Unprecedented interest in home gardening in 2020 helped boost a fundraiser designed to aid local urban growers.

Between February and December 2020, East End Food Co-op sold 6,359 seed packets to raise $1,589.75 for the Pittsburgh Urban Growers Scholarship. This fund helps urban gardeners and farmers in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County access professional development opportunities. Proceeds from the annual Pittsburgh Urban Farm Tour maintained the fund since it was established in 2018. The co-op created the seed fundraiser in 2020 to ensure a steady income for the scholarship, donating 25 cents for every seed packet sold directly to the fund. To date, $3,048.50 in scholarships have been awarded to local urban growers.

“The scholarship has ultimately made Pittsburgh’s urban ag community stronger and more equipped to improve food access and community connections for residents. It has also sent the message to our food growers that they are appreciated and that the services they provide are essential to the health of our communities,” says Karlin Lamberto, Pittsburgh Food Policy Council Project Manager.

Charissa Ruth received scholarship funds to attend Owens Lambing Clinic in Sunbury, PA, and a virtual Cornell Small Farms course.

“As a result of [Cornell Small Farms] course, I looked for mentors in the farming community, started regularly working at several farms, and essentially got my hands dirty. This course showed me where my strengths are and what areas I need to work on in order to get my farming dream up and running,” says Ruth.

Of the on-farm experience at Owens Lambing Clinic, Ruth says, “My greatest takeaway from this experience was the confidence to start my own goat or sheep operation. The clinic covered so much of the practical information, not only to understand the process of lambing but the care for both mother and baby afterword as well.”

The fundraiser got an extra boost this year when home gardening saw explosive growth during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the US Census Bureau, garden store sales increased 8.6% between Spring 2019 and Spring 2020. With stay-at-home orders keeping many people cooped up and looking for a new hobby, the self-sufficiency of growing food and the therapeutic benefits of working with the earth fueled interest in home gardening. 

“It was definitely the highest seed demand we’ve seen in a very long time. Nobody saw it coming, and everyone was just scrambling to keep up. One of our vendors sold out of seeds completely by June,” recalls East End Food Co-op Produce Manager Tyler Kulp, who also oversees the co-op’s floral department. 

While it remains unclear how many people keep up with their gardening hobbies this year, seed vendors–and the co-op–have prepared to meet increased demand and the seed fundraiser will continue. A fresh batch of organic seeds from Renee’s Garden, High Mowing Seeds, and Hudson Valley Seed Company is due to arrive at the co-op in February. 

East End Food Co-op will also sell Grow Pittsburgh seedlings this year, continuing a successful partnership formed in 2020. 

“We are so grateful we had Grow Pittsburgh seedlings last year. We sold every single one. We really could barely keep them in stock. This year, we anticipate having double the inventory,” explains Kulp. 

Grow Pittsburgh seedlings will be delivered twice a week to the co-op, though the first delivery date is not yet determined. The co-op will also have local soil, compost, amendments, seed potatoes, onion sets, bulbs, and burlap bags to expand the gardening selection.

Plans are also underway for the 5th Annual Pittsburgh Urban Farm Tour, a collaborative event organized by East End Food Co-op, Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, and Grow Pittsburgh. The tour promotes urban agriculture as a viable means for food production and builds community connections. The 2020 tour was virtual due to COVID-19. Those video tours are still available to view on YouTube.  The 2021 format is yet to be determined but could be a hybrid of in-person and virtual programming.

 

Charissa Ruth got hands-on farm training at Owens Farm lambing clinic thanks to the Urban Growers Scholarship Fund.