Vacants to Vegetables: Community farms spring up in Baltimore's empty lots

Leaning against his rusty red pickup truck, and clad head-to-toe in Real Tree and camouflage, Eric Kelly of Charm City Farms gets philosophical about the connection between humans and nature. "When we're on our deathbed, we're not gonna remember American Idol TV shows, our best video game score. But we'll remember things like fishing with our grandpa or helping a community member move out into a retirement home. . . We'll remember the disgusting thing we found buried in that field," he says, gesturing toward a currently empty lot in Johnston Square on the south side of Green Mount Cemetery.

For Kelly, who established Charm City Farms in 2012, sustainable farming, community building, and empowering citizens go hand in hand. Charm City Farms works two plots around Baltimore: a food forest in Clifton Park and a new green space in Johnston Square. CCF also offers workshops and courses. Kelly focuses on permaculture and helping communities move toward a "no-fossil-fuel future economy and society" according to the CCF website. "I thought it was important to also build models to show people kind of a different way to do things," he says.

Kelly is part of a growing urban farming movement seen in the dozens of small farms popping up in neighborhoods all over the city. The methods and production vary, but for many urban farmers, sustainability and maximizing growth despite their small size are key. Many of the growers sell their produce through Community Supported Agriculture collectives and at local market stands, but many of them also focus on building community by offering workshops, cooking classes, and after-school programs.

Such programs are an integral part of Kelly's Charm City Farms. While he is hoping to obtain nonprofit status for CCF, at the moment he funds it mostly out of pocket, offering various workshops and community meet-ups to spread the word and encourage neighborhood involvement. There's foraging and herbalism classes, plant walks, lessons in rabbit raising and processing, plus instruction in bone craft, fermentation, and cheese-making, just to name a few. The workshops and their costs vary, but they're able to keep the costs pretty low for students.

CCF's Johnston Square lot is new—Kelly has a five-year lease with the city through the Homegrown Baltimore program, an initiative that offers land to groups who can demonstrate that they can take care of it and turn it into a viable green space. CCF plans to use the land to raise rabbits and chickens, as well as worms and flies to help with composting. The group is also building a playground and planting annual plants, nut trees, and an orchard. A red garage on the south end of the lot will eventually be used as a classroom, kitchen, and workshop.

Kelly stresses that community involvement is crucial, along with making sure that residents actually want these gardens in their neighborhoods. So he says he "makes friends" with the people here on Preston and Homewood streets. "And I told them at the [community] meeting and I told everyone else I don't really want this as a long term project for myself, I want to build a model that's awesome and that they want to take back."

"And it's gonna be hard to reject this space if there's free peaches for people," he says. "And the playground—the kids don't have anything to do around here. And, of course, people are gonna sell drugs, stash their weapons around here, and it's like, 'Well, you're gonna have to monitor that. It's your community.'"

Over in Reservoir Hill, Whitelock Community Farm, which began in 2010, grew out of the community's need for healthier food options. Whitelock regularly gets volunteers from the neighborhood and works with elementary and middle schools and a rec center in the area on their after-school programs. Students learn about healthy eating and plant growth, and they get hands-on learning by maintaining and eventually harvesting from their own farm bed.

Isabel Antreasian, Whitelock's programs manager, says that equitable food access is a core lesson in their Farm Club. At the start of Farm Club each season, they define what eating "healthy" means, and they "brainstorm barriers to eating well" and talk about what they would change about food access in their neighborhood. Older students delve deeper into neighborhood and the city history to understand why food access is so limited, Antreasian says.

With four staffers and a lot of volunteers, Whitelock sells produce onsite and around the area with a mobile market. "It can also only sustain itself if we're able to sell the produce we grow, and doing that involves outreach, consistency, education, and having a welcoming space," she says.

Creating these kinds of spaces and opportunities for neighbors is a major goal for Boone Street Farm, which was founded by Cheryl Carmona and Aliza Sollins in 2010. Currently the farm grows produce on a few lots in the East Baltimore/Midway neighborhood, though they are currently scoping out potential lots in the immediate area for expansion. In addition to selling produce at their weekly market stand on Greenmount and 21st, at the Waverly farmer's market, and through their CSA, Boone Street runs a weekly after school program for students from the nearby Cecil Elementary School, and is also a host site for the city's YouthWorks program.

Carmona says that students from Cecil Elementary would often come by and help out around the farm, but at a community meeting in 2013, the school principal approached her and asked if Boone Street would like to start a garden club.

"That way we can actually create some lessons and be actively teaching the kids more about what they're doing and why they're doing it," Carmona says. The club meets every Wednesday, and the 15 or 20 kids split up into groups for gardening, art, science or snack-making lessons. One of their garden club teachers, Rosa Wilson, whose son is in the club, lives in the neighborhood and helps maintain the community garden. And their production assistant, Marcus Carter, whose grandmother grew up a block away from the farm, just realized that one of the kids in the Garden Club is his cousin.

"I do think this should be owned by the community," Carmona says.

When it's done right, she says, farms building connections with neighbors provides a mutual benefit. The neighbors want to invest in the space and help out because they care about it, and the farm can continue to provide services and share knowledge and expand access to good food.

This community link could also help Boone Street if and when they eventually buy their land. Currently, they use the land* through the city's Adopt-A-Lot program, and the Baltimore Green Space program helps provide certain protections, like removing the adopted land from the Vacants-to-Value website so that it's a little harder for a developer to swoop in and put in a bid. But because the land is still technically for sale, it's still a risk.

"The city will sell to an urban farm, as long as we can demonstrate the potential success, and the community support, and that we are having success with what we're doing," Carmona says. "Once we own the land, then if something did fail down the road and needed to change, then we can make that decision to sell it and change its land use if need be."

Midway neighbors have expressed more interest in Boone Street's CSA program and helping out with the community garden, and Carmona feels good about working with so many young people through the YouthWorks program and Cecil Elementary, and getting young people excited about farming. "The more we can build that network of support," she says, "the more likely that this will sustain and exist because you just realize that it's necessary and needed in the community."

*Correction: A previous version of this story said that Boone Street Farm rents the land through the Adopt-A-Lot program, but it's actually free for them to use the land through this contract. City Paper regrets the error.

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