Excerpt from Chapter 3-Philadelphia: A Holy Experiment
Philly Eats What Philly Grows
So far we‚??ve been talking about gardeners, but Philly is also home to thousands of farmers who would rather plant a tomato plant or a handful of carrot seeds than a flower or a tree. Most do this as a hobby; for others it‚??s a living, and a tough one at that. Farming is hard enough in the countryside, where you have open space, fresh air, and camaraderie of fellow farmers. Imagine growing food in the soil of downtown Philly, where you stand out like sore green thumb and everyone thinks you‚??re nuts.
That‚??s pretty much Mary Seton Corboy‚??s life. On Saint Patrick‚??s Day, 1997, she started working a sizable plot of land in the Philly neighborhood of Kensington that was formerly the site of a galvanized steel plant. Mary doesn‚??t pull any punches. When she talks about that period in Philly‚??s history, she looks like she‚??s about to pick a fight.
‚??At one point in American history industry was the salvation of this neighborhood,‚?Ě she says. ‚??Nobody saw the long-term downside of industry. All they saw was that it gave them jobs and put bread and butter and beer on their table and, but the long term effects of it was complete decimation of this neighborhood. I mean utter decimation of this neighborhood. The captains of industry are long gone, and the grandchildren of the people who built the captains of industry are still living here and are still struggling.‚?Ě
The land here was so badly contaminated that it qualified for federal Superfund money to clean it up. Ordinarily, you would not grow conventional crops in land like this, even now. But Mary did not want to run a conventional farm. She thought she could grow crops hydroponically, in specially formulated water, where the roots of the plants could suck up their nutrition without the need for soil.
It‚??s been tough. Very tough. Ask Mary if her farm is an Eden, Lost and Found, and she quips, ‚??It remains to be seen if I‚??m Eve.‚?Ě
‚??I didn‚??t come up with the idea of farming on a brown field,‚?Ě she says. ‚??I recognized early on that the land that was available wasn‚??t going to be everything that I hoped it would be, so I spent some time working on developing a hydroponic system that I thought would really work in the city. Why an urban farm? I live in the city and I didn‚??t want to live in New Jersey, I didn‚??t want to live in a rural area. I wanted to live in a city and I wanted to pursue a green business, producing food for restaurants. At one point I had been a chef and so I knew that restaurants, even in the middle of the season, the Pennsylvania growing season, weren‚??t getting Pennsylvania produce so one thing sort of led to another.‚?Ě
It‚??s one of the weird things about our supercharged industrial society that the food we eat has been shipped, trucked or flown in from another part of the nation or globe before reaching our plate. Most of us can accept this in the depths of winter. If you want to eat a tomato in December, you must make your peace with the fact that the little round orb either came out of a hothouse or was flown in from a warmer clime, be it Florida, California, or South America. But why is that we‚??re still eating that hothouse tomato in July, when all U.S. states should be able to produce their own? Why, when apples are being freshly picked in the orchards around Philadelphia are local supermarkets stocking Granny Smiths flown in from Washington state? Probably because it‚??s still weirdly cheaper and more efficient than buying local.
The organic foods movement has sought to correct this strange economy by emphasizing local grown produce. ‚??Buying food from local farmers has a huge impact on the region,‚?Ě explains Judy Wicks, a restaurateur and activist who runs Philly‚??s now-famous White Dog Caf√©, a remarkable eatery on Sansom Street that serves up music, ideas, and a dash of politics with its delicious fare. ‚??First of all, it supports the small family farms that have been going out of business at a frightening rate and selling out to developers. So by making being a small farmer economically viable we‚??re saving farmland from developers and keeping the family on the farm.‚?Ě
When Mary first started Greensgrow, she thought the local residents would just quietly accept her, although she expected they might think that what she was attempting would seem outrageous to many. What she didn‚??t count on was how quickly she would become attached to the community.
‚??When I started it was just about growing lettuce and selling it to restaurants in Center City. When you work outdoors like I do, you see the world of Kensington pass you by every single day. A lot of people still walk here. They walk to the store, they walk to visit each other, they sit on their stoops, they hang out of their windows and so you hear this whole life that‚??s going on around you. Quite honestly, it wasn‚??t a life that I was familiar with.‚?Ě
Over time, Mary stopped growing exclusively for restaurants and starting growing for her farm stand, selling her food and plants directly to her neighbors. Along the way, she was able explain to people about the importance of eating local, about the place of organic food in their diets, and ultimately, why she has chosen such a difficult way of making a living.
‚??I would like to think that we‚??re an important part of the neighborhood,‚?Ě she says. ‚??Our goal is to both educate people about food and to provide access to the food, the highest quality food for them and the same is true for our nursery in the spring. I think it‚??s important that people, particular in this kind of cement environment, have access to beautiful living things. So we pride ourselves on the fact that we provide really high quality locally grown plants.‚?Ě
Mary now has a great deal of affection for her adopted city. ‚??I say it‚??s a city that loves you back, but hates itself. I‚??m not a native Philadelphian, I moved here and so most of my friends are people who moved here. I think that we as a group are much more optimistic about Philadelphia than native Philadelphians. Maybe that‚??s the case everywhere. I‚??m from Washington D.C. which has had certainly had its problems, but they were different problems. There was no industry there, so D.C. didn‚??t lose manufacturing jobs and there was none of this decimation of neighborhoods. But Philadelphia has all of the resources to be a really, really great city. It has still the buoyancy and the elasticity, I hope, to come back. If you can play some role, however miniscule, in making it be all that it can be, then you‚??ve done your job.‚?Ě
Some days, though, Mary is not even sure if she‚??ll be able to live up to that promise. ‚??If I had had any indication at all of how not easy it was gonna be,‚?Ě she says, ‚??The truth is I wouldn‚??t have gotten started. It‚??s interesting: people say you‚??re a pioneer. Now you‚??re a pioneer, initially you‚??re just a nut case. I don‚??t think that I was really cut out to be a pioneer. After a couple of years where things didn‚??t always go exactly the way I wanted it, I really could have just dug my heels in at that point. Now it‚??s pure obstinacy that keeps me here. It has nothing to do with optimism or belief or anything else. I‚??m just, determined I‚??m gonna beat this thing. I don‚??t care what it takes.‚?Ě
Stat: The White Dog Caf√© is the first business in Pennsylvania to have 100% of its electricity come from windmills.