By Ann Belser
City lots where abandoned houses have been demolished aren’t the green acres that evoke visions of a bucolic life.
Yet in urban neighborhoods through the region, women, and they are mostly women, are turning what had been blighted lands back into fertile ground.
It is a sector of farming that was mostly passed over by the 2012 Census of Agriculture, released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistical Service.
The census did not account for a trend that’s been developing in the past decade, urban farms sprouting where neighborhoods have been hollowed out.
As cities tore down neglected housing, they left behind relatively cheap vacant land. These places don’t match the averages seen in the census review, in Pennsylvania, for example, the typical farm covers 130 acres.
An urban farm is, instead, measured in building lots. People approach those lots with little or no knowledge of agriculture but a sense that, by restoring the land, they can restore a community.
One of those people is Mindy Schwartz, who has dreams of creating an oasis in Wilkinsburg, Pa., that will help revitalize the neighborhood.
After buying and moving into a three-unit apartment house in 1994, Schwartz, 49, built raised garden beds and began growing produce, more than she could eat. So she sold some of her vegetables to local restaurants.
In the spring, she set up a rack in her basement near the warm steam boiler, and hooked grow lights to shelving.
“Next thing you know, I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of seedlings,” she said.
The first year, she gave seedlings to friends. The second year, friends came back, so she charged them a quarter to help defray the costs. The third year, those friends brought their friends and she charged a little more.
“I realized that with selling seedlings, I could make this enterprise viable,” she said. She started a business selling those seedlings in 2001.
This year, 45,000 to 50,000 seedlings are coming through Schwartz’s urban farm, called Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery. The plants are sold on site and at a local co-op and Whole Foods. The farm is staffed by two full-time farmers and a seasonal worker on land that once held two dilapidated houses. Schwartz owns a third, boarded-up brick building that is next door, and is considering turning it into a sort of urban barn, she said.
Bob Madden, 34, of Swissvale, Pa., and Hannah Reiff, 31, of North Braddock, Pa., work at the urban farm full time, planting the seedlings and replanting once they reach a certain size, moving them outside to covered greenhouses that limit the tender plants’ exposure to the cold and the sun.
Madden called it a “gentle, slow process.”
Money is key when it comes to the census. A farm, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is an agricultural enterprise that has $1,000 in revenues a year.
Last week, Joseph T. Reilly, the administrator of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, said one of the tasks his staff has to accomplish is to figure out a better way to include urban farms in the agricultural census.
Stewart Ramsey, an agricultural economist for IHS Global Insights in Philadelphia, said the USDA has a number of sources of information to find farms in rural areas. Most, for instance, participate in government programs for insurance, or the farmers already provide information for USDA monthly surveys.
Land in the rural areas is also double-checked by census takers who drive the roads looking for any farms they may have missed.
But in urban environments, it is hard to spot some of the farms.
One of them sits on a hilltop with a view of the Pittsburgh skyline, once the site of urban blight. Even now from the road, where two empty homes still sit on the land, it is hard to imagine that behind the overgrowth is Healcrest Farm, a woman-owned farming collective that has taken over seven lots. There are chickens, bee hives, a nascent orchard and beds of herbs.
Maria Graziani, the founder of the farm, owns seven of the lots. Three other parcels are owned by a silent partner. In all, the collective has 1.7 acres.
“The goal is that Healcrest will become a major producer of herbs,” Graziani said. Herbs are being blended into medicinal teas that are frozen into popsicles for sale.
Graziani learned about community development working for the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., a Pittsburgh community development organization. She learned about farming by volunteering with Mildred’s Daughters, a nearby urban farm, and learned about medicinal herbs by working with herbalists.
Though she now lives in a house around the corner, Graziani said she hopes never to erect a farmhouse on the site. Having someone living there would take away from the peaceful nature of the hilltop.
Farms like Graziani’s are only going to be more plentiful, said Ramsey, the agricultural economist. They are likely to tap into other innovative ways to grow food in an urban environment, such as converting warehouse space for hydroponics, or putting greenhouses on flat rooftops to grow lettuce.
He said he sees a future in urban farming if only because, on the train from Philadelphia to Delaware, he sees acres and acres of blighted land, covered with abandoned buildings.
Despite the urban decay around them, Reiff at Garden Dreams and Graziani at Healcrest Farm said the gardens have very little trouble.
Reiff said maybe once or twice a year a youngster running through might knock something over. At Healcrest, there are small tears in the plastic of the greenhouse where youngsters tried to peek in.
Some neighborhoods are ripe for such growth. The Ujamaa Collective, a group of women, is now developing a vegetable farm on 17 acres that once held a public housing complex on Pittsburgh’s Bedford Avenue.
The farm is just one of the strategies that the collective, which also operates a boutique for its artists and a small business incubator, is using to bring economic opportunities to the neighborhood.