Published August 27, 2018
Each day, Sarah Baxendell tills soil, plants crops and prunes fruit trees.
This doesn’t happen in the countryside outside of Pittsburgh, but rather on a 107-acre property in the city’s St. Clair neighborhood.
Hilltop Urban Farm, the largest of its kind in the U.S., is just one of 14 sites participating in the Pittsburgh Urban Farm Touron Sept. 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Now in its second year, the self-guided excursion takes visitors to community gardens, commercial farms, nurseries, an apiary and other green spaces on formerly vacant lots in Homewood, South Side, Point Breeze, Wilkinsburg, Larimer, Garfield, Manchester, Braddock and the North Side.
The event is a collaboration between the East End Food Co-op (EEFC), Pittsburgh Food Policy Council (PFPC) and Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). Proceeds support an honorarium for each participating farm and fund a new Urban Growers Scholarship.
“It’s a cool reflection of what a community can do when they see blighted land and decide to do something better with it, make it productive,” says Kate Safin, EEFC’s marketing and member services manager.
Last year, 160 people explored on foot, on bicycles or in cars. Safin expects at least 225 visitors to partake in the educational adventure next month.
What exactly is an urban farm? According to Karlin Lamberto, coordinator the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council’s Urban Agriculture Working Group, the USDA doesn’t have a specific definition and there isn’t one that’s widely agreed upon. In general, however, an urban farm is a parcel of land used for agricultural purposes within an urban area.
Grow Pittsburgh, a local nonprofit, has compiled a comprehensive map that pinpoints such areas.
“If folks want to begin a farm project, they can join us at a meeting to connect to resources that can help them through the various stages of developing an urban farm,” Lamberto says. “They can also reach out to the URA to inquire about land in their inventory that would be ideal for a farm project. Pittsburgh has a vibrant urban ag community that is full of experienced practitioners and abundant resources.”
The best part, she says, is this: “They are all eager to help others get on their feet, so if someone is looking for assistance they should tap into this community to find the specific supports they need.”
During this year’s Urban Farm Tour, Hilltop Urban Farm will conduct formal, 90-minute tours at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to showcase the progress staff and volunteers have made on the property – which is a Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh parcel – since the Hilltop Alliance launched the project in 2017.
For Baxendell, the farm’s greenspace projects director, the land is a living laboratory where local children in kindergarten through high school can learn about gardening and nutrition.
The site will also serve as an incubator for new farmers and, thanks to an on-site and mobile farmer’s market, provide fresh produce to local communities that the USDA has designated as “food deserts.”
Raqueeb Bey of Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh lives in Uptown, a food desert, which is why she is an avid supporter of urban agriculture. She helps to cultivate Homewood Historical Community Farm, a group of 15 vacant lots along the 7000 block of Monticello Street.
For Bey, teaching African-American children (and their parents) how to grow their own food is a way to promote community activism and fight systematic and institutional racism in the city. The Pittsburgh Urban Farm Tour, she says, is a great way to recruit new volunteers.
“It’s an awesome way to showcase the different urban farms in Pittsburgh,” she says, “and promote urban agriculture.”
The African Healing Garden in Larimer is a community space dedicated to providing serenity, social interaction and personal growth. The 8,200-square-foot plot immerses visitors in African culture with decor, symbols, plants, a water feature, art and music. Photo courtesy of African Healing Garden.