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New urban farm crops up in Sandtown-Winchester

The empty lot in West Baltimore is usually a desolate spot, the sort of place people visit to leave an old mattress in the bushes or sneak a drink at night.

But this week, chain saws buzzed, trucks rumbled and residents shoveled compost at North Fulton and Lorman streets in Sandtown-Winchester as workers set up a 3,300-square-foot organic greenhouse, breaking ground on one of the city's biggest entries in the fast-growing national movement known as urban farming.

The farm, now called Strength to Love Farms, will eventually be able to grow more than 150,000 pounds of fresh produce a year, all to be sold and distributed locally, according to Alex Persful, president and chief horticulturist of the urban agriculture firm Big City Farms.

Persful's company, along with the nonprofit Strength to Love II and the Baltimore Department of Sustainability, plan to install 18 hoop houses like the one built this week.

"There are other urban farms in Baltimore, but nobody's quite as intensive as we are," he said while taking a break from clearing brush with a chain saw. "They're fine operations, but many ... have educational components and other purposes. We're about creating jobs by producing product. The more we [generate], the better for everyone."

The 1.5-acre farm, on 75 contiguous vacant lots, is the first of about 10 the city plans to help roll out in a campaign to get growers to operate in the city.

The local effort began three years ago, when then-Mayor Sheila Dixon established a Food Policy Initiative with the goal of making healthful food more accessible to residents, especially those in "food deserts" — neighborhoods that lie at least a mile from a supermarket and where many residents lack transportation.

Sandtown-Winchester is one such place.

"Snickers and Ding Dongs have been the vegetables in this community," said C.W. Harris, the longtime resident who founded Strength to Love II, a nonprofit affiliated with Newborn Community of Faith Church in Baltimore. "This farm will provide a lot of healthy food, the kind we haven't seen in a long while."

A task force Dixon set up made a number of recommendations. One was to help sidestep zoning regulations that discourage farming by finding ways to lease unused land — particularly vacant lots — to potential growers and letting them get to work.

Working under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the city's Office of Sustainability found 35 such sites, each about an acre in size. Then it put out a call for farming applicants, all of whom had to have a year's worth of experience, agree to sign five-year leases at $100 per year, and commit to working with neighborhood residents.

Last summer, the city approved five of the 10 proposals it received, including the one on which Big City Farms and Strength to Love II teamed up.

In an industry in which most farms subsist on funds stitched together from a variety of sources, the Sandtown-Winchester application represented something new: The project aimed to make money, and it was the first to blend the talents of for-profit and nonprofit enterprises.

Big City Farms, which runs a profitable organic farm in South Baltimore, will supply the materials and training. Strength to Love II will supply the manpower. The partnership will sell the produce at a farmers' market on site, to grocery stores and to several farm-to-table restaurants in Baltimore.

Abby Cocke, an environmental planner with the Office of Sustainability, said the project could help show how urban farming can become financially as well as environmentally sustainable.

"There are still questions about whether this will work. Is an urban farm something that just looks good and creates excitement? Or can an urban farm really generate a profit? Can it really create jobs? Can it really work? We're on the forefront of this movement. This is a really exciting time for us," she said.

Ted Rouse, a co-founder of Big City Farms in Baltimore, sees almost unlimited local potential in the model.

Big City's first farm, which grows everything from arugula to fennel and distributes it locally, generated 52,000 pounds of produce and $118,000 in sales on its half-acre site last year.

The operation uses six hoop houses, each covered with plastic sheets that draw heat from the sun, and imported compost rather than native dirt, the same combination Strength to Love Farms will employ.

Rouse believes there are at least 200 promising sites of an acre or more in Baltimore. His company can employ six people per half-acre, he says, which means that if they could make use of all those sites, his farms could employ 1,200 people.

Big City's other goal, Rouse said, is to partner with nonprofits in the human development field to provide employment in the city. That's where Strength to Love II comes in.

The organization's mission is to help former convicts readjust to life on the outside — and in the process to alleviate poverty in Sandtown-Winchester.

"One reason recidivism is so high is that men and women returning to the community from incarceration find it hard to find employment," said Wendall Holmes, a leader with Strength to Love II, which takes its name in part from "Strength to Love," a book by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "We hope that initiatives like the hoop farm can help us begin to provide training and jobs."

City Councilman Nick Mosby, who helped rally the community around the project, hopes ex-offenders buy into the idea of the farm as an alternative way to earn a living.

"You have young men risking their lives on a daily basis to make money selling drugs," he said. "This is another opportunity. You can make money farming. It's not a secret. That's why we're seeing farmers' markets pop up everywhere. I see this as an alternative."

The operation, Baltimore's 12th urban farm, will eventually provide nine full-time jobs.

As a chilly day wore on Wednesday, volunteers from the neighborhood and Big City employees removed trash and cleared brush on the site. Workers from M Squared Construction laid out ground cover, erected metal scaffolding and put the familiar white plastic sheeting in place.

As of Friday, more than just 9,300 shoots of baby kale were planted and growing.

"This is a job-creating [project], on a space that otherwise is just full of trash," Persful said. "It's going to bring the community in to see where the food they eat is coming from. People will notice what we're doing here. And the more people see it, the better off we think everyone will be."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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