February 19, 2012

Philly Food Shed: Turning Vacant Lots into Urban Farms

It is always striking to me when I walk around Philly and see vacant lots everywhere. There is even a vacant lot right off busy Rittenhouse Square. (It would make a perfect whiffleball field!) I’m not a real estate guru, but one would think we can do more with empty lots than let them sit idle for years. From a city management perspective they are an eyesore and frankly disgraceful.

Empty lot off Rittenhouse Sq.
It was therefore a pleasant surprise to learn about Philly Food Shed, which is aiming to turn these empty spaces into urban gardens. This concept is not new, but Philly Food Shed is trying to take it one step further by combining the demand to eat local ingredients with urban farming.

The goal is to work with restaurants, stores and others to purchase produce ahead of the growing season. This "future" demand then allows community groups to develop urban farms on empty lots that grow the food to meet this demand.

It's an interesting idea and could be a big win for Philly if it works. I was curious to find out more and asked the founder, Tivoni Devor, to answer some questions.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

1. How and why did you start Philly Food Shed?
A previous job at Next American City magazine, a quarterly about urban sustainability, allowed me to learn about different models of urban farming from around the country, from simple outdoor community farms to very serious models like Growing Power in Milwaukee and Greensgrow farms here in Philly.

What I realized was that these operations are repeatable in every city. You only need a mix of capital, land, labor and a little marketing. Philadelphia has all three in order to make this idea come to fruition.

First, land is abundant with up to 40,000 empty lots or 440 million square feet. Even if we only convert one percent of the land it would generate significant income, jobs, community goodwill, etc.

Philadelphia also has a large and strong network of community groups, urban farming non-profit programs, churches and other organizations that can organize volunteers to work the farms and establish their own, both for their own food security needs and to sell to the larger market.

Finally, Philadelphia has a growing affinity for local food. You can see this through the ever-expanding farmer’s markets and restaurants promoting local food.

from PhillyFoodShed.org

2. How is Philly Food Shed different from other organizations? 
Philly Food Shed's principal mission is not to start farms but to develop the demand for urban-grown produce. Meaning that Philly Food Shed works with the buyers first to find out what they want and what they will use. Philly Food Shed then finds established urban farms or community groups that wish to start an urban farm to supply that demand.

Philly Food Shed would operate as a broker, creating stabilized prices for the growers and consistent and high quality produce for the buyers. If you had dozens of small urban farms all competing with each other, it would drive the price down and make it not worth it to grow food in the first place. It's not too much different from a commodities market but scaled to city of Philadelphia.

3.  What do you need to turn a lot into a farm? What are the current obstacles?
Access to the land is hardest, right now. I'm working with privately-owned land since many of the city owned lots are going through reorganization. My hope is that it will soon be easier for a community group to gain access to empty lots in their area that they can convert to farms.

The lot needs to be cleared and the soil tested before the farm can begin. If needed, new soil can be brought in relatively cheap. Raised beds are fairly cheap, but to be serious a basic greenhouse can be installed. These cost between $1,000-$2,000 and will help create a nearly year-round growing season and will generate 2-3x the revenue that a basic outdoor farm would generate.

Basically once the land is acquired, the hard part is over.

4. Are you growing produce on any lots or have deals in place?
For the coming 2012 growing season, we have several lots in the Newbold area ready to be turned into farms. But, 2012 is our beta season. We want to prove that a single empty lot can generate a large and valuable amount of produce. It will be easier to scale once we prove it works and the kinks are ironed out.

5. Who will take care of the farms?
The goal is that community organizations would manage the labor by organizing volunteers and earn the revenue the farm creates. Enterprising individuals could also set up their own farms on empty lots to generate some side income.

Philly Food Shed would help the farmers to make sure they are able to meet the demand, so we don't have any upset customers.

6. Where do you need support, volunteers, resources, etc?
Right now the best way to help Philly Food Shed is to help identify community groups who already have vacant land they are managing and are interested in setting up an urban farm.

We will need lumber and volunteers for the "barn raisings" when we have to build the greenhouses and raised beds.

It's been very easy to get buyers interested because of the significant untapped demand. The "buy local" and farm-to-table movement has already done a lot of the hard work in educating consumers and producers of the value of supporting these types of projects. The restaurants are very interested in the idea as the produce they would be buying is an investment in their local community, and they can promote the fact that they work with Philly Food Shed and support urban farming.

7. What has been the reaction from communities, restaurants and others?
It's been amazingly positive. Most people say "why doesn't this exist already?" That's when I knew this was worth pursuing. I only came up with idea a couple of months ago but I've been able to meet with some very influential people based on the power of this idea.

It's a very exciting and scary place to be, cause right now I'm talking to different stakeholders but soon I'll have to start planting and getting things moving very quickly once winter is over.

8. Has the city been supportive in your endeavor?
I've talked to several individuals in different city offices and all are positive, but I haven't had to ask the city for anything yet. Once the city elections are over, I plan on reaching out to various city council people as they can cut the red tape the fastest to get land in the right people's hands.

9. What is your long term dream/vision?
My larger goal for Philly Food Shed is to create a network of urban growers and buyers and a fair and transparent marketplace. I don't want to compete with other urban farming programs, I want to help them make their farms financially stable and hopefully profitable.

I'd like to see at least 1% of the empty land in Philadelphia become a part of a distributed farm network.

10. How can someone help now or volunteer in the future? What do you need help with?
Starting in 2012 we will need people to help us identify and convert empty lots into urban farms.

The great thing about raised beds and these smaller greenhouses is that they are not permanent structures. If you control a vacant lot and are not planning on doing anything on it for a year or two, these structures can be installed and eventually moved if the land is bought or developed.

Next time you walk past an empty lot, just imagine if it was a farm and would you buy from it? Then ask yourself why isn't it a farm.

Many thanks to Tivoni  for sharing all this with us. Anyone interested in getting involved with Philly Food Shed can reach him at tivoni @ phillyfoodshed.org. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's happened more than a few times that some people beg for access to a vacant lot somewhere in the city, saying "anything's better than just letting it sit there..." And then when the city finally finds developers who want to do something with the lot, the urban farmers (or whoever) forget that it was a temporary arrangement and throw a shit-fit. The fight over the so-called "Garden of the Arts" at Broad and South is the latest example.