“Don’t write about me,” says Gina Humphreys with a laugh. The farmer behind Urban Girls Produce is a bit shy, but she gets excited when the focus shifts to her business, and the various vegetables she and her team are cultivating on four acres at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.
Humphreys grew up on a farm in New Jersey. Her grandmother grew vegetables and kept various livestock, but when her parents took over, they sowed the entire property with soy. After a stint in Seattle, Humphreys returned to the East Coast and, six years ago, began cultivating a small garden on an out-of-the-way corner of that farm. “They gave me the worst spot on the farm, which I made very nice,” she says. The garden expanded quickly, and she started selling her produce at the Clark Park farmers’ market.
The situation on her family’s property wasn’t ideal—she had to worry about sequestering her plants from the Roundup they used on the soy—so she went looking for some land.
The Schuylkill Center, coincidently, was looking for a farmer. Over the last few years, Executive Director Dennis Burton has developed a passion for agriculture as an environmental issue, and felt the Center should be highlighting it in its curriculum. Unfortunately, in light of the recession, the board didn’t feel they had the money to spend. “I needed a farmer who could be self-sufficient,” explains Burton. “And they needed to be a good farmer, to understand the relationship between soil and crops and bugs—the ecology of agriculture—because our approach to environmental education is a scientific approach.”
Burton found Humphreys through the PUFN (Philadelphia Urban Farm Network) listserv, and last summer Urban Girls moved to Roxborough.
The 2009 growing season was a rough one, with weather issues galore, freshly-turned, unconditioned soil and Humphreys’ unfortunate bout with lyme disease, but this year, the operation is in full swing. Humphreys has help from four other women—two full-time and two part-time. “Most of them just stopped by my stand,” she explains. “They were ambitious and wanted to work.” Another boon has been Philly Compost’s recent move to the Schuylkill Center (see June’s Grid).
One of the farm’s two-acre fields is planted with mixed vegetables—eggplant, tomatoes, peas, greens, berries and more—while the other boasts potatoes, sweet potatoes and corn. A homemade hutch houses about 30 chickens (CSA members can receive eggs) while okra and other greens grow in a high tunnel (an unheated greenhouse structure built in conjunction with Penn State’s agricultural program). Students from the Sustainable Design program at Philadelphia University built the work shed.
Urban Girls runs a small CSA and sells at the Clark Park Farmers’ Market in West Philadelphia on Saturdays. They also operate a farmstand on Tuesday afternoons (2-6 p.m.) at the Schuylkill Center, perfect for parents fetching their kids from camp.