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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Philadelphia urban farm grows roots in old industrial neighborhood

Cassandra West

PHILADELPHIA — Farming in the city isn’t always a viable business model, those who attempt it will admit. Sometimes, though, an urban farmer gets it right—growing not only good, fresh food but building strong community ties along the way. That’s what Greensgrow Farm has done since opening a dozen years ago in one of this city's oldest industrial neighborhoods.

Greensgrow started as a wholesale supplier of hydroponically grown salad greens to restaurants and as it has evolved “we’ve gone with the flow,” says Mary Steton Corboy, chief farm hand and co-founder. The original idea, she adds, grew from asking, “How can you grow on land deemed unusable and have a market for what it is you [are] selling?”

Greensgrow took root on an EPA brownfield site, where a former galvanized steel plant once stood, proving that abandoned industrial land can be reclaimed and turned into a productive, thriving enterprise. Today the verdant three-acre urban farm includes a retail nursery, farmers’ market and a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Vegetables are grown in a 6,000-square-feet heated greenhouse and in raised beds with “French drains” and irrigation lines, and recently a green roof was added to the farm’s compost toilet.

“What we’re trying to do is test the viability of urban agriculture and the concept,” Corboy told members of a tour group in town for the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders Forum, June 15-18. Part of the tour included lunch made from food produced at the farm — zucchini, squash, arugula, mixed greens, kale and strawberries.

Bringing agriculture to an old industrial area populated with a high dropout rate and unemployment hasn’t been a walk in the park. When Greensgrow first arrived in the neighbor locals call Fishtown, it had “no interaction with people in the community,” Corboy said. “Then we started selling flowers and that opened the door to the community,” with people stopping by to ask questions about Greensgrow’s food.

As the community connection strengthened, Greensgrow reached out more to its neighbors, educating them about food and giving them a voice in food production issues— what gets grown, whether or not pesticides, antibiotics or hormones are used in production.

More recently, the farm started a low-income CSA, Corboy said. Participants, who must be eligible for food stamps, can use their stamps to pay for their CSA share. “The point with this low-income CSA is that we recognize completely who our market is, and we want to have deeper roots in our community. We want to get the people around us who really need the access to know that they have the access.”

A cooking class and trips to farmers’ markets will be offered along with a CSA share, said Corboy, who is also a chef. “Our goal is that every single thing that is cooked in the cooking class has to be something that can be purchased in our Zip Code.”

Learn more about Greensgrow.