University of Maryland Extension

Farming in the City

(The following article is from the Winter 2015 issue of MomentUM magazine:)

By Doug Tallman

A tree might grow in Brooklyn, but a farming community is springing up in Baltimore.

University of Maryland Extension is providing the technical expertise to build a thriving urban agricultural community.

“Anyone can grow, but other things need to happen in order to grow quality produce,” said Manami J. Brown, city Extension director.

And with that thriving community, urban agriculture is not only helping to feed city residents but it also promotes healthy living and improves the environment.

The city “farms” with the help of Extension’s use of “high tunnels” or “hoop houses” — cloth or film-covered greenhouses with curved roofs that can be easily moved from place to place.

The high tunnels can measure 20 feet wide and as much as 148 feet long. With more than 3,000 square feet of growing area, a high tunnel can hold 10,000 plants, said Naima S. Jenkins-El, master gardener coordinator for the Baltimore City Extension.

Inside the high tunnel, the temperature is 15 to 20 degrees warmer than the temperature outside, especially when the sun is shining, she said.

In summer, the high tunnels are the perfect hothouse. As fall turns to winter, the high tunnels trap solar energy, which allows urban farmers to extend the growing period for vegetables like carrots, kale and salad mixes.

“It kind of gives you an edge on your growing season,” she said.

Forty to 50 hoop houses are scattered across the city, including at three high schools – Lake Clifton, Patterson and Green Street Academy – which provide learning experiences for the students. That learning experience could turn into employment — the city’s September 2013 report “Homegrown Baltimore” called urban agriculture a job creator — which was the case with Jenkins-El.

“It took 37 years for me to realize I like playing in the dirt,” Jenkins-El joked.

The farming outreach also exposes residents to fresh food, showing them where produce comes from. They can compare what they see coming out of the ground with what they see at a supermarket.

“People who have never seen food come out of the ground are amazed that this is the science of growing things,” Jenkins-El said.

All the food grown is used. Most of it is donated to help to overcome Baltimore’s food deserts, which are low-income areas where supermarkets are distant and automobiles are few. In 2012, the Baltimore City Department of Planning estimated 125,000 city residents, or about 20 percent of the city’s population, lived in a food desert. The department estimated 25 percent of the city’s school-aged children live in a food desert.

If the food can’t be donated, it’s put into a compost pile to help enrich the city soil.

For growers, the Extension personnel also provide technical expertise, like nutrient management, to help boost yields, Brown said. The service also helps to connect growers so they can work collaboratively and provide training so they can think entrepreneurially, she said.

In addition to alleviating the lack of availability of fresh produce in some neighborhoods, urban agriculture offers other benefits to Baltimore City. It improves the environment and can make the city more sustainable by reducing the amount of food that must be trucked in to reach consumers.

Through the master gardener program, Extension has expanded its reach in the city. Master gardeners have taught agriculture literacy programs to 4,500 people at a number of city events, according to the city’s 2013 annual report.

Fourteen soil improvement workshops taught 140 gardeners and urban farmers. Ninety people attended 12 “greening university” sessions, which detailed the best practices for gardening and managing open space.

And 25 master gardener interns became certified Extension master gardeners, according to the report. The master gardener committee conducted workshops and helped establish gardens at 17 city schools. The volunteer hours add up. The report says master gardener volunteers racked up 5,266 hours valued at nearly $134,000.

Jenkins-El said it would be hard to estimate how much food is generated by the gardens because there are so many different tracks. Some food goes to communities, or to food kitchens, or to the people who helped out with the garden, she said.

According to the 2014 report, the master gardeners donated 465 pounds of produce to Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation CARES Food Pantry on York Road in Baltimore.

Rachael Neill, the CARES program director at Govans, said she believed that figure reached 500 pounds in 2014.

“The produce is a great thing for us to be able to offer. It gives people the chance to make healthy meals, even though they're on tight budgets,” Neill said.

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