Baltimore seeds city farms as path to sustainability, jobs
Photo: Christine ShenotCatonsville, MD
A 33-acre urban farm owned by Baltimore City Public Schools that’s providing education and job training to students.
Walking around Great Kids Farm on a sultry summer morning, the only sound is the buzz of cicadas; the only movement, a small group of teenagers turning compost. In mid-July, it’s hard to imagine the energy and activity that prevails when students are here in great numbers.
But that’s exactly what Great Kids Farm is preparing for.
In November 2008 newly arrived Baltimore Public Schools Food Service Director Tony Geraci discovered that the district owned a 33-acre farm that it had let go fallow in recent years, just across the city line in Catonsville. Geraci, a charismatic former chef, rallied volunteers and students from across the school district to clear and replant the neglected property. They built beehives, planted fruit trees, brought in chickens, and turned goats loose to clear overgrown fields.
Baltimore City Public Schools has drawn a lot of attention since Geraci first visited the neglected property and saw a chance to raise the stakes in the farm-to-school trend. He wanted to recreate a working farm that would provide healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables for school meals, but he didn’t stop there. He also set out to create a place where students of all ages would learn about sustainable living. A setting where they could learn business basics, culinary science, landscaping, and other job skills. And they do.
Photo: Christine ShenotThings will get even livelier this fall, when the school district launches a formal program offering for-credit courses in agriculture as part of its “Learning to Work” program. High school students will be able to take such courses as Animal and Plant Biotechnology, with Great Kids Farm serving as a living classroom for the school system’s Agricultural Production and Management Career and Technology Education pathway program. The farm is hiring an agriculture educator who will help instructors teach the specialized courses that make up the Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education (CASE) and provide students with information on sustainable farming techniques.
The farm is trying to maximize “the exposure we can give kids to careers and actual work opportunities,” says Michael Sarbanes, who leads the school district’s Office of Partnerships, Communications, and Community Engagement.
Students might manage a farm stand or a cafe, or get other “green-collar” experience learning to run another kind of business. Farm Manager Greg Strella points to flats of newly planted micro-greens as just one example: Students learn how to care for the fast-growing greens. They get the experience of selling them. And in one case, he noted, they got invited to a restaurant that buys the greens to shape bread with one of the chefs.
The greens should bring in $24,500 this year in sales to local restaurants. “We could do more,” he says. “But we get the value that we’re after at this scale.”