Especially amid the trauma and isolation of the COVID–19 pandemic, many of us have gravitated toward simpler, more agrarian lifestyles, as epitomized by the rise of cottagecore. We yearn to be more connected with nature, to feel a sense of inner peace, to plant our own gardens and bake our own bread—but how many of us actually know how to grow, harvest, and prepare food?
Nestled on city blocks all across Philadelphia, urban farms provide visitors with the unique opportunity to learn how to grow their own gardens: how to sow seeds, how to weed, how to choose and care for plants. Free to the public, overflowing with flora and fauna, and open to people of all races, ages, and skill levels, these farms are a green oasis in the urban landscape. Despite some challenges with land ownership and financing, these urban farms do so much more than just grow food. Through their volunteer programs and community events, they connect people to the land, to their heritage, and to each other.
I visited three such farms to learn more about their visions for the future of farming.
The Farm at Awbury
The Farm at Awbury, previously known as the Agricultural Village, is a 16–acre section of Awbury Arboretum in Northwest Philadelphia. Lush with trees and vegetation, the physical site’s different features reflect the arboretum’s diverse array of partnerships. The farm’s weekly “Sunday Fun Days” offer a rotating list of interactive family–friendly activities, like butterfly demonstrations, tea tasting, and live music. The Sunday I visited, I was greeted by members of Philadelphia’s Beekeepers Guild, who enthusiastically demonstrated their process of extracting fresh, sticky honey from the beehives they brought from their backyards.
From there, I wandered to the disability–friendly “please–touch–me” garden, picking a few stalks of lavender and lemongrass to inhale their fresh fragrance. Turning left, I discovered a small garden dotted with bright orange marigolds, pale blue delphiniums, and deep maroon hollyhock that members of the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers harvest to naturally dye their textiles. I met Awbury’s non–human residents too—12 chickens and 13 goats, courtesy of the Awbury Cluck Patrol and the Philly Goat Project. At the heart of the Farm at Awbury, I found what I came for: Mort Brooks Memorial Farm.
Mort Brooks Memorial is an urban farm operated by the Weavers Way Co–op, a member–owned cooperative grocery with stores across Philadelphia. Weavers Way practices community–supported agriculture, a system in which people can pay upfront for a “share” in the farm in return for its later harvest. Non–members can benefit too: Through a partnership with the nonprofit Food Moxie, the co–op provides experiential learning opportunities around farming, nutrition, and culinary skills.
“I think food is a really great connector. Everybody eats. And so, we want to expand your enthusiasm for eating a vegetable to learning to grow that vegetable,” says Nina Berryman, a farm manager for Weavers Way. “I want a student to walk away from their time at the farm and think, ‘I could grow basil. I could do this.’”
Indeed, at a time of increasing urbanization and declining numbers of farmers, many people are less knowledgeable and more isolated from the process of how their favorite produce ends up at their dinner tables.
“If there's no relationship to [food], there is no desire to care for it … It's viewed as a practice outside of living that someone else does,” says Jessica McAtamney, a lecturer at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice and a representative of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council. By offering opportunities to learn about farming, gardening, and nutrition, urban farms like Mort Brooks Memorial encourage more people to engage with their food systems.
Location: Ardleigh Street and East Washington Lane, Awbury Arboretum, Philadelphia
Sankofa Community Farm
A 20–minute bike ride or quick trip on the 36 trolley will get you from Penn’s campus to Sankofa Community Farm—a sanctuary away from the bustle of university life. Walk through Bartram’s Garden, the 50–acre park in Southwest Philadelphia where Sankofa is located, and you can enjoy historic buildings, flower and medicinal gardens, a fish pond, and a boardwalk by the Schuylkill. The farm’s four acres are nestled in the southern part of the park.
I signed up for a volunteer day, which the farm hosts on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. On a sweltering July morning, I met up with volunteers from all over South and West Philadelphia: newcomers, hardy farm veterans, shy high schoolers, friendly grandpas, and everyone in between, all ready to work in the dirt.
At this point, we met Ty Holmberg, the co–director of the farm alongside Chris Bolden–Newsome. Running out to greet us in a baseball cap and jeans caked with mud from the knees down, Ty pulled all 30–some volunteers into a large circle and explained the story of Sankofa.
“We're a spiritually rooted farm, we're an intergenerational farm, we are African diaspora–centric. We are a multiracial space, but we center Black leadership and the experience of Black people.”
From growing foods specific to people of African descent, like okra, to holding educational workshops that combine cooking, culture, and history, the farm is a space for people to heal and rebuild their relationships with food, the land, and one another.
“Sankofa is this idea: to go back and fetch what you left behind,” Holmberg elaborated. “It's a West African term from King Adinkera of the Akan people of West Africa, which is where Ghana is today. It’s about understanding your history, your relationship to the land, and your ancestors, in order to move forward.” Sankofa, in other words, is part of a growing movement within urban agriculture to reckon with the United States’ long history of depriving Black farmers of land and power. The movement uncovers the power of agriculture to reclaim cultural heritage and move toward collective liberation, after decades of dealing with sharecropping and redlining.
