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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

Go In With Your Eyes Open: Greensgrow Farm, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

by Chris Lazarus

Mary Seton Corboy and Tom Sereduk hand out chefs’ hats to their customers at Philadelphia restaurants with the slogan “Save the city, spend it here” emblazoned across them. Partners in a young, unique, and successful urban agriculture project, Greensgrow Farm, Seton Corboy and Sereduk are working extraordinarily hard on the economic development of their city, but that’s not exactly what they thought they were doing when they began two years ago.

Philadelphia suffers from one of the symptoms of failing urban health: the number of abandoned lots has grown from 15,000 to over 30,900 since 1987. In their previous lives as chefs, Seton Corboy and Sereduk were motivated to start a business because of a simple supply and demand situation they saw. First, there was all this vacant land in the city that could be put to productive use; second, chefs were buying produce from Florida even at the height of the summer growing season.

“We started out wanting a decent tomato for ourselves - now we have 1,000 plants,” says Seton Corboy. The first year, they grew hydroponic lettuce, the second year they added tomatoes and herbs grown in soil-filled waist-high plastic nursery bags. This coming year they plan to add potatoes and bedding plants (flowers). Greensgrow’s operations are located on a three-quarter-acre property, site of a former galvanized steel plant. The soil on the site is completely unusable. So to ensure the safety of its produce Greensgrow has samples tested every month in Penn State’s labs, and they have always come out clean. This fall they erected a greenhouse, given to them free if they could take it off the property of a house being sold. With no construction experience, Seton Corboy and Sereduk dismantled the greenhouse piece by piece and assembled it at the farm.

“We’re completely mobile,” says Seton Corboy. “If we have to move, we just pick up the bags of tomatoes and the gutters of lettuce, take down the greenhouse and put it all up in a new location. We heard of another city farming project that spent years and lots of effort getting organic certification only to have the city take back their property and build a parking lot on it!”

Luckily, Greensgrow probably won’t have to worry about its land. One of the few community development corporations (CDCs) that is involved in vacant land use and urban agriculture, the New Kensington CDC, will soon aquire the property and have Greensgrow manage it.

After just two growing seasons, the farm is breaking even. The produce is sold to restaurants for a good price, although Seton Corboy is quick to point out that margins in agriculture are slim. Seton Corboy and Sereduk were the only employees the first year. The second year, they hired three unskilled, single mothers from the immediate vicinity. While putting abandoned land to use was part of their original mission, they had not paid much attention to their social environment at first.

“Now we’re involved in our neighborhood. We saw the high unemployment and lack of skills. We thought it was the perfect opportunity to create local jobs for people who really needed them,” explains Seton Corboy. Since crops are raised in gutters and bags, there is no bending over, no heavy lifting. Job skills are simple. During a break, the women can walk home to check on children left with babysitters.

Although the farm is run on a for-profit basis, they have recently created a hybrid for-profit/non-profit structure by which Seton Corboy and Sereduk work for the non-profit training people, experimenting with different growing technologies and creating a guide for others venturing into urban agriculture. Says Seton Corboy:

“When we started, we thought there were many successful urban farmers who knew what they were doing. Instead, we found hardly anyone to give us advice. So many people are interested in this and have called us to ask for help. This past year we had about 350 visitors, often in groups. So we want to create a blueprint to guide others - tell them how much land they need, how much electricity and water, what do you do about bathrooms and so on. I want to show other non-profits, CDCs, that they can take one part of their resources and run an urban agriculture project as a business and actually make money.”

She is quick to point out the differences between urban agricultural businesses and community gardens, and the importance of economic viability.

“Philadelphia leads the nation in community gardens, but we see over and over again that when the person who was behind its creation leaves, the garden becomes a weedy plot. Philadelphia - and other cities - need something to put land to long-term productive use. With an urban agriculture business capable of standing on its own and continuing after its founders have burned out, you create something that generates jobs and keeps money in the city.”

“But go in with your eyes open. It’s extraordinarily hard physical work, seven days a week and the pay is low. But the satisfaction comes at the end of the day, when there’s something to show for that work and you can eat what you produced.”

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