Entries in agriculture (26)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Transforming a vacant lot into an urban farm transforms a neighborhood as well
When Dylan Baird first saw the abandoned lot near 53rd and Wyalusing in the Haddington neighborhood of West Philly, it was all weed trees and trash. “You couldn’t even walk across it,” he recalls. Today, the ¾-acre property, ringed by rowhomes, is an urban farm, bursting with tomatoes and peppers, string beans and okra, collard and kale.
story by April White | photos by Emily Wren
Pete Merzbacher’s voice is muffled as he talks about his months-old West Philly-based baking company, Philly Bread. “It’s the flour,” he explains. “It’s everywhere. It’s in my phone now.”
As Philly Bread’s owner and chief baker, Merzbacher, 23, transforms 250 pounds of GMO- and chemical-free flour each week into baguettes and boules for wholesale customers and a small but dedicated group of “bread CSA” members. Many discovered Merzbacher’s loaves through word of mouth or Facebook, where he announces his weekly specials—rosemary focaccia, olive and herb with orange zest, sunflower rye—and connects with Philly’s urban farmers and foragers to source ingredients.
Sonja Claxton has always known what she’s passionate about, and now, as the Organizational Wellness Manager for Common Market, she has the title to prove it.
Earlier this year, Claxton was working at a health research company in Wayne. She liked her job, but felt disconnected from her roots in social and environmental sustainability.
While studying international business and economics at Temple University’s Fox School of Business and Management, she founded the student organization Students for Responsible Business, which later became Net Impact. She also pushed to make a business ethics class standardized business school curriculum. Now, Claxton “wanted to bring my network into my job.”
Mirroring her work at Temple, Claxton and a coworker co-founded a sustainability awareness group in the office, where they helped colleagues recognize the negative effects of wasteful workplace activities and the benefit of using resources wisely.
“I didn’t feel I was a valuable asset to my company until I started to use my knowledge of the sustainability and health and wellness world to show leaders that sustainability practices are more effective than they think,” she says.
David Siller’s talent for hunting out nettles, pawpaws, quince and dozens of other delicious, edible plants that grow wild in the region have made him a favorite of chefs at restaurants like Russet, Kennett, Pumpkin and Will. Will chef Christopher Kearse was Siller’s first customer when he was cooking at Pumpkin. “I showed up with ramps and nettles and told him about the other stuff I had,” recalls Siller. “He said ‘Bring it on.’”
How did you get your start as a forager?
I’ve been foraging professionally and selling to restaurants for four or five years. Before that, I was foraging for myself. I was the kid who would eat berries from the schoolyard. After college, I started learning more about plants. I’m a conscious harvester, which means listening to the environment and caring about the sustainability of the plants.
What is the attraction of foraged ingredients?
They taste awesome and they’re unique. It’s not just fiddleheads and ramps. The wild food world is so broad. I get excited about the uncommon things, like Cornelian cherries. I try to encourage chefs to get creative with uncommon ingredients.
What does it take to be a forager?
I have a truck, boxes and bags, a shovel or two, a scale and a knowledge of plants and locations. I’ll go about 100 miles in all directions. I have my eyes open all the time. Sometimes I’m just going for a hike and poof! There’s maitake mushrooms. It’s like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
So, anyone can do this?
I’ve seen people of all ages get into it. It’s good to have a teacher before you start. It’s definitely not a good idea to just go out and pick random leaves and start eating them.
David Siller is a professional forager from the Delaware Valley. If it’s edible and marketable, he knows where it grows. Visit him at yosoybean.com.