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Baltimore's Empty Lots Bloom With Healthy Greens


On a patch of asphalt on the edge of Baltimore, a row of greenhouses lay like giant white caterpillars across the blacktop.

This one stretch of land is blooming in the midst of a post-industrial wasteland that has lost about one-third of its population since its post-World War II peak, leaving hollowed-out neighborhoods of boarded-up buildings and abandoned lots.

“It was a high-crime area. This vacant lot was a haven for drug activity. But not anymore,” says William Long, a farm manager who works for Big City Farms.

The company was the first to sign a lease to grow food on abandoned land owned by the city.

“We can really create jobs in the city, in an industry that doesn’t exist," said Alex Persful, president of Big City Farms. "That’s the whole meaning behind here. One, having good food. Two, having good jobs. And, all these lots that are just trash heaps right now.”

Turning trash heaps into fresh-food treasure troves makes a lot of sense for a city with 17,000 empty lots and 10 percent unemployment. Baltimore hopes to lease about eight hectares of vacant land to urban farmers in the next five years.

There are multiple benefits, says the planning department’s Abby Cocke. "Decreasing the burden on us for caring for vacant property. Employing more citizens, revitalizing the local economy. Drawing people into the city. I know of a few people who have moved to Baltimore to be part of the urban farming movement in Baltimore. It hits a ton of our goals.”

Farming in the city hits one of Persful’s main goals, too. While most produce is shipped in from across the country, Big City Farms grows its greens within 15 kilometers of the customer.

“I’m cutting it now," Persful said. "It’s getting to your plate within 24 hours. And there’s a big difference between something that was cut a week ago, or two weeks ago, and something that was cut just a couple hours ago.”

Restaurant chefs savor the ultra-fresh taste.

“I had the opportunity to serve carrots that were pulled from the ground less than two hours ago," said Timothy Dyson, chef at Bluegrass Tavern love. "The flavors really pop.”

Persful has shown he can grow fresh food just about anywhere, including this infertile patch of asphalt on the edge of the city.

“It’s been a parking lot for I guess about three years now," he said. "But this used to be the city garage behind us.”

Walking through a green carpet of lettuce inside one greenhouse, Persful digs through the roughly 15 centimeters of compost lining the floor. This is the pilot farm, where the company started out. But Big City Farms is all about growth in unexpected places.

That includes its employees. Farm manager William Long spent time in prison on drug-possession charges.

“This community itself needs a change for the better," Long said. "And me being an ex-offender myself, if they see that I can do it, maybe they will want to make a change as well.”

It's a change Big City Farms hopes to bring to cities across the country.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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