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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Abandoned Lot Turned Urban Farm in Philadelphia Brings Fresh Food to Where Its Needed

December 11, 2012 |

The nursery at Greensgrow Farms. Photo: Greensgrow Farms.

Fifteen years ago, before the modern urban agriculture movement really got going, Mary Seton Corboy and Tom Sereduk found themselves in the Kensington area of Philadelphia, starting a farm in the abandoned lot of a former galvanized steel plant. When they began looking for a property for their farm in 1997, they soon realized that what was mostly available was rundown industrial space. They ran with it.

When they first discovered the property, it was abandoned space; now it is the site of Greensgrow Farms, an initiative of the Greensgrow Philadelphia Project, which helps to develop green businesses, while filling abandoned spaces and revitalizing its neighborhood. “We are structured as a non-profit organization. Greensgrow Farms is our major project, and here we run a nursery, farm stand and CSA throughout the year. Our non-profit arm looks at ways to bring fresh produce into underserved neighborhoods, with the hope of eventually creating small businesses,” says Mary Seton Corboy, founder and Chief Farm Hand at Greensgrow Farms. “Our mission remains creating better urban life through the reuse of abandoned land and or underutilized buildings.”

Greensgrow Farms. Photo Credit: Greensgrow Farms.

Growing their produce hydroponically or in raised beds on one acre, Greensgrow Farms provides produce, plants and farm goods to its local community through a farm stand, nursery and CSA (City Supported Agriculture). Local community members can purchase vegetables, fruit, artisan cheeses, hormone-free meat, eggs and bread through Greensgrow’s farm stand; bedding plants, perennials, vegetable starts and hanging baskets at its nursery; and vegetables, fruit, local meat, cheeses and dairy within a weekly CSA box. About 85 percent of Greensgrow Philadelphia’s budget comes from the income earned at the farm. “We do also accept donations and when we are working on a new program, we may seek grant funding to launch,” Corboy explains.

A sort of seasoned rock star in the urban agriculture world, Corboy has quite a bit of experience and credentials to go along with her energy for farming. In addition to founding Greensgrow Farms, she is founder of the Neighborhood Urban Agriculture Coalition (NUAC), co-founder of the Farmers Market Alliance and was listed on Organic Styles magazine’s top 50 “Environmental Power List” in 2004.

With years of experience farming and watching the changing climate of urban agriculture over the years, Corboy believes that urban farming is not a cure-all and its value has yet to be determined. But, she feels that seeking out unused urban spaces is the way to do it. “People who look to urban farming, hoping to replicate rural farming, are going in the wrong direction, in my opinion,” Corboy explains. “Urban farming should be low capital utilization of land that no one else wants, and should be placed in specific locations to take advantage of market size. It should be looking forward not backwards and should be looking to meet the demands of its neighborhood community. It must find a way to be integrated into communities, not stick out like a sore thumb.”

And for Corboy, Greensgrow Farms’ mission ultimately comes down to serving its local community. After all, the farm’s tagline is “Growers of food, flowers and neighborhoods”. Over the last few years, for example, the farm began reaching out to low-income households. With its Local Initiative for Food Education (LIFE) program, Greensgrow Farms offers a food share, as well as cooking and nutrition classes for SNAP recipients and their households.

Urban agriculture was not always in Corboy’s plans. Growing up, she followed a somewhat traditional educational path, until she woke up to a different dream. “I majored in English because I knew I needed to be forced to read stuff I wouldn’t read on my own, and Political Science because my dad was in the State Department and he wanted me to do that,” Corboy reflects. “Then one day, I realized I had zero interest. So, I became a chef, which was fairly counter culture for a woman 30 years ago.”

The rest is history, she says. She fell in love with food, and that is what she has surrounded herself with ever since. And, much like other farmers, running a farm means that Corboy has a lot on her plate. When asked what keeps her up at night, she quipped, “Everything. In the winter, I worry about plants in the greenhouse and water lines, and in the summer I worry about water in the beds. Payroll and insurance and staff and bugs and fire and where the hell the money is going to come from.”

For all the stressors, and at times worries, that come along with urban farming, Corboy still revels in the delights and social contributions that come with participating in agriculture. For her, farming is a gift. “In farming, every day brings something new. One day [you have] a seed, one day a plant, and then a fruit, and then your meal, and you helped it along,” says Corboy. “I am an Atheist, but farming is as close to God as I think you can be: all the gifts of the earth right there to be molded to some extent by you. You put food on peoples’ plates, you feed their families, you care for the one acre of land and make something of it where there was nothing. Most people just don’t get to do that. So, it’s a gift.”

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