Turning city dwellers into farmers

Published on: November 21, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 21, 2022 9:35 AM EST

Digging in the dirt and strolling through the flowers on the farm where she’s an apprentice reminds Stephanie Thornton of her grandfather. He once worked in a nursery and would let her ride with him on a lawnmower.

The Baltimore native, who wants to own a homestead farm one day, learned some strategy and got hands-on experience on how to reach that dream through the “Black Butterfly Urban Farmer Academy,” a program offered through the Farm Alliance of Baltimore.

“Farming shows people how to nurture the land and give back,” Thornton said.

The alliance hopes to be able to teach more aspiring growers and farmers like Thornton on its newly leased 6-acre site in Farring-Baybrook Park. The nonprofit recently signed a five-year lease (with the option to renew for two more five-year terms) with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks to operate a teaching and demonstration farm. It’s the only property the parks department is leasing as a farm, said Tierra Brown, chief of marketing communications.

Sandwiched between a neighborhood of single-family homes and CSX Field near Curtis Bay and Brooklyn, the space comes available at a time when farmland nationwide is diminishing, replaced by commercial and real estate developments. Farmers and growers have also faced financial constraints and limited resources when trying to retain land in some cases.

The alliance is part of a growing movement to bring urban agriculture to communities in Baltimore.

Between 2001 and 2016, the nation lost, or watched become unusable, 2,000 acres of farmland and ranchland every day, according to research by the American Farmland Trust. A study from the University of Massachusetts-Boston estimated that Black farmers in the U.S. lost $326 billion worth of acreage in the 20th century.

“We’ve seen community farmers lose their land once it becomes attractive to a prospective developer,” said Mariya Strauss, co-executive director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, who focuses on development and advocacy for the nonprofit.

The membership organization of gardens, farms and individual growers is using the property to train new growers and farmers, provide youth programming and incubate new farm businesses. They also produce food and cut flowers to give away or sell at a reduced rate to members, restaurants and other retailers, or at the 32nd Street Farmers Market. The site is also expected to demonstrate different agricultural processes, including use of a tool to grow certain agriculture earlier despite the weather, producing different grains and keeping beehives.

Denzel Mitchell, the co-executive director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, said the idea of agriculture as a profession is getting more popular. With the industrialization of farming, he said, the relationship between humans, the planet and the food it can produce is blurred. Teachings from the alliance’s programming, he said, can help increase understanding about the food system. Mitchell, 46, has been farming in Baltimore for over 10 years and once operated a farm called Five Seeds Farm with family and volunteers.

Elizabeth Main, associate director for the Office of Sustainability at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said people are disconnected to the food that they eat. Many people are unaware where their food comes from or what it takes to produce it. Urban farms, she said, can teach people about growing food at the community level and provide produce to areas experiencing food apartheid.

“One urban farm isn’t going to feed an entire community, but the more farms there are, the impacts can multiply,” Main said.

Urban farms also help combat the heat island effect, she said, especially in the summer, when certain areas experience higher levels of heat because of “unnatural landscapes” of streets and buildings.

The alliance is also focusing on neighborhoods with large Black populations as part of its “Black Butterfly Urban Farmer Academy,” echoing professor and activist Lawrence Brown’s term for the pattern of the city’s segregation by neighborhoods.

“We recognize that those two sections, far east far west, tend to be the sections of the city that get the least amount of resources, least amount of support, and least amount of opportunities,” Mitchell said.

Leslie Evans, an academy trainee, said the program taught her that you can build a farm in places she hadn’t thought about before — as long as there is vacant land.

“If you have the land and people willing to do the farm life, then every neighborhood should have a farm,” Evans said. She wants to retire in Baltimore and run a fiber farm, which raises animals for their fleece.

More than 75 community and school gardens and nearly 30 urban farms exist in Baltimore, according to the Baltimore Office of Sustainability. And at least 120,000 pounds of food a year is produced from urban agriculture. The Farm Alliance of Baltimore grew 1,400 pounds of sweet potatoes in their last harvest, Mitchell said.

Outside of ownership, agreements like leases or land trusts can help urban farms and other greenspaces ensure a level of certainty that they have land.

Myeasha Taylor, who handles farm education and production management for the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, said she really wants to ensure that the lease remains on the property for years to come. Taylor experienced land insecurity while working with Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden, which was served an evicted order by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City last year and had to relocate. The city said the land was occupied without permission, according to Baltimore Magazine. The housing authority had plans to build affordable housing on the property.

There have been more opportunities for urban agriculture in Baltimore in recent years.

Since 2013, the city has leased city-owned land to farmers in five-year increments, according to the Office of Sustainability. But a new opportunity recently emerged giving people the option to not only lease, but own.

In partnership with the Department of Planning, the Department of Housing and Community Development released the city’s first request for proposals specifically for urban agriculture in September. Four city-owned sites in Rosemont East, Ten Hills, Central Park Heights and Broadway East are available for either lease or sale for new urban agriculture projects.

“Baltimore is joining many cities across the nation that are seeing growth in urban agriculture. It can generate economic development and foster community engagement,” said Teresa Stephens, a director of neighborhood development and outreach.

The city, according to the Office of Sustainability, has also transferred ownership of several community gardens and two urban farms to Baltimore Green Space, an environmental land trust. It acquires community-managed spaces, sometimes facing threat of development, and provides support for those who take care of the properties. The nonprofit is on a mission to preserve existing community-managed open spaces, advocate for the needs of greenspace leaders and teach people how to care for community forests, according to executive director Katie Lautar.

Thanks to the land trust, Oliver Community Farm in East Baltimore and Hidden Harvest Farm in Station North, also members of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, will be off the real-estate market in perpetuity or until the foreseeable future.

“It’s a way of honoring the commitment of the community and ensuring that the people who created it are the people that continue to benefit from it,” Lautar said.

Liz Lamb, a community farming program manager with The 6th Branch, a veteran-led nonprofit, agrees with the importance of preserving community gardens and farms, which often supply pounds of food to neighborhoods that have limited access to grocery stores. The nonprofit partners with community leaders and neighborhoods to revitalize green spaces. Oliver Community Farm was one of their collaborated projects, and joining the land trust, she said, will continue to let it thrive.

“For us, entering Baltimore Green Space land trust secures our own peace of mind and it’s for the community to know they will continue to have the space. It emboldens people to continue their work and develop their area,” Lamb said.

With a headquarters of sorts in Farring-Baybrook Park, the Farm Alliance of Baltimore has grown garlic, sweet potatoes, fish peppers, onions and more. Mitchell pointed to an area of the farm where a couple of cornstalks stood on the border of a field. He envisions a portion of the farm with rows of fruit trees and a site where people take their new growing and farming skills back to their communities.

“You can produce food for yourself and the community, which in itself is an act of resistance,” Mitchell said.