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Baltimore farmers are cultivating the city’s first ‘AgriHood,’ heralded for its innovation

The lot at the corner of Springhill and Cottage avenues in Northwest Baltimore used to be vacant. Today, it’s home to an urban farm dubbed one the nation’s top 10 innovative farms, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Known as Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm, the urban farm was founded eight years ago by Richard Francis, affectionately known as Farmer Chippy, who was looking for a community from the Caribbean diaspora in Baltimore and wanted to grow food for — and with — Park Heights residents.

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The Plantation has grown beyond Park Heights, with farmers aiming to grow 250,000 pounds of food across 30 Baltimore City-owned vacant lots, all leased by the Plantation. But it’s dedicated to the community in which it started.

Collectively, these farmers and others in Baltimore plan to build the city’s first “AgriHood” — a marketplace and community-shared agriculture and training resource institute. By the end of the year, training for farmers on food safety and good agricultural practices will be complete, as well as soil testing and risk assessments across the farm’s sites.

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The AgriHood will make programming more formalized and consistent, said Francis, who has secured partnerships with University of Maryland, Coppin State University and Holistic Wellness and Health, which offers healthy plant-based cooking classes.

Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm founder Richard 'Farmer Chippy' Francis, left, of Trinidad, tastes vegetables cooked by Crystal Forman, right, using produces from a giveaway food boxes.
Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm founder Richard 'Farmer Chippy' Francis, left, of Trinidad, tastes vegetables cooked by Crystal Forman, right, using produces from a giveaway food boxes. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“We’ll be positioned and ready to serve our youngest citizens, those who are at risk in Park Heights,” Francis said. “The institute is going to put agriculture in the classroom and [be] following through with our children so that they can become farmers and chefs before they become scientists, doctors and lawyers.”

At the Plantation, first-time visitors who strike up a conversation at the picnic table by the large, airy greenhouse bristling with vegetables may leave with basil or a carton of eggs. There are 13 chickens on site.

Francis said the farm’s name is intentionally provocative.

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“We wanted to remind children of the colonizers, that this is where it all started,” Francis said. “One group produces and the other group developed a thriving economy. Today, we say equal rights and justice for all on the Plantation; let’s include those who were left out.”

Agriculture can be found across Baltimore City, with over 20 urban farms and 100 community gardens, according to the Baltimore Office of Sustainability. Baltimore’s urban agriculture is a hotbed for art and community service, hosting poetry open mics and bringing quality produce to Maryland correctional institutions.

The Plantation is no different, having recently been the film set for Slickk D’ Money’s music video, “Park Heights Cleaner Greener Foods Theme Song,” and hosting Saturday night cookouts with DJ Nutmeg.

The urban farm also has connected families with resources beyond food, helping dozens of neighbors with energy-saving grants and other services to help prevent eviction and homelessness.

One community partner is the Morgan State University Center for the Study of Religion and the City. Morgan architecture students designed an outdoor demonstration kitchen that’s being built to teach food literacy and prepare nutritious meals. Other students from the historically Black university have taught tai chi to youth farmers and recorded an oral history that will exhibit at Morgan State’s James E. Lewis Museum of Art in October.

Harold D. Morales, an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Morgan State, usually visits the urban farm Thursday afternoons. He can be found pulling weeds, planting, harvesting and distributing one of the 300 free food boxes donated weekly through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program. Morales also helps with grant writing and university research for the Plantation. Most recently, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine got a research grant approved to study health and quality of life indicators at the farm.

Harold Morales, left, an associate professor at Morgan State University, loads boxes of vegetables with help from Troy Costner, center, and Artar Isreal, right, at Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm to be deliver to a community center.
Harold Morales, left, an associate professor at Morgan State University, loads boxes of vegetables with help from Troy Costner, center, and Artar Isreal, right, at Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm to be deliver to a community center. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Park Heights Renaissance, a nonprofit focused on land and economic development, awarded the Plantation a $25,000 grant to support agriculture in classrooms across four public elementary schools in Park Heights. Children ages 5 to 15 are learning how to grow, harvest and package nutrient-dense foods for families in the community.

Morales refers to the Plantation as a little piece of the Caribbean in Park Heights, where land, food and community come together.

“Shovel, rakes, soil — those are the things you need to survive in the urban context, but that’s not what people usually think, Morales said.

Francis sees similarities between the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood and his native Trinidad and Tobago.

“Park Heights is like a third-world city, it’s been neglected, it is heavily populated with Black and brown people,” he said. “It has a port, and it has a thriving economy happening outside of the poverty. We have an amazing educational system in the Caribbean, just like here with Johns Hopkins and the likes. But we are still unable to retain our talent, because most of these people graduate and go outside for opportunities.”

In the 1960s, many Caribbean immigrants — mainly from Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago — moved to Park Heights to work in the port and shipyards, and the community has been home to Caribbean businesses for more than three decades. Most notably, West Belvedere and Rogers avenues are economic engines in the community with businesses run by Caribbean nationals, said Francis.

Caribbean crops like sugar cane, sweet potatoes and Trinidad scorpion peppers are grown at the Plantation. Youth farmers learn that plantain leaves have healing properties for bites or stings and can be used like a bandage.

“In my country, there’s one similar to this; Wonder of the World, we call it,” said Francis, referring to a medicinal plant used to treat respiratory conditions. “Why? Because if you put it in a book, it will start growing and make roots.

Cultivating herbs and vegetables is a fun pastime but also a necessity to address the community’s food desert — though that’s a term Morales called inaccurate to describe the issue at hand.

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“What’s often referred to as food deserts, more appropriately, should be called food apartheid,” Morales said. “The term desert has this connotation of a natural landscape, as if nature was responsible for making this void of food access. Nature didn’t do this. We have explicitly racist policies and tactics that were employed by banks and government officials to create these spaces.”

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Francis echoes this sentiment and wants to transform Park Heights from a food desert into a food oasis.

Agrihood Baltimore, launching Saturday, is key for this vision to come to fruition. The event from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. will have a farmer’s market on the 4800 block of Park Heights Avenue and connect the community with Baltimore resources around food, housing and school access. University partners, master gardeners, city politicians, school principals and nonprofit leaders plan to attend.

“It is the close of the summer season for us and we’re getting ready for next year,” Francis said. “We’re coming bigger, better, faster and stronger, and we want your involvement. We want you to tell us now what you would like to eat in 2022, and we’ll grow it. We promise.”

Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.

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