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Urban farm event highlights growth

Raven Thompson picked through the unfamiliar acorn-shaped yellow and purple vegetables with a slightly confused look on her face.

"What are these?" she inquired with a slight laugh.

"They're peppers. Bell peppers. They are just in a different color," said Connor Horne, agricultural project coordinator of Real Food Farm, an 8-acre swath of land in Baltimore's Clifton Park that contains seven high tunnels containing crops, three open fields and a couple of beehives.

"And this?" she asked as she held up a lumpy multicolored object.

"That's a striped tomato," Horne said.

"It's huge! Those are my favorite kind," Thompson exclaimed.

The third annual Urban Food & Farm Fair held Saturday was a chance to share the work of the urban farming movement, which is gaining in popularity, according to organizers.

"This gives folks an opportunity to celebrate local foods. Farmers' markets are exploding. People are really into it," said Zach Chissell, project manager of Real Food Farm, which is a project of Civic Works, an urban service corps and AmeriCorps program.

"This provides activities for all ages," he said as he pointed out elementary-age children getting their faces painted; another group of older children was participating in an obstacle course with a scarecrow theme.

In addition to several produce vendors, there were also a number of informational stations offering literature about everything from composting to other urban-based farming programs.

Chissell's favorite part was the food — in particular, the butter pecan ice cream made from products grown at urban farms.

"Being able to have the people see the farm is great," he said. "Not a lot of people in the city get to say they've biked to their harvest festival. This is right down the street for some people."

Thompson, who is in the process of receiving her master's degree in city and regional planning at Morgan State University, was impressed by the variety of opportunities available to her.

"There a lot more resources for Baltimore City residents than I thought," Thompson said.

Thompson was soon replaced at Horne's produce stand by another inquiring customer, Ann Ciekot, a Hamilton resident.

Ciekot decided that she would make salsa with all the produce she purchased for her child's birthday Sunday.

"I've got all the ingredients," she said as she pocketed the "Islanders" peppers and sugary-sweet "sun gold" tomatoes. "This calls for salsa."

Horne wants people to know the good that urban farming is doing for cities across the country.

"This is an intelligent way to use vacant land," he said. "This is as fiscally feasible as rural farming. This is a farm that just happens to be in the city."

Irene Smith, owner of Souper Freak, a popular soup truck, participated in the event. In fact, she's been a part since the inaugural year. She's seen noticeable growth in the event and in the overall urban farming movement. When she first started out, she solely purchased produce from Real Food Farm. Now, she's able to cull from about 10 urban farms.

"In the beginning it was pretty limited," she said. "Now my entire menu is put together with sourcing from Baltimore City."

City residents Shirley Rodriguez and Pamela Hughes left feeling enlightened and satisfied.

"I walked around to each station and talked about composting, ate some samples, and bought some food," Rodriguez said as she held up a plastic bag filled with produce.

"It was delicious," Hughes said as she took a huge bite of a nectarine. "The fruit in the store just isn't good anymore."

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