Farming Magazine - April, 2009


Preserving a Pocket of Paradise

Can-do spirit spurs a collaborative urban ag movement
By J.F. Pirro
Photo courtesy of Dennis Burton, Schuylkill Center.
1970s showing the shadows of the farm fields filling in with second growth woodlands.

For John and Pat Fiorella, and their Upper Roxborough neighbors along Port Royal Avenue, which meanders downhill to the Philadelphia Art Museum bikepath and the Schuylkill River, their 3-acre rural property is paradise.

The Fiorellas grow “everything under the sun,” including strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, spring greens, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, corn, pumpkins, squash and potatoes. They have fruit and nut trees, and they also raise chickens. Using the principles of biodynamic farming, they first farmed 1/8 acre; now, it’s a .25-acre plot.

A meadow down, Ernie Sesskin and Brian Foster sought a weekend getaway, a country house and inspiration for their garden-inspired home accessory business. Hikes and digs yield branches, blossoms, pods and hives for products on their e-tail site, Among their best sellers is a floating fern between glass they frame in reclaimed lumber. “It’s sustainable for us, but we also love the intrinsic beauty,” Foster says.

Another neighbor, Jamie Wyper, is beekeeping. “I’m an amateur,” he admits of his four hives. “We eat it ourselves. I’m not harvesting. I’m cautious. I want them to survive, but I just bought an extractor.”

In a decade’s time, these upstart urban sustainable farmers unified to stave off both commercial and residential sprawl. A series of sister civic associations they formed defeated a large scale communications tower project and several proposed residential subdivisions. They secured the most contested chunk of land—the 27-acre, 19 century Barker Farm—and encouraged newcomers to come aboard and buy into safekeeping what is now the largest tract of privately-owned, permanently preserved land left in Philadelphia. Not only that, but they’re using the fertile acres along the Schuylkill River as they had been for centuries: for farming.

Along with the neighboring Schuylkill Center, a nonprofit environmental education center about to start its own 2-acre organic farm, what’s blossoming in just over a 1-square-mile radius is a vastly coordinated and collaborative agricultural movement that’s converged in a most unusual place, a major Northeastern city.

The center, too, is busy brokering perpetual green space easements and also partnering with a graduate-level urban planning class at the University of Pennsylvania to launch the Upper Roxborough Agricultural Network, a cooperative between the Fairmount Park Commission, the School District of Philadelphia’s W.B. Saul High School for Agricultural Sciences and Weaver’s Way, a co-op in Mt. Airy. Among the intended end products is a CSA (community supported agriculture) run by Weaver‘s Way and Saul, a farmstand for the center, and an incubator farm on portions of its 360 acres to train wannabe farmers.

“I didn’t come here thinking agriculture,” says Dennis Burton, Schuylkill Center’s executive director and the ecologist credited with New York Central Park’s urban ecological restoration in his previous position. “I came thinking ecology, but I also saw this area as a blank canvas.”

An agricultural past is preserved

From the plateau of the old Barker tract in the northwest corner of Philadelphia, where Boston’s American Tower Corp. (ATC) once fixated on erecting a 1,289-foot steel communications tower, you can see Center City.

Originally, Native American Indian sites were abundant here, then farms, like the century-old Barker Farm that flourished into the 1950s. Nearby in Chestnut Hill, Andorra Nurseries was kingpin. In the late 1940s, the site, which sits on a bluff above the river, nearly became the headquarters for the United Nations.

In the mid-1960s, the combined Smith, Meig and Houston families donated the largest piece—about 500 acres—that’s become the Schuylkill Center. Later, a chunk was sold to the Fairmount Park Commission, which in turn leased some of the land to W.B. Saul, specifically the 30-acre Manatawna Farm for hay cultivation, planting the seeds of those partnerships.

Agriculture isn’t new to this area. It’s just that it nearly vanished, but has now returned and is flourishing. A 1926 aerial photo Burton has depicts farmland from horizon to horizon, with plots delineated only with hedgerows. “We’d all like to see it that way again, though it’s not very realistic,” he says.

Since the early 1970s, the Schuylkill Center has made available 400 market garden plots. At 16 by 20 feet, they fetch $50 a season. “It’s a form of agricultural sharing,” says David O’Neil, an environmental center board member, conservationist and self-employed urban planner credited with saving Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

By 1998, Rodman Barker was ready to cash in the family farm. Area businessmen and brothers Rocco, Joseph and Louis Del Monte bought an option with the intent to develop the parcel. The purchase, however, was contingent on zoning changes and success in courting commercial tenants or residential developers.

