Urban Farm in Harrisburg, PA Sees Limitless Demand for its Produce
May 13, 2013 | Missy Smith
Sitting peacefully across the street from a busy auto body shop and tucked behind fencing within the Allison Hill neighborhood of Harrisburg is the Pennsylvania state capitol’s only operating urban farm. The customary city noise becomes a distant memory as a symphony of tree-perched birds welcomes you through the farm’s gates and onto the lush, green organic vegetable farm.
Farm Manager Kirsten Reinford lovingly calls Joshua Farm an oasis amid a lively, sometimes troublesome section of the city. She started the urban farm in 2006, as a program of The Joshua Group, a nonprofit organization that works with at-risk youth. Through the mentoring group, Joshua Farm brings fresh, organic food and positive energy to a neighborhood with the highest poverty, unemployment, violent crime and school dropout rates in Harrisburg.
On its one-acre property, Joshua Farm grows more than 35 different organic vegetables using a 24×48 passive solar greenhouse, a 30×72 high tunnel and a collection of caterpillar tunnels to allow for season extension. Joshua Farm’s neighborhood customers and 40 CSA members enjoy a yearly harvest of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, okra, kale, collards, Swiss chard, lettuces, sweet potatoes, potatoes, beets, kohlrabi, garlic, shallots and onions. Growing along the inside of the fence are small herb gardens that include thyme, sage, mint, and even chocolate mint. Joshua Farm also devotes a small section of its growing space to strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.
While the urban farm grows all of its produce organically, it does not have USDA organic certification. “We don’t have plans to pursue certification,” says Reinford. “We sell all of our produce directly to our customers. They trust us and we are able to communicate with them about the decisions we make. The additional cost and paperwork is something we don’t feel is necessary at this point.”
While only about 20 percent of its customers are within walking distance, Joshua Farm encourages its neighbors to sign up for its CSA. To make the community-supported farming program accessible to people with low incomes, Joshua Farm accepts SNAP and EBT benefits, and welcomes people to come work on the farm in exchange for fresh food. “For me it is really important that organic, local food not become more of an elitist option than it already is,” says Reinford.
Sustainability is a big priority on Joshua Farm, where the farmers do crop rotation and use cover crops. To eliminate pests like harlequin beetles, cabbage moths and aphids, the farm places covers over its vegetable rows and creates habitats for beneficial insects. A rainwater collection system allows the farm to collect about 4,500 gallons for the plants, which are watered via drip irrigation. In the winter, they use horse manure hot beds to sustainably heat their greenhouse. They also use a fairly extensive compost pile system and they offer restroom facilities, which house a composting toilet.
Because of the nature of the farm, keeping it afloat can be a major challenge, says Reinford. The farm is a self-sufficient program of the Joshua Group that must cover all of its own expenses. “We have gotten grants over the years and are currently applying for a grant to cover the youth stipends this year,” Reinford relays.
For Reinford one of the more difficult aspects of her job is to determine the farm’s target market. “There is a limitless demand for our produce, which is kind of exhilarating, but it creates the question of ‘Who is the target customer for the farm?’” says Reinford, who explains that it is a struggle to cater to both its low-income neighbors and to health conscious consumers with larger budgets. “In theory, we can get more money marketing to foodies, but we also feel it is important for people in this neighborhood to have access to fresh produce. That has been an ongoing tension as a farm.”
But, farming in an urban setting also has its benefits. “The upside of growing in the city is we don’t have deer pressure, or ground hogs and rabbits,” Reinford says. “We also have a bit of a microclimate here. Our frost window is shortened, so we can get stuff out a little earlier, as opposed to someone [farming] on a mountain ridge.”
In the coming years, Joshua Farm is considering scaling back the amount of produce it offers. This year, the farm is doing a trial run to limit the number of crops it is growing. “The theory is that it is not only inefficient from a time management perspective to grow a lot of different things, but if we can grow a smaller amount of things with a good price at market, it could help us become a bit more financially sustainable,” Reinford explains.
Amid the challenges and hard work involved in her job, Reinford loves what she does. Joshua Farm’s urban setting provides a unique pastoral and social experience for people living in Harrisburg city. “I think having the farm in the city is really neat because you get to interface with the public a lot,” she explains. “The farm is a highly visible place and I think a lot of people who visit are happy to be here. There is a lot of concrete in this concrete jungle, but [Joshua Farm] is a respite.”