon produce from the Weavers Way Farm was being sold at two farmers markets, a handful of local restaurants, and at Mariposa Co-op in West Philadelphia. Weavers Way also created a nonprofit organization to help to oversee farm educational activities and the co-op’s other community programs and to obtain grant money to expand them.

Among the many highpoints of the summer was the dedication of a sign and a bench with a plaque honoring Norma Brooks for her vision, her tenacity, and her hard work in getting the farm started. Norma had not been well, and there was some concern she might not be able to attend, but on that day she was glowing. It was a perfect day for the event, a breezy, sunny July afternoon with close to seventy friends and well-wishers sharing stories about Norma and how the farm came to be.

On September 17, 2007, as the summer crops were beginning to slow and the fall crops were coming on strong, Norma Brooks died. That very sad news was tempered by what she left behind. In addition to a long, full life as an activist for peace, education, and women’s health, Norma left behind this wonderful farm that had already touched so many lives and will continue to do so into the future.

While the growing season won’t end until the last carrots and sunchokes are dug up in January, work is already beginning on next season. Plans include increased cooperation with local food groups, increased funding and expansion of Siller’s educational programs, an expanded intern program, and possibly a greenhouse and hoophouse to extend the growing season. Planting time is almost here!

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Jon McGoran is communications director at Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia and writes under the name D. H. Dublin ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #134 Jan - Feb - 2008