But, the existing residents were adamant that the land had to remain rustic, private and sparsely populated. Since the late 1940s and early ’50s, there were already preexisting clusters of smaller towers on nearby properties neighbors call “antenna farms,” and the didn’t want any more.

Wyper, an architect by trade who orchestrated many kindred neighborhood alliances, contacted business leaders, schools, community groups and lawyers. Gradually, they discouraged WHYY-TV12, ATC’s would-be primary tenant. Both ATC’s request and its appeal for a zoning change on the Barker tract were denied. Developers left disappointed, as did the Del Montes, and eventually Barker, as well. On tract to get $1.5 million from the Del Montes, he settled for $900,000 from the nonprofit Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia (PAGP), which also successfully lobbied for the creation of a federal Upper Roxborough Historic District.

In turn, PAGP worked with existing neighbors to recruit new like-minded buyers to take advantage of a federal tax break for buyers of certified historic properties who agreed to conservation easements. The 27 acres were divided, and the eight parcels were deeded directly to seven purchasers (one bought two lots).

Seeds of progress sown

Fiorella, a cabinetmaker, was delivering kitchen cabinets to a now neighbor when he first noticed the vacant Barker Farm. For 12 years, he had painstakingly restored a carriage house 20 minutes away in Glenside. “It was an incredible labor of love,” Pat says, “But John kept saying our garden there wasn’t big enough. He wanted more land.”

Now, their piece of the Barker Farm includes a 19th century stone farmhouse, a timber-framed Pennsylvania bank barn, a cowshed, a chicken coop and a root cellar.

Before them, the place hadn’t been tended to in 30 years. “We’re doing this to create a lifestyle for ourselves,” Pat says. “Every year we do more for ourselves and rely less on outside sources.”

John reaffirms his position on biodynamic farming, saying, “It’s closer to the way people planted 100 years ago to attract the earth’s energies. It’s like organic, but there’s more of a spiritual sense to it.”

Biodynamic agriculture conceives of the farm as a self-contained, individual entity. A closed loop that feeds back into itself, with an emphasis on the integration of crops and livestock, the recycling of nutrients, soil maintenance and the health and welfare of the earth, crops and animals. The farmer, too, is part of the whole. It extensively utilizes cover crops, green manures and crop rotations. The approach also attempts to consider celestial influences on soil and plant development to revitalize the farm, its products and its inhabitants.

There’s never any use of pesticides. Everything is composted, except what’s edible, and that goes to the Fiorellas’ chickens. Then, the chicken manure is mixed with straw, and that’s composted. As a water source, John uses a 1,500-gallon water storage tank to collect the barn roof’s rainwater. Two good spring rains fill the tank.

Seeds are planted at certain lunar phases, and the Fiorellas consult the lunar calendar before planting. Pat says, “Yeah, I believe because I’ve seen the difference. If the moon does things to oceans, why not to the earth and minerals?”

For the environmental center’s planned garden, Burton prefers the word organic, but he also suggests, “Regardless of the sun, moon and stars, it’s still going to be hard work.”

Thus far, Sesskin and Foster’s mission has focused on grounds conservation and restoring their woodlands with native species. Avid gardeners, they’ve cut away nonnative, invasive growth, mostly wisteria and bamboo. They’ve planted various viburnums that will drop berries to attract birds, and they want to create a bog, ponds and a waterfall. Foster says the property is “screaming for grapes.”

“What I like is that it’s happening on so many different levels,” O’Neil says. “There’s a heartfelt synergy. It’s urban agriculture, and anyone can do it, but we’re just blessed with this particularly large area. All those guys back then weren’t dumb; they knew where the good ground was.”

Old world meets new

Irish gardeners who last worked for the Barkers in the 1950s once pulled into the Fiorellas’ driveway. “They remembered milking the cows in the meadow, and storing it in the root cellar in the barn,” Pat says. “It wasn’t that long ago, but it seems like another world.”

Pat says, “We feel very lucky. And when there’s a chicken on the table, my kids know it came from the freezer—and our backyard before that.”

“Even in paradise you have to eat,” Burton explains.

The author is a new contributor to Farming. He is a widely-published writer and English teacher at Emmaus (Pa.) High School. For over 25 years, he’s written in nearly every journalistic genre and been published in 75-plus national and regional magazines, as well as dozens of daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. He’s painstakingly restored a 1780 log and stone farmhouse and property in Quakertown, Pa., where he raises Olde English Babydolls, the original lambs in Colonial America.