Growing Farmers

Growing Farmers

by Kate Safin, Marketing & Member Services

The Hilltop Urban Farm in Pittsburgh’s South Side is ready to start putting down some roots, literally. A project of the Hilltop Alliance several years in the making, the site of the former St. Clair Village Housing Project is now ready to cultivate and will feature a Youth Farm, Farmer Incubation Program, and CSA. It is a place that will teach self-sustaining life skills while addressing food gaps that exist in the City of Pittsburgh.

The South Pittsburgh Hilltop community where the farm is located consists of eleven City of Pittsburgh neighborhoods and Mt. Oliver Borough. It has high levels of poverty and unemployment, an aging population, and low access to food. In fact, nine of the eleven neighborhoods in the Hilltop are considered food deserts, and the other two have food gaps (access to only one grocery store).

There is a need in the community for revitalization and a growing interest in local food production and urban agriculture. When the St. Clair Village Housing Project was demolished in 2010, there was opportunity for neighborhood development. In 2013, the community engaged in a four-month visioning process with Grow Pittsburgh and Penn State Extension to determine the feasibility of a future farm site.

“The desire for the project came from the community. Everyone has been very excited about it and we definitely have the full support of the community,” explains Sarah Ashley Baxendell, Project Manager, Greenspace Asset Development.

At 107 acres, it is the largest urban farm in the country. Included in the space are 23 farmable acres and 67 acres of preserved forest on unbuildable hillsides. (Just for the sake of context, the next largest urban farm in America is a 7-acre farm in Detroit.)

The first phase of the farm is a single-acre Youth Farm, which will include raised beds, shipping containers, and lots of fruit trees. Students from Arlington Elementary School and Lighthouse Church after-school programs will learn about growing and selling food with a curriculum developed by Grow Pittsburgh, Penn State Extension, and Allegheny Land Trust Education Department.

“The partnership with the elementary school provides an opportunity for [the students] to come across the street and participate in the most engaging youth experiences we can provide. A child in Pre-K can really grow up through this site and gain the skills to someday manage their own farm,” says Baxendell.

The Youth Farm, set to officially open in April 2019, will have a mini farmers market and much of the food will be sent home with the children, providing immediate access to healthy fruits and vegetables. Getting the food into the school is another goal, though not one Pittsburgh’s school system is quite ready to manage yet. Baxendell is hopeful that with the help of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, a farm to fork program in the school will be a reality someday.

The second phase of the farm is the Farmer Incubation Program, which is set to launch in August 2018 and aims to create between 9 and 16 new farm businesses on-site. Penn State Extension will offer training to help farmers develop a variety of ecosystems from edible forests to apiaries. Farmers can apply for a ¼ acre plot to grow food certified to USDA organic standards that support on-site and mobile farmers markets. At least 75% of the food grown on the Hilltop Urban Farm will remain in City limits. To make the food accessible beyond the farm location, food trucks will be used as mobile markets in all 11 Hilltop neighborhoods. Eventually, there will be the ability to accept SNAP and other food vouchers.

Baxendell believes without this project, the St. Clair site would be “a field surrounded by a fence.” Instead, it is a community space that will feed a neighborhood while offering jobs and skills training from Pre-K to adulthood. As she describes it, “We are growing farmers. Some are short, and some are potentially taller.”

If you’d like to get involved in the Hilltop Urban Farm, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/HillTopUrbanFarmPGH for updates on volunteer work days.

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