An Arkansas native who spent 16 years raising citrus in Panama after getting out of the Navy, Persful said he was drawn to Baltimore when he saw an ad recruiting someone to run Big City Farms.

"A lot of people want to be farmers,'' Persful observed, "but a lot don't succeed."

Big City Farms actually aims to farm out the farming to others, spawning a network of growers and then buying their crops and selling them. The Middle Branch operation is the test farm, where managers work out the details of cultivating various greens and sample the market for them. That way, the company removes some of the uncertainty — and risk of failure — from other startups.

A six-hoop greenhouse farm modeled on the Middle Branch operation can produce six times as much per-acre as a standard dirt farm, Persful said. It ought to be able to produce $150,000 a year in sales, enough to support three full-time jobs and pay off the startup capital costs of $75,000 to $80,000, Rouse added.

Big City Farms will train future farmers in its network at the Middle Branch operation. After an internship there, they would start neighborhood-based farms on vacant lots around the city.

The company's expansion plans fit with the city's aim to encourage urban farming under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's "Vacants to Value" program. Big City Farms was one of five out of 12 bidders chosen by city officials to lease small plots of vacant city-owned land.

"Big City is a good organization — they really know what they're doing," said Beth Strommen, head of the city's Office of Sustainability She said the city is still in talks with Big City Farms about its first lease, which would cost $100 a year.

Assuming the lease can be finalized, the first addition to Big City Farms' network of growers would be Strength to Love II, a nonprofit group for ex-offenders sponsored by the Newborn Community of Faith Church on Pennsylvania Avenue. Wendall Holmes, a case manager for the group, said it's hoping to place hoop houses on a vacant lot at the intersection of Presstman Street and N. Fremont Avenue by the church.

The few jobs the hoop-house operation can support are just "a drop in the bucket," Holmes said, compared to the need ex-offenders have for work. But he said he hopes this will lead to other farming operations and inspire other ventures to help ex-offenders. He said he wants to have the hoop houses up by summer's end — and Holmes predicts neighbors will be eager to sample a harvest like what's growing now by the Middle Branch.

"I think people are wanting more locally grown produce," he said. "It's healthier… I think its time has come."

For Rouse, the prospect of increasing the city's employment makes the fresh greens that much more appealing.

"If we're able to provide jobs to people, it's an amazing cyclical benefit," he says.

Tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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