BALTIMORE — Surrounded by boarded-up homes, broken windows that showcase leaky ceilings, rusting emergency ladders and abandoned clotheslines, Lolita Slocum picks a tomato to cook with her dinner.
Slocum, who has lived in Baltimore’s Midway neighborhood for more than 30 years, had no gardening experience, but she jumped at the opportunity to maintain a plot at the Boone Street Community Garden and Farm.
“When just nothing but space is here, people take advantage of it in very wrong ways,” Slocum said. “This is beautiful, it teaches us how our parents’ had to work so hard for their food.”
Boone Street is one of a growing number of farms and community gardens within the city planted on previously abandoned, unused land.
Baltimore is not the only city making use of those spaces.
“It seems like every major city and many smaller cities are beginning to take steps to encourage residents to engage in urban agriculture,” said John Mogk, a professor at Wayne State University Law School who specializes in urban development. “I think it is widespread and growing all the time.”
In Brooklyn, N.Y., farmers are harvesting crops from the rooftops of buildings. City officials updated the zoning code in Oakland, Calif., this year to accommodate the city’s increasing number of urban farms. Experts from IBM spent three weeks in Milwaukee, Wis., this summer studying its urban agriculture and aquaponics systems as a part of the company’s Smarter Cities Challenge Grants.
Mogk said urban agriculture is nothing new; victory gardens were a major urban agriculture effort that helped support World War II.
However, he said people are turning to urban agriculture again now because of the downturn in the economy.
“Urban agriculture has the advantage of using vacant land, providing wholesome food for people willing to engage in it, and, for those who use it in a commercial way, it provides some supplemental income,” he said.
In the neighborhood surrounding Boone Street farm, residents recently have had the added convenience of Cheryl Carmona, 31, and Aliza Sollins, 28, founders of the farm, visiting their homes with vegetables.
“In the neighborhood there is just very little fresh produce in the stores,” Sollins said. “So we are trying to increase the fresh produce for our neighbors and making it easy for them.”
In Baltimore, urban agriculture has the potential to help improve conditions in some of the city’s “food deserts,” said Anne Palmer, program director of Eating for the Future at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
The center defines “food deserts” as areas in cities where residents are below the poverty level and do not have easy access to healthy foods at supermarkets within walking distance, about a quarter of a mile.
Palmer said that how people get food and where they shop is a complicated question, but many residents are willing to go out of their way or to visit multiple stores to have better food options.
“In terms of urban agriculture it plays a really important role because lots of people are not necessarily happy or satisfied with the food that is available to them,” Palmer said. “And having these venues to purchase fresh food is really important, especially to the people who are willing to travel for their food.”
Slocum, who grows tomatoes and peppers in her plot at Boone Street, said she loves that she can just walk over to pick vegetables herself when she needs them.
“It helps us in so many ways,” she said. “It has brought the community together for something positive.”
Boone Street broke ground in March on two empty lots that had been row houses 15 to 20 years before.
Today the space is divided into community garden plots, maintained by residents of the neighborhood, and an urban farm that is producing tomatoes, peanuts and sorghum, among other vegetables.
“We actually had two people drive by and let us know that they used to live on this lot,” Sollins said. “That was really exciting, and they were excited to see food growing.”
Denzel Mitchell, 36, started Five Seeds Farm in Baltimore’s Belair-Edison neighborhood four years ago.
Today he is growing enough produce on his one-sixth-acre to sell to three local restaurants every week and to the public at the Charles Street Market on Friday nights.
“You have got to use every possible square inch that you can use,” he said. “Where at some larger operation the rows might be a foot wide or two feet wide, my rows are like six inches.”
Growing in the city comes with other challenges as well, like unusual contaminants in the soil, old bottles, watches and even shoes, Mitchell said.
Five Seeds Farm and Boone Street Farm were both built on brownfields. The Environmental Protection Agency defines brownfields as property that could be contaminated with hazardous substances or pollutants.
Clark Henry, an environmental analyst and planner at SRA International Inc., who has advised the EPA on brownfield development, said people shouldn’t be afraid of growing food on brownfields because there are things farmers can do to clean up the land.
“I am a brownfield geek so I am looking for ways to use these lots that have not been used, and this is a viable reuse,” he said. “I think this plugs a lot of holes culturally, socially and economically.”
Mitchell has plans to bring life back to another lot in the city next season. This summer he was one of five local farmers chosen by the city to develop an urban farm on city-owned vacant and underutilized properties.
He will be able to negotiate up to a five-year lease to grow on the property beginning next spring.
“At the end of the day this is all for the benefit of families and small businesses,” he said. “Your community’s food system first, Baltimore’s food system second and the watershed’s food system third.”