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Urban farm raising greens, jobs

Farming in the city doesn't need a lot of land — and sometimes not even arable land. On a South Baltimore parking lot, inside six plastic-covered greenhouses, a handful of urban farmers are raising a cornucopia of greens in a thin layer of imported soil.

Once the site of the city's maintenance garage, the half-acre "farm" on the paved-over brownfield by the Middle Branch now produces arugula, romaine, spring onions, basil, cilantro, fennel — even spicy edible flowers. And it's all organic, the growers say.

Big City Farms is the name of this budding agricultural enterprise, operating on land now owned by the National Aquarium. Though this operation is just 16 months old, the company's founders have big ambitions to expand farming throughout Baltimore and into other cities. In the process, they aim to help reclaim vacant urban land and provide jobs in pockets of poverty while also boosting the supply of fresh, locally grown produce in Baltimore.

"Ultimately, we'd like to have 100 of these in Baltimore city — that would employ at least 300 people," said Winstead "Ted" Rouse, 61, chairman of Big City Farms.

Rouse, the son of developer and philanthropist James W. Rouse, was a partner in the now-defunct Baltimore redevelopment firm Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, but also has worked on sustainable development projects in Canada, Brazil and Rwanda.

For the past year, Rouse said, he's been concentrating on getting Big City Farms up and growing. He's partnered on the project with Baltimore entrepreneur Brian LeGette and Thomas Handwerker, an associate professor of agriculture at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, who developed the hoop greenhouse design in use at Big City Farms.

Rouse said he's been building greenhouses since the 1970s. It's hard to tell which is greener, his thumb or his tongue.

"Help yourself, try some, this is really good stuff," offered Rouse, stuffing a few lettuce leaves in his mouth as he showed a group of Maryland Institute College of Art students around the Middle Branch greenhouses. Compulsively plucking some more greens later, he said, "I've become a rabbit."

Philadelphia's GreensGrow Farms and Milwaukee's Growing Power are two of the bigger, better known urban farming operations in the country. In Baltimore, there are a small but growing number of nonprofit, neighborhood-based farms. Big City Farms is one of the first for-profit ventures — though with a green twist.

Technically speaking, it's a "B corporation," or "benefits corporation," meaning it's set up to help the community and the environment while also yielding a return for its shareholders. It's one of just 18 certified B corporations in Maryland, though there are more than 500 nationwide.

Most fruits and vegetables consumed by Americans travel hundreds and even thousands of miles to reach their tables. Big City Farms cuts out the long haul, Rouse said, reducing both the costs and the carbon footprint of the energy needed to transport it.

"We're talking about ultralocal, fresh, local organic, nutrient-dense food for local residents, while employing local residents, and while reducing the carbon footprint," he said.

Inside its "hoop" houses, as the round-roofed greenhouses are called, greens are planted 9,300 "plugs" or seedlings at a time in tight, neat rows. They grow on a bed of soil four to six inches deep, which, to avoid the toxic contaminants often found in urban soil, was shipped in from out of town — some of it from a mushroom farm in Lancaster, Pa.

Greens grow quickly, so, depending on the type, they can be ready for harvest in three to six weeks. All harvesting is done by hand, and the crops are triple-rinsed, packaged and refrigerated on site while awaiting shipment to customers.

The farm now supplies produce to about 15 local restaurants, including Woodberry Kitchen, Dogwood and Gertrude's.

"We're always excited about using local products and working directly with local growers," said Spike Gjerde, Woodberry Kitchen's co-owner. "I don't think you can find a grower that's more local than Big City."

Besides raising high-quality produce, Gjerde said the company's mission of providing fresh, healthful food and jobs and training in the inner city is "something that really appeals to us… They're doing a wonderful thing for the city."

The Middle Branch farm also sells its harvest directly at farmers markets, including those in Waverly, Fells Point and Mount Washington.

"Right now, there's more demand than we can supply," said Alex Persful, the company's 38-year-old president.

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.

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