Discovering the passion (and challenges)
that shape Philadelphia’s urban farms
Photography By Michael Persico & Neal Santos
When Amanda Staples and her husband, Matt McFarland, first visited the half-acre space that would become the Germantown Kitchen Garden, the land was anything but farmable. Abandoned for 35 years, the area was completely overgrown, a tangle of dense vines and brick-and-concrete rubble from a home that had burned down years earlier.
At the time the couple was living in Kensington and looking for their own land to farm. When they first saw the Germantown space, they weren’t impressed. “We were like, ‘Who in their right mind would want to buy this?’” recalls Staples. But after some thought, they decided to take a chance.
Five and half years later, Staples stands among neat rows of lettuce and thriving fruit trees, laughing about their risk. Many months of cleaning up were followed by many more of hand-digging beds and planting seeds. Just off Germantown Avenue, the farm has become a surprising oasis, welcomed by neighbors who eagerly come out to the twice-a-week farmstand. As the farm has developed, so have Staples and McFarland’s roles. After living off savings for a while, McFarland has returned to a full-time job as a software developer—a job he loves—and Staples is running the farm.
As Staples will admit, the financial reality of urban farming in Philadelphia can be harsh. It’s not because the neighborhoods aren’t supportive—community farming has a rich history in the city—and it’s not because young farmers like Staples aren’t willing to work hard. It’s a larger question of building a sustainable lifestyle. One in which urban farmers can grow and sell food, often in communities where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited, while still generating income that can support their work for years to come.
RECRUITING A NEW GENERATION
National statistics on farming paint a disappointing future. The number of U.S. farms is dropping each year, while the average age of farmers is increasing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about 60 percent of farmers in the United States are now 55 years or older. “In terms of programs or initiatives to recruit new farmers, there are difficult or insurmountable obstacles—physically demanding work and, frankly, it’s hard to make a living,” explains Marilyn Anthony, executive director at Lundale Farm in Chester County and former eastern region director for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
While the overall numbers are small for new farmers, Anthony says most are younger than 35—Staples and McFarland included. At Lundale, Anthony is working to make career farming a possibility for these young farmers. The plan is to pair farmers with Lundale land, allowing them to start small businesses without the worry and cost of maintaining a larger property. The only requirement is that they have agriculture experience and a realistic business plan. Often these are farmers who have worked as apprentices or farm managers and are now ready to take on their own space.
While Pennsylvania has hundreds of thousands of acres of preserved farmland, finding suitable space in an urban area like Philadelphia is more of a challenge. Before moving to Germantown, Staples—who had previously worked on a five-acre organic farm in Lancaster—was farming on borrowed land in Kensington.
“People would ask me, ‘Why do you do this if it’s going to get taken away from you?’ Well, because this is what I want to do,” says Staples. “This is how I want to spend my time. So if I can spend my time doing it, even on a property I don’t own, I will. And that’s how plenty of people are doing it.”
SHARING WITH THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Farm 51, named for its location at 51st and Chester, began in 2008 with a chicken and the goodwill of a landlord. The chicken was found in Clark Park around the time Andrew Olson was looking for a new place to live. Olson’s new landlord allowed him to raise chickens, as well as plant gardens in the side and backyards. With support from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Olson—who at the time was working full-time at The Delaware Center for Horticulture—was able to expand into the adjacent vacant lot.
Today, Olson and his partner Neal Santos—a freelance photographer (and Edible Philly contributor)—own half the vacant lot and a house adjacent to the property. What had been overgrown and filled with garbage is now a community hub. Come through during a Thursday farm stand and you’re likely to find a hive of activity—kids playing on the tree swing, parents and children feeding the chickens and rabbit, a couple junior gardeners from the neighborhood running the farm stand (they get to take home some of the sales), and Olson and Santos brightly welcoming anyone into the space that’s become an extension of their home.
“Sometimes when people are knocking at the door for eggs on Saturday morning you don’t feel like having to be on all the time,” says Olson. But he loves seeing people enjoy his backyard and only wishes he had time to organize more formal community outreach.
Olson—who runs Farm 51 largely by himself—now works only three days a week farming flowers in Roxborough. He also manages Farm 51’s second site at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Another 6,000 square feet for growing land-intensive crops like heirloom tomatoes and winter squash, the site is a small piece of the farmland and woods that make up the urban education center.
“Farming is so idealized,” says Olson. “But it’s really hard. You don’t always want to be out here, but you have to be out here. It’s awesome and I love this, but I work 14-hour days.”
FINDING COMMUNITY SUPPORT
For urban farmers like Staples and Olson, outside support can play a crucial role, providing resources and education that might otherwise not be accessible without significant funds.
The Growers Alliance, now run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, is a former USDA program that provides resources specifically to farmers looking to make income from their land. For these entrepreneurial growers—for whom farming typically provides only supplemental income—resources include everything from free seedlings and raised-bed materials to business and marketing help and classes on food safety laws.
“We teach them things like the need to file an F form for taxes so they might be eligible for federal programs that show you have farm income,” says Lisa Mosca, City Harvest community food systems manager. “Things that are mundane, but can have an impact on people who are making marginal amounts of supplemental income.”
Mosca considers Staples and Olson to be some of the Growers Alliance’s most successful farmers. Their farms have become integral to their neighborhoods both as a source of fresh produce and as a place for community partnership.
Unfortunately, their achievements don’t translate into much of a paycheck. Mosca says that they may be eking out a living, but just barely. “Because of the agriculture system, they’re not making the wage I wish they were making.”
“Farming is so idealized,”
“But it’s really hard.
You don’t always want
to be out here, but you
have to be out here.
It’s awesome and
I love this, but I work
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
For the first time, Staples began this year’s growing season with a projection of how much she could make in the next five years. Her plans include building a greenhouse to support propagation and grow seedlings, which are in high demand. She’s also in a horticulture program at the Barnes Foundation, where she’s learning how to grow and produce seeds for other plants that aren’t vegetables, such as perennials, annuals and bulbs.
At Farm 51, most of the profit goes back into the farm. Olson is keenly aware that this isn’t a profit-growing business model, but he’s not in farming for the money. “My goal is to be able to work parttime outside the farm and then actually have a little bit of income from the various things we sell.”
In recognizing this challenge, Anthony suggests that urban farmers think more critically about the return on their investments of time, talent and resources. “One of the things that can happen is to build business planning into their training early on, so farmers are thinking more critically about what they can expect to earn and produce and can avoid costly mistakes.”
While business skills can help in improving profits for urban farms like the Germantown Kitchen Garden and Farm 51, profitability seems only a secondary motivation. And maybe that’s enough for now.
“If I stop loving it as much as I do, then I will probably start taking my time more into account,” says Staples. “Right now I don’t care; this is what I want to be doing,”