Philadelphia gardenThe place for me: A view of Philadelphia from Glenwood Green Acres, a community garden run by the city in the Susquehanna neighborbood. Photo: Tony the Misfit

Philadelphia has long been a gardeners’ paradise, by East Coast standards anyway. The City of Brotherly Love enjoys relatively short winters and extended fall and spring seasons that aren’t so wet and warm that they invite plagues of the pests that rule farther south.

It’s not surprising then that urban agriculture has deep roots here — ones planted long before the recent national renaissance. But Philly’s homegrown ag movement isn’t just about getting more local produce into farmers markets. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) It’s focused on farming as a source of jobs and skills for city residents as well as a means to provide them affordable, healthy food.

The city is known among food advocates as providing the model for President Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative to eliminate so-called “food deserts,” or areas without access to affordable, fresh food. Like its inspiration, Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative — which has helped establish more than 80 grocery stores throughout the state — the administration’s plan would provide low-cost loans to finance grocery stores and supermarkets across the country.

From brownfield to green rows

Philly’s municipal support for farming dates back to the Vacant Lot Cultivation Commission established in the late 19th century. Jump forward to 1943, by which time the city of Philadelphia had opened what is now called the W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences. At 150 acres, it’s the nation’s largest agricultural high school, complete with herds of Holstein and Jersey dairy cattle, Belted Galloway beef cattle, eight quarter horses, a flock of sheep, and a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program — and a 95 percent graduation rate. Indeed, you can draw a line from these efforts through the city’s wartime Victory Gardens, to the anti-blight attempts of the “modern” community garden movement of the 1970s and 1980s, right through to today’s reawakened interest in growing food in the city.

Granted, it’s by no means a straight line. The anti-blight community garden efforts faltered in the ’90s as the city government withdrew its support, for example.

But these days, school gardens proliferate, and the city is home to efforts like Greensgrow (see Grist’s recent profile), a city-block sized farm on a former brownfield in the middle of a densely developed working class neighborhood. Greensgrow is now pioneering a pilot project, Local Initiative for Food Education, that gives food-stamp recipients a special veggie box and cooking help (see profile below).

The city is also host to two multi-acre farms, one at the Schuylkill Center, a nature preserve that operates a farm stand and a CSA in a surprisingly verdant area in the northwest part of the city. The other is managed by the member-owned Weavers Way Co-op grocery stores (more on that below, and full disclosure — I’m a Weavers Way member, and the co-op hosts my Beyond Green blog).

Mayor Michael Nutter has issued a series of food-focused proposals and initiatives, including creating a food policy council and releasing the Philadelphia Food Charter, which puts ag front and center. Even the city’s “Greenworks” initiative, designed to turn Philly into “the greenest city in America,” sets the goal of increasing commercial agriculture within city limits.

Farm gateThe entrance to Manatawna Farm in PhiladelphiaPhoto: momo goIncubating growth

As a first step toward that goal, this spring the city proposed an urban farm “incubator” at the historic Manatawna Farm, a 19th-century farmstead currently part of Philadelphia’s vast Fairmount Park system and right next door to the Schuylkill Center. Dedicated to chemical-free, commercial farming, prospective farmers will pay a $500 fee for a one-year lease on a half-acre plot that comes complete with irrigation hookups, fencing, post-harvest workstations, and even toilets. If this project is fully subscribed, that would put another five acres of land in production within the city limits.

Sadly, Philly is also seeing the NIMBY brigade set its sights on urban ag projects. Neighbors of the Manatawna property oppose the plan and are fighting to stop it. Their motivations are unclear, but it’s likely an outgrowth of that strangely American belief among many homeowners that residential areas should host only bedrooms and two-car garages, not jobs and productive activity.

A second urban-farm incubator initiative takes a very different tack, one that will likely bypass the NIMBY brigade and still generate jobs and commercial activity from farming. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Growers Alliance program is an experiment in distributed agriculture. The initiative helps individual growers construct a small set of raised beds. PHS provides seedlings and other supplies and has partnered with Weavers Way Co-op to pick up and bring to market the produce from the various plots spread throughout the city — in other words, a complete “supply chain” for urban micro-farms.

Philadelphia clearly sees farming as an integral part of its future and shows no indication that urban agriculture is a foodie fad. In this town, growing food is a growing business.

Next: A closer look at three of the projects that are putting Philly on urban ag’s cutting edge.