Using small parcels of urban land, a local co-op reaps a plentiful bounty
Off of Washington Lane in East Mt. Airy, down a rough little driveway, is the Mort Brooks Memorial Farm.
There, on land leased from the Awbury Arboretum, farmer David Zelov and his crew of apprentices and volunteers are taking local to a new level. On only a few acres of urban land, this offshoot project of Weaver’s Way Co-op is producing fruit and vegetables that will help stock not only the co-op’s produce shelves, but also provide wholesome options for the local community at farmers’ markets and roadside farm stands.
The 31-year-old Zelov grew up in northwest New Jersey. He went to Rutgers to study natural resource management, but ended up becoming involved with the campus’ student-run organic farm. “I didn’t think I would end up in any sort of farming career,” says Zelov. “But just working there, I got more interested in it.”
He held a few jobs—including managing a CSA—before realizing that he didn’t want to be in an office. At that point, Zelov was living in Philadelphia and started looking for agricultural jobs. He didn’t think he’d find anything in the city, but then some people mentioned to him that Weaver’s Way Co-op was looking for a farmer.
Weaver’s Way has been running the Mort Brooks Memorial Farm—named for a late board member—as an educational venture since 1999. Students from local schools started seedlings, then planted and harvested them. The goal was to bring kids out and show them where their food was coming from.
Eventually, Weaver’s Way started researching small urban farms that were actually turning a profit—or at least breaking even—on an acre or less, and decided to expand operations. They brought in Zelov, rented a tractor, tilled the earth, sowed some cover and planted their first real crop in the spring of 2007.
Weaver’s Way is constantly looking for ways to be more efficient within the confines of an urban environment. They now offer CSA shares grown on a small plot of land in Fairmount Park that they farm in conjunction with Saul High School. They’ve also teamed up with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program to run a greenhouse, and, this year, erected hoop houses (unheated, covered structures) at Mort Brooks that, through January, produce arugula, kale, chard, bok choy and scallions. This year, they even took over the backyard lot of a house on East Mt. Airy Avenue—it was their leek field.