Urban Farm on City’s Edge Provides Opportunity for New Generation of Farmers to Prosper
January 29, 2013 | Helen Weatherall
Few look at a weed-choked city lot fowled by disemboweled cars and see a future of health enhancing vegetables by the bushel full. But this is what the founders of the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) saw 30 years ago in a down and out neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. That ¾ acre lot, now called City Farm, represented the start of something now a whole lot of lots bigger. In following its mission to provide access to land, education and other resources to enable people in Greater Providence to grow food in environmentally sustainable ways, SCLT has grown the number of community gardens it oversees to 16. Last year as prices rose at the grocery store SCLT’s 275 member families harvested a 15,000 lb. cornucopia of herbs, fruits and vegetables valued at $44,000. And that’s just the greens of the beet. In addition to helping these families grow their own food SCLT is promoting sustainable agriculture on a larger scale through its program Urban Edge Farm.
Located in Cranston, Rhode Island eight miles from SCLT’s South Providence office, Urban Edge Farm is further evidence of success. It’s a place where growers who have outgrown the confines of a community plot can expand their farming to commercial scale. Located on land purchased and preserved by the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture in enactment of Rhode Island’s Open Space Preservation Act of 2002, the 50-acre parcel is now under SCLT’s management. At current SCLT is working to restore 20 of the acres to active farming with the help of seven individuals who have signed on to collaboratively attend to the farm’s operation and management. Like farmers the world over these individuals demonstrate an independent streak, pronounced work ethic and passion for their vocation.
Conceived as an incubator program intended to jump-start farming, SCLT launched Urban Edge Farm by advertising for farmers. Interested parties were invited to apply for leases on individual parcels. The ad read:
We are looking for people who are:
- Experienced in farming in the US and/or in their home country
- Dedicated to farming without chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers
- Committed to selling their crops
- Willing to participate in our cooperative of farmers and program leaders
- Able to pay program fees and business start-up costs
- Able to speak and understand English (Applicants who have access to translation services will also be considered.)”
One who stepped up to the challenge was Christina Dedora who had acquired an itch to farm in her twenties while working at an organic farm in Toulouse, France.
“I fell in love with how local food can taste. I came home and I realized I wanted to farm,” Dedora explained.
As with the other six leases granted Dedora was selected less on merit of her agricultural expertise than on her business instinct.
“They wanted to know what I would grow,” she said.
SCLT’s initial plan was to give each individual two-year leases but this proved unbeneficial to them as the farm was still being built in the first years.
“The first year I couldn’t start growing until June and also the road had not yet been built,” said Dedora recalling the building phase. Recognizing the need to allow farmers sufficient time to reap value from their start-up farms SCLT adjusted the leasing terms to annual renewable leases for a minimum of five years. Dedora’s annual payment to SCLT to operate her 2-acre Blue Skys Farm amounts to $1400. This sum covers leasing costs for acreage, rental of greenhouse space, an irrigation fee and fees for tool and tractor rental.
Dedora launched her Blue Sky Flower Farm with her own money and practical help from SCLT delivered in the form of two months of training funded by grant money.
“And SCLT was there as our fiscal agent,” added Dedora.
In 2011 Dedora secured a loan through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which she describes as a good option for those seeking financing solutions. Additionally, by taking advantage of the USDA’s National High Tunnel Initiative Dedora has recently expanded her growing season to 12 months by adding a high tunnel unheated greenhouse to her enterprise. Thanks to this greenhouse even with temperatures dipping to single digits and lower Dedora is able to produce greens through December, January and February the cruelest months for New England’s growers. Dedora maintains a regular presence at a farmer’s market in Pawtucket, Rhode Island selling head lettuce and generous bunches of spinach and arugula on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the winter. In warmer months Dedora grows vegetables and herbs. In fact she has chosen medicinal herbs as her niche and is encouraged by success selling tulsi basil also known as sacred or holy basil both fresh and dried for medicinal tea.
Although much of the picture Dedora paints of her Urban Edge experience mirrors that of the other farmers in the cooperative, there are also marked differences. One difference is the size of the various farms. While most are two acres, one is just 1/8th of an acre and the largest, Zephyr Farm run by Urban Edge’s oldest member and former manager Michele Kozloski, is five. Other differences stem from the backgrounds of the individual farmers. Chang Xiong and her husband Ger Xiong, owners of Pak Express Farm, moved to this country 30 years ago from Laos where they farmed rice in the traditional manner with the aid of water buffalos. After quickly adapting to the taste and demands of New England folk the Xiong’s built a client base that includes both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and frequenters of farmers markets.
John Kenny describes the origin of his Big Train Farm as “serendipitous”. A girlfriend played a leading role. They had met in 2006 while Kenny was managing a 120-acre farm in Middleton, Rhode Island where she interned. Then by turns of events Kenny found himself without a farm and looking for options.
“Through the grapevine my girlfriend heard that land was available (through SCLT). At first I frowned on it and said I wasn’t interested,” said Kenny explaining that he was skeptical about the scale of the proposition. But in time when added acreage became available he was persuaded to “give it a shot”. Over time Kenny has adapted to working a smaller farm. It may be that it has made him a better farmer.
“Working on that scale I have become a more intensive grower,” he explained.
“I used to get $15-$20,000 per acre; now I’m getting $35-$40,000 per acre in sales. It’s a different way of doing the same thing. (Depending on the crop) I plant most of my beds twice a year, some three times.”
Like Dedora, Kenny enlists the help of greenhouses. To the 2500 square foot gothic arch greenhouse he began with he added a 700 square foot hoop house he built this fall. This winter he’s harvesting greens and root vegetables every other week to sell at local farmers markets. In the warmer seasons of the year he runs a CSA in addition to selling at farmers markets and serving wholesale accounts. The challenges are ongoing but Kenny has no complaints.
“It’s an unpredictable business, (for instance) in 2011 we had a brutal (cold and wet) spring. But my business has grown every year.”
Seven months into her job as director of SCLT, Margaret Devos spoke with passion about the organization’s mission and of Urban Edge Farm’s part in it. “(Our programs) are directly relevant to rebuilding the inner city environment. Urban Edge Farm is one piece of the infrastructure. It’s part of the whole picture.”