Big City Farms: Sustainable Farming Right in the City

Imagine living in the middle of a city—a locale not necessarily known for freshly picked produce—and being able to eat or serve healthy vegetables that have been picked within the last 24 hours. One company, Big City Farms, is striving to do just that through a network of small urban sustainable farms. And in their home city of Baltimore, it’s already happening.

“There’s a lot of land in urban areas that is just not utilized or is underutilized,” Alex Persful, one of Big City Farms’ four partners, told Calmful Living. “Here in Baltimore our demo farm is actually on an asphalt parking lot, which used to be a city garage, that we’ve leased from the city for five years. We put in a 22-by-50-foot hoop house, then put down a plastic barrier. We bring in compost on top of the plastic barrier and actually plant directly upon that.”

The demo model has worked like gangbusters. “The local response is excellent,” Persful said. “I’ve never been in a business where I don’t even have to sell it; it’s already gone. We cut it and deliver it the same day, and it’s really hard to beat that freshness.”

Crops grown are primarily salad greens and herbs. Clients include food service giant Bon Appétit (which services two colleges within the area), and local restaurants. They also sell through farmers’ markets.

A Personal Mission

Persful himself, having been engaged in sustainable growing for some years, was very happy to find the company and to come aboard as a partner and manager. “I’ve lived in Panama since 1995, up until the last year when I moved to Baltimore,” he said. “In Panama I did many things. In the last six years I had a corn plantation, and ran about 1,500 acres of orange trees; we processed up to 15,000 gallons of orange juice per season.”

Sustainable growing became important to Persful at an early age. “I’m originally from Arkansas; I grew up on a cattle ranch,” he related. “When I was younger I saw the extension agents come over and help us out spraying the field with some Agent Orange. That was pretty much my first taste of the chemical side. I didn’t want any part of that.”

After a stint in the navy and a short time in college, Persful apprenticed at working with cattle. During that time, he became enamored with sustainable growing. “Through the man who was apprenticing me, I got to meet many people including Chuck Walters, founder of Acres USA magazine and a big book writer,” Persful recalled. “Chuck changed me a lot, and I started getting more involved in soil.”

Not long ago Persful decided to make the move back to the US. “I was curious about moving back to the States, and I wanted to see what was here,” he said. “I read an advertisement for a manager at this company, and I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty interesting: urban farming. What an oxymoron that is.’ I talked to the guys and I came up here. I liked the mission. It’s more of a social mission than normal farming, because we’re actually doing it right in urban areas. I was also surprised at what we could do with the model we were using.”

The Successful Model

Big City Farms has already partnered with a Baltimore nonprofit corporation to help them establish another farm in the Big City Farms model. “They have two acres of land on a five-year lease from the city,” Persful explained. “We’re helping them out with the fundraising so they can put all of their hoop houses up.”

Additional farms established in Baltimore and then expanding to other cities will follow the same successful model. “Somebody comes to us when they have a piece of property in a city, or they want to rent out or lease a lot. We’ll help them do that process and assist them in getting it up and running. Then we’ll guarantee the buyback of all their product. We can go ahead and presell those orders, and everybody will grow on the same standards that we do.”

Best Practices Researched Out

Those standards have been well researched to sustainably maximize production. “One of our partners is Dr. Thomas Handwerker of University of Maryland Eastern Shore,” Persful continued. “He’s in charge of the UMES Small Farm Institute. He went all around the world looking at different production models of the hoop houses, and he pretty much came up with the idea.”

The idea is to grow strictly in compost, and utilize purely natural means with no herbicides or pesticides. “I like to consider myself a biological farmer,” said Persful. “Taking care of the soil means taking care of the plant, and so we put in a lot of biologicals, such as predatory nematodes, beneficial fungus and beneficial bacteria.”

Insects are also taken care of through such methods—although the rapidity at which harvest occurs is itself a natural deterrent. “We have a very fast turnover rate,” Persful pointed out. “We’re able to produce 52,000 pounds of head lettuce and about 20,000 pounds of salad mix, and nothing stays in the ground more than 6 weeks. In the summertime it’s only 3½ to 4 weeks before they’re harvested. So it doesn’t give the bugs a chance to breed.”

The hoop houses themselves are built to be strong against weather. “It’s a hurricane house, built a lot different than most hoop houses,” Persful said. “It’s strengthened with polywire and will stand up to the wind; we’ve had up to 65-mile-an-hour winds. The strength also keeps the plastic from sagging if there’s snow on it.”

Going forward, the successful model will be replicated for maximum success for all growers utilizing the method. “We always want to do the same thing, because growing on compost is working out very well,” Persful concluded. “We just want a uniform standard of the product that we’re using, and everybody using the same thing. That way we can tackle any problems as they arrive as a group instead of individually.”

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