Baltimore-based Urban Farming Co. with Goal of 100 Acres Under Hoop Houses Hopes to Create 600 Jobs
December 18, 2012 | Missy Smith
Big City Farms, of Baltimore, Maryland, has high ambitions for urban agriculture. About three years ago, Ted Rouse, Alex Persful, Brian LeGetter and Tom Handwerker formed the for-profit urban farming company to create more jobs and more accessible entry points into the sustainable agriculture industry by developing a network of local, sustainable farms that provides healthy food to Baltimore’s local community. All were in agreement that the two major factors preventing people from getting into agriculture are lack of available land and money to finance new operations. So, they started Big City Farms two years ago to remove these barriers for those interested in agriculture, healthy food and community building.
Overseeing a collection of hoop-house farms, Big City Farms grows healthy food for Baltimore’s inner city on urban land that is vacant or deteriorated, giving new life to underutilized spaces. “We call it network farming,” explains Alex Persful, biological farmer and president of Big City Farms. “We have our own farms, and we will make sure we are producing good products for customers, by giving [growers on the farms] oversight on what they are going to grow.” Not only will its local community have access to wholesome, nutritional food, but the local economy will greatly benefit, he says. According to Persful, the urban farming company plans to erect hoop houses on 100 acres of land within the city of Baltimore, which in turn, will create 600 jobs, or six jobs per acre.
In February 2011, Big City Farms established its proof-of-concept organic lettuce and “leafy green” farm, aptly named Big City Greens. The almost two-year-old farm is the first in the country to be built on top of an asphalt parking lot. “Asphalt is a little easier than dirt, because dirt requires leveling,” says Persful, who explains that the most difficult part of the process was drilling through the asphalt to put in the beams for their six hoop-houses.
From October 2011 to September 2012, Big City Greens grew 52,000 pounds of food and grossed $118,000 using six hoop houses on a half-acre crop square. “We mostly grow leafy greens,” explains Persful. “We will expand our crop types as we expand growing areas. We want to have enough to supply our customers with consistency in each product before expanding to other crops.”
Within 24 hours of harvest, Big City Greens’ Food arrives at urban grocery stores, restaurants and institutions, which is how all of Big City Farms’ properties will operate. “[Big City Greens sells] mostly to local restaurants like Heavy Seas Ale House, Barracudas, Gertrudes, B-bistro, Woodberry Kitchen, Dogwood, 10-10, Fleet Street Kitchens, Joe Squared and many others,” says Persful. “Our best client is Bon Appetite, a food service provider for the University of Maryland and Goucher Collage. We also sell at local farmers markets like 32nd Street Farmers Market.”
Sustainability is a key component of Big City Farms’ mission. “We have applied for organic certification, so all of our practices are within the parameters they require,” Persful explains. “We go a step farther by using 100 percent compost as our growing medium and we use biological practices for feeding the soil and plants, and controlling pests.”
This December, Big City Farms—in partnership with Strength to Love II (a faith-based non-profit group for ex-offenders)—started its construction on its second urban farm, Strength to Love Farm, which will sit on one-and-a-half acres. Big City Farms is also setting its sights on another site to establish its third farm. “We are trying to secure another acre in east Baltimore,” Persful says. “It was previously [home to] row houses that were torn down. As with all our farms they will consists of at least a half acre of hoop houses using the same practices. Our goal is to have 100 acres under hoop houses in the city and to create 600 jobs.”
But, Big City Farms isn’t stopping with Baltimore. Persful says the urban farming company plans to grow its operations to many cities, with each city becoming home to dozens of farms. The company plans to expand its sales to government, institutional, retail and restaurant clients across each city, as it develops each farm. “We are a for-profit company, but we’re also a Certfied B-Corp company, doing things we feel are important on the economic side but also have an environmental impact,” Persful explains. “We want to be able to create jobs in city agriculture and grow healthy food that is accessible.”
As a company striving to implement a network of farms, Big City Farms has found that one of its main challenges involves getting farms approved. Persful explains that the company must obtain permission for a lease from the city, and the city’s community association has to approve of each farm. In addition, not every responds favorably to farms coming into the community, he says. “Not everybody understands or wants these farms in these neighborhoods,” Persful explains. “Once they know, they think they are wonderful. But they are leery at first.” Luckily for Big City Farms, they have had a positive working relationship with the city of Baltimore and have gotten a lot of people on board with their business model, Persful says. “We are receiving a good response not only from city government, but also almost all of the population,” he says.