That day, our healing process began as we pulled on our gloves, walked into the farm, got on our knees, and began to weed. Energized, despite the sweltering touch of the sun, I painstakingly made my way through the twisted vines and tall grasses stubbornly stationed around my assigned row of purple kale. I got to know my fellow volunteers: Brett is a college student finishing up his community service hours; Sarah has no gardening experience, but a passion for sustainability and a desire to learn; Josephine has her own private lots in two separate community gardens in the city and still somehow finds the time to volunteer. As I heard each of their stories, I felt more connected than ever to the community—not just as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, but as an active resident of Philadelphia.
Single–day volunteers only scratch the surface of the wide variety of people that Sankofa serves. Through an extensive youth internship program called the Big Incredible Gardeners, 20 to 25 youth work year–round on the farm and learn about the history and culture of the African Diaspora. Visiting school groups, community gardeners, senior staff, and Southwest neighbors all come together to work on the land.
“I sometimes use the metaphor of how in the mushroom world, the mycelium is this network that connects plants to plants,” Holmberg says. “It's a connector and a communicator, and I really feel like that’s the role played by the farm.”
Location: 5400 Lindbergh Blvd., Bartram’s Garden, Philadelphia
Life Do Grow Farm
Located north of Temple University, Life Do Grow Farm is easy to spot. It’s not only an urban farm but also a public park, outdoor classroom, community marketplace, and a venue for artistic expression. The farm is adorned with colorful murals, mosaics, and sculptures. Life Do Grow is operated by Urban Creators, a grassroots organization supporting equity, community resilience, and collective liberation.
At the start of my visit, I received an enthusiastic and detailed tour from one of the regulars at the farm—who, to my surprise, also studied at Penn. The farm fits an impressive array of features into its limited two acres: rooftop solar panels and rain catchment systems; hammocks and lawn chairs and a fire pit; storage buildings and a compost pile; an herb garden and a greenhouse; and most impressively, a massive geodesic dome containing tables, chairs, and air conditioning.
I was surprised to find that the volunteers and staff were a balanced mix of students from Temple University and residents from North Philadelphia. Similar to Penn, Temple has a complicated and often challenging relationship with its surrounding neighborhoods. It’s estimated that between 1965 and 1975 alone, 7,000 Black families were displaced from what we call Templetown, and the trend still continues, as Temple leadership looks to build a football stadium in a residential area. Urban Creators has made progress in dissolving some of the tension by empowering students and community members to work together toward a common good.
Life Do Grow carries out a number of projects to serve the community. During the COVID–19 pandemic, the farm operated a Mobile Market that distributed “approximately 61,000 [pounds] of produce, 32,310 fresh meals, 21,300 diapers, 94,872 feminine hygiene products, 350 books, and hundreds of PPE items.” Through various partnerships, Urban Creators provides employment opportunities, political and workforce training, and mentorship through programs like the Urban Innovation Program and Don’t Fall Down in the Hood. In 2015, the organization collaborated with the Mural Arts Guild to train young adults who were formerly incarcerated, resulting in reduced rates of recidivism among participants. And in 2021, Urban Creators partnered with the Philadelphia Opioid Response Unit to train young people as “peacemakers” to promote harm reduction through overdose prevention education.
Despite over ten years of relationship–building in the neighborhood, Life Do Grow faces legal and bureaucratic barriers to permanent land ownership. With its rent–free lease set to expire in February of 2022, the farm is fighting to keep its land through the Philadelphia Land Bank.
Due in part to city policy that views urban farms as placeholders before more valuable re–development takes place, most urban farms do not have full ownership of their land. Land availability is less of a challenge—at least 6,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia are publicly owned and ready for disposition—but complicated bureaucratic requirements and threats of new development make it difficult for farms to access this land. Nevertheless, organizations like the Philadelphia Land Bank and the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land are making progress to establish urban farms as a permanent fixture of the city.
“This neighborhood is steeped in history, every generation who has lived in North Philadelphia can recall where their favorite childhood memory took place in this neighborhood,” said Tyler A. Ray in a government testimonial. Ray is a lifelong North Philadelphia resident and community organizer who views Life Do Grow as his grounding place. He explained that the urban farm acts as a “middle man” in a food desert by providing fresh produce to a community with scant access to healthy options.
“Many urban gardens and farms are also at risk of their land being stripped away by private development regardless of their community impact,” he said. “I ask that when the notion of food insecurity is discussed, the conversation of land sovereignty and the recognition of communal ownership is also included.”
Location: 2315 North 11th St., Philadelphia
With organizations like the Farm at Awbury, Sankofa Community Farm, and Life Do Grow Farm leading the way, urban farming represents hope for the city on a number of fronts—food access, sustainability, mental and physical health, and social and civic engagement. Despite a plethora of challenges with land ownership and funding, urban agriculture has persisted in Philadelphia for over a century. Such survival is the direct result of dedicated work and advocacy by many of the organizations and people highlighted here, as well as countless others.
With the appointment of Ash Richards, the city’s first–ever director of urban agriculture, and the initiation of planning for the city’s first–ever long–term urban agriculture strategy in 2019, the next few years may be the most exciting for the growth and establishment of urban agriculture in the city.
In the meantime, Philadelphians should make time in their busy schedules to volunteer at a nearby urban farm, care for a tomato plant, or learn an old family recipe. The advantages of these activities go far beyond basic nourishment—they are powerful ways to connect to your community, your culture, and yourself.