AT 7 am on Saturday, September 17, Jack and I headed to Buffalo to take part in the annual Tour de Farms, a fundraiser for the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP). Since Jack’s brother wanted to come to, we decided to go on the urban farm tour instead of the “classic” which goes all the way to the Oles Farm in Alden. As fate would have it, a sinus attack kept Jack’s brother at home, but I am glad we took the urban route to visit six farms on the west and east sides of Buffalo. West Buffalo is low income and struggling. East Buffalo contends with Detroit in numbers of abandoned houses and vast empty spaces where houses once stood.
The six farms on this tour share a commitment to providing healthier food to their mainly low-income neighbors. By farming in these blighted areas of the city, the farmers take a definite cut in one of the greatest benefits of farming – a.g. (aesthetic gluttony). But they make that up in social returns, the satisfaction that comes from getting to know your customers, providing fresh and nutritious food to people who really appreciate it and teaching young people to be self-reliant, active and make healthy food choices.
Initiated in 1992, MAP has grown slowly but steadily, providing jobs for neighborhood youth with training in growing and selling food, understanding the connections between diet and health, learning to have a voice in food system policy, and providing fresh organic produce for food apartheid neighborhoods. MAP is fortunate to have Diane Piccard as Director – she has been with them since 1997 and initiated the Growing Green Program in 2003.
With rain storms in the forecast for early afternoon, 80 or so of us mounted our bicycles at Rich Products on Niagara Street and followed our guides from GoBike Buffalo. First stop – the MAP Youth Garden, one of 13 sites where youngsters learn to grow food using organic practices. Claire Collie, one of the MAP farm educators, greeted us.
Tour de Farms participants park bikes and swarm into the Youth Garden to examine the well-designed space, full of healthy eggplant, tomatoes, greens, a little corn, flowers and herbs.
Just getting used to my phone camera, I was surprised that it switched into panorama mode to show off the bathtub-plant container.
Next stop was MAP central headquarters on Mass. Ave. where Farm Manager Katherine Pfohl introduced a few of the trainees and gave us a brief introduction to MAP’s work growing both produce and raising fish in tanks in their greenhouses.
Jack and I were please to see how much more extensive the growing areas are at this site since we last visited as members of “BikeIt to the US Social Forum” in 2010. Some members of our group helped dig the trenches for the aquaponics set up, while I trellised tomatoes. The group biked all the way to Detroit and then Jack and I biked home on our own via Ontario, Canada.
MAP has been able to get funding to transform an old house into the “MAP Farmhouse” which will have classrooms, a kitchen, and 3000 square feet of cooler space that will allow them to improve the supplies for their mobile unit that sells produce at various sites around the city.
Westside Herbs and Alliums is an urban farm in its second year. Carrie and Neil, the young couple that manages this farm, have taken the plunge into full time farming. They sell to stores and restaurants and accept SNAP, WIC and FMNP coupons.
The compost they use to build raised beds.
Their impressively intense and diverse plantings, maximizing yields on one acre.
As the clouds grew more threatening, we got a cheering and brilliantly colorful welcome at the Pelion Community Garden in the Masten Ave. neighborhood, East Buffalo. The youngsters in orange T-shirts were volunteering for the day.
Caesandra Seawell immediately recognized a few of her former students among our group and recruited them to join her in telling about the educational work at the garden. Caesandra is an outstanding presenter, funny, direct and bubbling with enthusiasm for teaching youngsters about food. As an artist, she appreciates how growing plants extend her palate.
By the time we reached the Wilson Street Urban Farm, the rain was starting to come down. Eight years ago, Janice and Mark Stevens and their 7 children (6 biological and 1 adopted) bought a house on Fillmore Ave. and started growing food on 25 consecutive empty house lots. They run a CSA and welcome neighborhood participation in their farm. As chair of the NOFA-NY Policy Committee, I wrote at least one letter in support of their farming which may finally become legal under the regulations for urban farming soon to be passed by the Buffalo City Council.
Mark Stevens points to their barn and family home across the street. As the rain made hearing his words harder and harder, he explained that the drought made this the hardest season they have experienced, but they are surviving. The Stevens have joined with four other urban farms, including Common Roots and Five Loaves Farms, to form Farmer Pirates, a cooperative that shares produce and together raised funds to purchase a small truck to enable them to pick up food wastes from homes in the city for composting.
Janice Stevens and her eldest son run their farm stand.
Beyond the empty lots, St. Stanislas Church looms in the distance. The church has undergone significant renovation in recent years.
From the Wilson Street Farm, we biked up Broadway to wait out the torrential moments of the rainstorm at the Broadway Market, an indoor public market with restaurants, prepared foods and produce stands, and a rooftop garden. When the deluge subsided, we zipped over to Common Roots Farm where Terra Dumas showed us the quarter acre of produce she and partner Josh have been able to grow very part time and with no on-site water source. The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) awarded Common Roots a hoop house which you can see in the background, still under construction. Terra says that with the hoop house, they hope to also increase the growing area to a full acre next season. Like Wilson Street Farm, Common Roots has a CSA and two of the members are recipients of the NOFA-NY Neighborhood Farm Share subsidy.
Back across town on the west side, our final stop was Five Loaves Farm, a beautifully designed corner lot on Delavan and DeWitt. Matt Kaufman created this farm as a ministry linked with Buffalo Vineyard Church. Their mission reads: “Just as Jesus’ first followers looked at the hungry masses and humbly offered five loaves of bread and two fish to feed them, we too respond with compassion by bringing our five city lots and two community gardens to feed the hungry. Our spiritual convictions, along with our neighborhood’s vacant land and eager youth, provide the fertile soil needed for this initiative to grow to meet the need.” Like MAP, Five Loaves provides internships and youth training, runs a CSA, and supplies food to some stores and restaurants. Five Loaves has signed on to the NOFA Farmers’ Pledge as a way to let the public know their practices are agroecological and that they strive for social justice.
When I asked Matt whether he is able to make a living farming, he said that his wife has a good off-farm job that enables him to manage on modest farm earnings.
The only other farm where I have seen this many old plastic pots in use is at Growing Power in Milwaukee, where Will Allen and his team fill every empty niche with pots to make the fullest use of green house growing space.
Ginger is growing in the hoop house in the background. Matt has lined the street edge with raspberry bushes – the loss of some berries probably also buys the farm some good will from passers-by.
Wet and hungry after a long morning of biking, I followed our guides to Community Beer Works for a brew and a hotdog (not the lunch I would have chosen after seeing so many luscious vegetables…) With my mini-capacity for alcohol, a full pint of their excellent brews would rendered me unable to drive home, but I am not meaning to complain. The Tour de Urban Farms left me feeling so encouraged at the great work that so many people are doing in Buffalo! Creating a flourishing organic farm on hard-packed city ground takes great courage, dedicated vision and a lot of hard work. But if the Farmer Pirates can make this urban desert bloom, there is hope for our whole planet!