Urban farms have sprung up across the city of Baltimore, Maryland over the last decade, and a couple date back more than 20 years. They provide opportunities for communities to come together, and cheap, healthy food in a city where the homicide rate is 10 times the national average, and where more than one in five people live in poverty.
The Farm Alliance of Baltimore, an organisation of urban farms in the city, brings together some 20 vegetable patches, flower gardens and bee farms, and helps connect their produce to local residents and businesses.
Comparing photos of the farms as they began to develop with how they look now, you feel a sense of rejuvenation.
Hidden Harvest Farm in 2012 (left) and in 2014 (right).
Boone Street Farm in 2014 (left) and in 2016 (right).
The produce from these farms is far cheaper than the supermarkets, and with the Farm Alliance’s “double dollars” initiative, people on state benefits or with food stamps can pick it up for half price.
For a city where almost a quarter of people suffer from food insecurity, it is a valuable resource.
'People are hooked on fast food... so we need these farms'
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Johnnie Brown, a police officer living in Cherry Hill, in the south of Baltimore, who took over running the Cherry Hill Urban Garden in 2015 after its previous manager passed away. He explains the benefits these farms can have for the community, and some of the difficulties he personally faced running one.
People are hooked on fast food. Sugar is addictive and it’s in everything. Of course it’s a human right to eat whatever you want, but in certain forms it can kill you, and the Food and Drugs Administration doesn’t care anymore.
People are unaware of the possibilities of healthy living, and the benefits of gardening and enhancing their neighbourhood, so we need these farms. There’s so many benefits to it. You don’t have to buy food, you can just harvest it. It costs nothing.
'The first two years, I used a lot of my own money'
One day [in 2014], I noticed someone had constructed raised beds on a plot of land near where I live; it was a woman called Juanita Brown-Ewell. I talked to her, and she told me all about the garden. She eventually passed away [on February 17, 2015]. Losing her was very unfortunate for the community, because she provided all this fresh produce; it’s a highly populated area and there’s no supermarket nearby.
So I started inquiring about the farm.
I joined the committee as vice chairperson. There was no money, no grant that I was aware of. The first two years, I used a lot of my own money. I fixed things, made improvements, finished the hoop house… My son was only seven at the time, but he was helping me. For the first two years, it was mostly just me and him working on the garden.
'It was so heartwarming to see people walking on that side of the street again'
I continued to run the farm with no assistance from the community or the local development corporation. [Editor’s note: the Cherry Hill Development Corporation is a tax-exempt organisation whose purpose is "the promotion of the general welfare and economic development of low income persons and groups residing in the Cherry Hill area of Baltimore City".]
The corporation had operated in Cherry Hill for many years, but the street around the garden was a complete mess. You can’t imagine the amount of crack vials on the sidewalk just outside the garden fence. So I went out with a weed killer and cleaned everything.
People started walking there, no-one ever walked on that side of the street before. It was amazing, heartwarming. You can’t imagine what such a small thing can do for the community. The majority of people had no idea the farm was there before I cleaned the area around it. One of the problems is that people aren’t aware of the resources that are right in front of them.
It was hard to get people from the community involved. Some stopped and helped for a bit, but not for long. Most of the volunteers we had were from outside the community.
Cherry Hill Community Garden Facebook post August 6 2016. Caption: ‘Today's harvest.’
'We grew thousands of pounds of produce'
We grew thousands of pounds of produce: kale, broccoli, chard, rocket, corn, okra, collard, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, watermelon, cantaloupe, dates… and I started to grow more of the kind of thing African Americans would eat.
I learned from the Farm Alliance how to distribute the produce effectively, not just selling to individuals but at the market, and to caterers as well. [Editor’s note: the Farm Alliance has a variety of methods for getting food out into neighbourhoods, with a farmer’s market, a food truck, subsidy coupons, and agreements with local restaurants and retailers].
'A lot of urban farms around Baltimore come into trouble'
However, two years ago, Brown stopped working on the farm following disagreements with the Cherry Hill Development Corporation.
A lot of urban farms around Baltimore come into trouble because of city involvement. They come along and say you can’t you can’t do this if you’re making a profit. That’s crazy because we’re feeding people. What’s more, we sell very cheap or half-price produce. I charged hardly anything: 25 cents for a tomato, a dollar for a pound for greens. It was way lower than market value. Once people learnt how good the food was, they would come to me and I would sometimes just give it to them for free.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team has reached out to the manager of the Cherry Hill Development Corporation’s urban farm initiative, and will update this story with any forthcoming comment.
Article by Peter O’Brien (@POB_journo)