Real Food Farm standReal Food Farm sets up a farm stand every Wednesday evening outside a health clinic in Baltimore. Photo: Christine Shenot

Baltimore Spotlight: Real Food Farm

Lake Clifton High School Campus, Clifton Park, Md.

This six-acre nonprofit urban farm grows fruits, vegetables, and herbs in high tunnels — also called “hoop houses” — that provide a low-cost, high-yield way to garden year-round. It’s a project of Civic Works, Baltimore’s urban service corps and an AmeriCorps program.

Jessie Scott of Real Food FarmJessie Scott of Real Food FarmPhoto: Christine ShenotWith rain threatening in the distance, Jessie Scott is showing teenagers from Baltimore’s Conservation Leadership Corps how to stake pepper plants so they won’t droop as the peppers mature. She shares her grandfather’s lesson on hammering as they pound wooden stakes into the ground. “He was always saying ‘stop choking the nail!’,” she says, laughing.

Scott fills many roles in her part-time schedule at Real Food Farm. She knows a lot about gardening from spending so much time on her grandparents’ farm when she was growing up in the small town of Gaston, South Carolina, and from starting a community garden on a vacant lot in her neighborhood four years ago. She also knows how to work with kids, having raised five of her own and now enjoying grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

So it’s no effort to share what she knows about growing real food with the inner-city kids who come to the farm through community-service projects at Civic Works, the Baltimore nonprofit that oversees the farm. “Just about everything we ate [back then] came from the farm,” Scott tells the group clustered around the pepper plants, listing okra, tomatoes, corn, beans, peaches, and figs. “Once it’s in your blood …”

The kids, for their part, seem to enjoy this place. Thomas Scott, a rising senior at Baltimore Freedom Academy, points to a unique reward. “I get to work with products I can eat,” he said matter-of-factly, a statement that could have come straight from the talking points of First Lady Michelle Obama as she plugs her Let’s Move initiative promoting healthy eating and physical activity.

Real Food Farm just got off the ground last fall, with support from the Abell Foundation, the Jim and Patty Rouse Charitable Foundation, and other partners. As soon as the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks and its school district agreed to turn over six acres adjacent to the Lake Clifton High School Campus at Clifton Park for farming, Civic Works teamed up with another nonprofit, Safe Healing Foundation, to split the cost of what they called “HoopVillage,” three “high tunnel” greenhouses with polyethylene sheets stretched over a steel frame. The hoop houses offer a low-cost, high-yield way to garden year-round — like greenhouses, they keep plants warm in the winter and are easily ventilated in the summer by parting the plastic sheeting.

About 200 volunteers spent a full day on each hoop house, recalls Tyler Brown, the farm manager. Seedlings were ready to be planted as soon as they got the plastic sheeting spread over the metal frames and anchored to the ground. Weeks later they were harvesting spinach, kale, chard, and other winter crops.

The farm was established to serve the five surrounding low-income neighborhoods, where most residents have limited access to healthy food. In its first season last winter, despite back-to-back blizzards, the farm yielded more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce that it sold or donated to residents, schools, and restaurants.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon, Brown loads up the truck with squash, kale, tomatoes, and whatever else they’ve harvested that day and sets up a farm stand in one of three neighborhoods they’ve targeted for the summer.

Real Food is still just getting started. At build-out, the farm will have 20 hoop houses, rain gardens and additional field crops, and ultimately, a network of mulch-lined trails that will wind past all the hoop houses and planted fields over to the woods, with educational signage. Civic Works plans to put up two more hoop houses this fall, and expects to see students of all ages visit for educational programs, including some from Heritage High School, the farm’s neighbor.

The farm anticipates hiring three or four high school students for part-time jobs. “We want to incorporate a really comprehensive job training program that looks at a future in agriculture,” says Brown.

Hoophouses at Real Food FarmThese low-cost hoophouses, built by volunteers, have more than paid for themselves in year-round growing power for Real Food FarmPhoto: Christine Shenot