Urban Vegetable Farm Takes Root in Brownfield

  • Just outside the Greensgrow compound (photo by Brad Linder)

A farm is a strange thing to see in the middle of a gritty, urban area.
But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder recently visited a small
farm on what used to be a polluted site in an industrial neighborhood:


A farm is a strange thing to see in the middle of an gritty, urban area.
But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder recently visited a
small farm on what used to be a polluted site in an industrial

One of the first things you notice about this one-acre plot in
Philadelphia is how out of place the farm looks. About a block away is a
busy interstate highway that jams up with rush hour traffic twice a day.

The farm itself is surrounded by rowhouses, a steel galvanizing plant, and
an auto detail shop.

Chino Rosatto runs the auto shop. About 8 years ago, he first met his new
neighbors – a small group of farmers.

”It was weird at first, you don’t see no farm in the city.”

But Rosatto says he got used to the farm started by Mary Seton Corboy
pretty quickly.

“It was an empty lot. Nothing there. Just fenced up, and that was it. She
came up, did something with it.”

Before it was an empty lot, this city block was a steel plant. In 1988
the building was demolished, and the EPA declared the site hazardous.

It was cleaned up, but Rosatto says it was nothing but concrete slabs
until Mary Seton Corboy and her small group of volunteers came and started
the farm they call Greensgrow.

Corboy moved to Philadelphia from the suburbs nearly a decade ago. With a
background as a chef, she’d always been concerned about how hard it was to
find fresh produce. So she decided to grow it herself.

“The question that just kept coming up over and over again was, is there
any reason why you have to be in a rural area to grow food, given the fact
that the market for the food, the largest market for the food, is in the
urban area?”

Corboy says usually food travels an average of 1500 miles from its source
to wind up on most Americans plates. And she says when it comes to flavor
– nothing is more important than how fresh the food is.

“If you eat strawberries that are commercially available,
you have no taste recognition of something that people 40 years ago would
say is a strawberry, because of the refrigeration, because of the way they
are picked underripe, because of the things they are sprayed with to give
them a longer shelf life.”

Corboy says her first choice for a farm wouldn’t have been an abandoned
industrial site. But the rent was cheaper than it would be at almost any
other spot in the city.

And even though the EPA and scientists from Penn State University
confirmed that there were no toxic chemicals left, Corboy doesn’t plant
anything edible in the ground.

She grows some plants in greenhouses. Others are planted in raised soil
beds. And she grows lettuce in PVC pipes that deliver nutrients to the
plants without any soil at all.

Corboy still regularly sends plant samples out for testing. The results?

“At one point Penn State sent us back a report, we talked to
them on the phone about it, and they said your stuff is actually cleaner
than stuff that we’ve seen grown on farms. Go figure that. We feel very, very comfortable
with the produce that we grow. Because, you know, I’ve been living on it
myself for 8 years.”

And restaurant owners say they’re happy to buy some of the freshest
produce available.

Judy Wicks is owner the White Dog Cafe, a Philadelphia
restaurant that specializes in locally grown foods and meat from animals
raised in humane conditions. She’s been a loyal Greensgrow customer for 8

“As soon as we heard about Greensgrow, we were really excited
about the idea of supporting an urban farm on a brownfield – what a
dream! To you know, take an unsightly, unused block, and turn it into a
farm. It’s just a really exciting concept.”

Wicks says she’s never had a concern about the quality of the food,
because of the care taken to prevent it from touching the soil.

In addition to its restaurant business, Greensgrow sells fruit and
vegetables to Philadelphia residents at a farmer’s market twice a week.
The farm also operates one of the only nurseries in the city, which begins
selling plants this spring.

Mary Seton Corboy says running the farm has taught her a lot about food,
the environment, and waste. She says she doesn’t look at empty lots the
same way anymore. She’s learned to squeeze fruits, vegetables and flowers
out of every space of this city block. And she sees value in the things
other people throw out.

On a recent night Corboy was driving home with her farm manager Beth Kean,
and they spotted a pile of trash beside a building.

“But what they had dumped were all these pallets. And Beth
was with me in the car, and we both turned and looked at them and went,
Look at those pallets! Let’s come back and get them, they’re in great

Urban farming is tough. Corboy originally had lofty goals for her farm.
Greensgrow was going to be a pilot project, something she’d expand to
include 10 farms throughout Philadelphia.

8 years later, Greensgrow is still anchored on its original one-acre site.
But by keeping her costs low and selling to loyal customers, Corboy sold
200-thousand dollars worth of produce last year. That was enough to make
2004 the farm’s first profitable year.

For the GLRC, I’m Brad Linder.

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