It may be hard to grasp, in brick-and-concrete Baltimore, that the city now has working farms producing thousands of pounds of produce each year. But on Saturday, urban agriculture advocates had a perfect time and place to get the idea across:
Under blue skies, with a light breeze and temperatures in the 70s, people who came out for the Urban Farm and Food Fair got to see a new blue tractor, red and green tomatoes on the vine, garlic bulbs hanging up to dry by their long, bone-white stalks and a vast landscape of greenhouse buildings.
“The farms are all about trying to get people in the community access to fresh-grown healthy food,” said Maya Kosok, of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, one of the organizers of the event, held at Clifton Park.
The fair was meant to showcase the 12 urban farms in the city that are growing vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, flowers and more. Some are using vacant lots, others rooftop gardens. Civic Works’ Real Food Farm, where the event was held, is on land at Clifton Park, next to the weed-pocked surface of the old tennis courts of the former Lake Clifton Eastern High School.
Along with the produce sales and kids’ sack races there were trucks selling food largely locally sourced from city farms. (Slow Food Baltimore was also a sponsor.)
“No one’s making millions on urban farming,” said Kosok, who received support for the project as an Open Society Institute fellow. “But we’re making a start.”
From Collards to Microgreen Arugula
He explained that micro-greens – plants at the stage just after sprouting, but before becoming baby salad greens – are perfect for agriculture in small urban spaces.
“They’re dense with flavor and nutrition,” he said, “and you can grow them all year-round.”
Blaes sells his micro-green versions of radish, buckwheat, amarynth, kohlrabi, sunflower, cress and other plants directly to area restaurants and hopes they’ll soon be available at groceries and specialty food stores.
People might be more familiar with the products at Boone Street Farm, another exhibitor at the fair.
Aliza Sollins was bundling sprigs of great-smelling oregano, as farm co-founder Cheryl Carmona arranged the piles of tomatoes, basil, garlic and hot peppers.
“What we’re selling is a pasta kit – you put it together with these,” Sollins said, pointing to packets of homemade flour pasta and gnocchi.
In their first season last year, on a plot of vacant land in East Baltimore’s Midway neighborhood, they harvested about 1,000 pounds of produce, including kale, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, collards and peppers.
Boone Street makes use of interns and volunteers – people from area high schools and colleges, as well as the neighborhood. They’ve got a CSA [community supported agriculture] program where, if you sign up for several months, you get to pay $20 a week to get $25 worth of produce. So far, they’ve got four families signed up, Sollins said.
A Community Hub
CSAs are just one of the ways the farms get their products to the people.They also sell their products to the neighborhood at farmers’ markets or at the farmsite and let people volunteer at the farm in return for food. Real Food Farm has a truck and makes deliveries.
Encouraged by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “Homegrown Baltimore” initiative (the mayor came to the fair on Saturday too) the farms have also been partnering with corner stores which are now starting to sell their produce. The Linden Market in Reservoir Hill, for instance, has been selling produce from Whitelock Community Farm.
“Whitelock’s become a real hub of the neighborhood,” Kosok said. “They’ve got this corner store and this regular thing where they sell their produce every Saturday and people really come out for it.”
She explained how the Alliance tries to support all the member farms in a number of ways, including providing a table for them at the Saturday Waverly Farmer’s Market, and letting them take turns using a machine that lets people use their Electronic Benefits Transfer card (the current version of food stamps) to buy produce.
They’ve also bought a refrigeration unit that’s at Real Food Farm, where urban farmers can store their produce.
“The idea is to try and make it easier to run farms in the city by getting together,” Kosok said.
“I Just Love the Idea”
The people who came to the fair got to sample not just produce but honey from bees raised on hives from city bees. The beekeeping demonstration table was a popular place.
Baltimore beekeeping booster Beth Passavant tried to explain some of the special challenges and rules limiting beekeeping in urban places.
City regulations restrict hives to one per 1,500 square feet, for instance, and require the hives to be inaccessible to the general public. “People are so into it, so excited about beekeeping, they think it’s going to easy,” Passavant said.
Lots of fairgoers just came to support the idea and enjoy the day.
“I just love the idea that there’s an amazing amount of food being produced right here in the city,” said Blair Iniss, who brought four friends and said she heard about it “from a flier at Starbucks.”
Ulysses Archie came with his one-year-old son Gavin – a “future farmer” – to pick up some tips.
“I’m happy to see all the interest in farming in Baltimore,” said Archie, a former Real Food Farm volunteer who is volunteering these days in the garden at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. Archie said he’s had success with his small farming operation at his home in Irvington, in Southwest Baltimore and is hoping for more.
“I’ve been selling different kinds of peppers, habaneros, sweet peppers, all kinds,” he said. “There are a lot of people in my neighborhood from Jamaica, Trinidad and Africa and they really like them.”