Student wants city farm to be self-supporting

Annie Preston tends to pepper and tomato plants in the Neighborhood Foods Farm in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA — It has no street address, no sign pointing the way. Around here, it’s known simply as “the farm.”

Which sounds like a stretch. It’s at 53rd Street and Wyalusing Avenue in the Haddington section of West Philly, not exactly Green Acres.

But here it is, an actual working farm — at the end of an unpaved driveway, beyond a chain-link fence, surrounded by a horseshoe configuration of rowhouses.

You pretty much need to know where you’re going to get here, which, in a way, is also true of Annie Preston, a young Temple University student who came to this improbable place in 2010 to try her hand at urban farming and found her life’s work.

In two short years, she has helped build this 3/4-acre farm and position it to become a thriving, community-centered enterprise, and she’s committed to staying on for a year or two after graduation in 2013. After that comes graduate school in business administration and social work to learn how to transform grant-dependent farms such as this one into self-supporting, even profitable, neighborhood enterprises.

“Every farm in the city is supported by grants, and we’re all competing against each other. Most nonprofits of the future will have to have a for-profit aspect,” says the practical Preston, 21, who has been awarded a pair of grants for postgraduate study: $30,000 from the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation and $5,000 from the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation. Both are dedicated to identifying and supporting future leaders in public-service careers, including the environment, which is how Preston, a native of Silver Spring, Md., wound up as a farmer.

“I’ve always been passionate about environmental issues, and food is a really good way to get people excited about the environment,” she says.

The Haddington farm, sometimes referred to as the Polselli property after the family that once owned it, is the keystone of the Urban Tree Connection, or UTC, a nonprofit that also runs eight mostly ornamental gardens in the neighborhood. Founder Saul “Skip” Wiener, known around town as a “guerrilla gardener,” went to court in 2010 and, citing a new law, successfully argued that his group should be named conservator of the long-abandoned property. (Historically in Philadelphia, this has been a hopelessly complex process.)

The ruling meant that UTC would own the property, free and clear, and continue not just to grow food there but also, as Wiener says, “to build an economic system with the farm as the center.”

Long ago, there was a construction business on the site. In the 1990s, before UTC became involved, it had become a dumping ground for old cars, tires and trash and a draw for drug dealers and prostitutes. “It was a mess, it has these oil drums. ... It was ugly, really ugly,” recalls block captain Joann Manuel, a member of the farm’s Founders Group and the UTC board.

No sign of ugly now. The farm is a lovely grid of long, mounded rows of carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, garlic, collards and kale in various stages of growth. Arugula, lettuce, tomatoes, and basil fill a spiffy new hoop house that’s 80 feet long and 21 feet wide. A water-catchment system for irrigation is under construction, along with a pavilion for classes and a walk-in cooler to keep harvested produce fresh. There’s also a beehive, with more to come.

Preston and fellow farmers Ryan Witmer, who grew up on a farm in Wooster, Ohio, Raheem White and the one-name Que (pronounced cue), who turned their summer internships into full-time jobs, do everything organically, by hand. Witmer says his 84-year-old grandfather, who still helps cultivate the family’s 120 acres of mostly corn, soybeans and alfalfa, cannot understand a tiny city farm that grows more than two dozen crops, mostly heirlooms, shuns pesticides and isn’t mechanized.

“At home, they plant 25 acres in a day with machines. It takes us two weeks to plant 3/4 acre,” he says, laughing.

Preston grew up a suburban kid — Mom’s a shrink, Dad’s an engineer — but after high school, she signed up with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, also known as WWOOF, and worked on farms in New Zealand for six months. Despite this, she modestly observes that, “Skip took a chance hiring me, a college freshman with not a lot of experience.”

For his part, Wiener insists that hiring Preston could not have turned out better. “She’s my everything person. Ask Annie and it’ll get done,” he says, describing her as organized, methodical, able to write coherent grant proposals and technically experienced at farming.

“Annie is a walking textbook,” says Wiener, a Philadelphia native with degrees in plant physiology and landscape architecture.

She can be very quiet around strangers, but around kids and adults she knows, it’s another story.

“We love, love, love Annie. She’s so devoted and she can be so funny,” says Manuel, who often pops over to the farm early on Saturday mornings to weed, only to find Preston already there.

It’s easy to forget that this part-time farmer is still a full-time student — with a double major, no less, in geography and urban studies, and environmental studies. “I can’t wait to graduate,” Preston says. Which is understandable, because once that happens, she’ll be doing double time at the farm.