Weaver's Way Co-op Enjoys the Sweet Sounds of Success

The Mt. Airy farm has grown up.

By Dan Packel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 19, 2009

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David Zelov was the first full-time farmer at Weaver's Way Co-op. He continues in that role today.

Photo by Michael Persico

The presence of a teenager blowing into his saxophone while standing in front of the farm shed seemed oddly appropriate. After all, Weaver's Way Farm is located in Germantown, once home to jazz legends like Sun Ra and Grover Washington Jr.

Sure, some might argue that the two acres under cultivation, leased by Weaver's Way Co-op from the Awbury Arboretum, are actually in East Mount Airy. The boundaries between the neighborhoods are hazy. Regardless of the exact geographical definition of the farm, this bucolic spot, situated on gently rolling terrain, is easily permeable by the community. Brandon, the budding saxophonist, lives just across the way from the farm. Having been exposed to urban agriculture, in the fall he attends Saul High School, Philadelphia’s agricultural high school, located in Roxborough.

When Weaver's Way Co-op began leasing the quarter-acre of land in 2000, education was an immediate focus of the farm.   The Co-op, firmly ensconced as a symbol of Mount Airy’s progressive inclinations, started the farm as a memorial to long-time board member Mort Brooks. From the first season on, fourth grade students at nearby C.W. Henry Elementary School have been involved in visiting the farm, planting seedlings, weeding and harvesting.

But in the years since the farm’s inception, there’s been an increased emphasis on financial stability and increased production, without rolling back community-related activities. “The idea was to create a self-sustaining farm,” says Dave Zelov, who was hired as the first full-time farmer in 2007 and continues in the role today. “Then the farm could be used for educational purposes.”

In order to reach these goals, it was imperative the farm grow. If full-time supervision by a professional farmer was necessary to maximize the potential of the land, then it was essential to put more land under cultivation in order to cover the wages of the farmer. So the Co-op negotiated a lease with the Arboretum to expand the farm first from 1/4 to 3/4 acre in 2007, then up to two acres this year. The cost of the tools and equipment needed to make the most of the land also pointed to the need to put land that had been fallow into use. You read about "economies of scale" in microeconomics classes, where organizations start saving money in cost as they grow larger. This was a textbook example.

The first step in cultivating this space was simple. The Arboretum needed to bring in a backhoe, then the farm's volunteers needed to use their hands to remove the stumps and rocks from some newer plots before the land could be tilled and crops could be planted.

Other infrastructure improved too. The original harvest station, used to wash crops once they had been taken from the field, was simply a bathtub. But through collaboration with a Philadelphia University graduate level Sustainable Design class, a new covered area, with multiple basins, was built over a course of a week in July 2008, made primarily from salvaged materials.

The results of two other collaborations sit up the hillside from the farm plots: two high tunnel hoop houses that are seeing their first season of use. The first, built through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, is primarily used to start seedlings for the PHS's City Harvest Program—the farm uses it to start a few of their own seedlings. The second, through Penn State's Philadelphia Cooperative Extension, is entirely under the purview of the farm; it serves as a season extender, allowing Weavers Way to start crops like kale, collards and other greens in February and March and grow them into December. "We can grow almost all year with the right crops," says Zelov.

The upshot of this expansion is more locally grown produce available, not just for co-op members, but also for shoppers at multiple farmers markets in the city. Some of the farm's output still goes onto the shelves at the two co-op locations in Mount Airy and West Oak Lane. But more is heading to two weekly farmers markets: the Weaver's Way Farmers Market, held on Thursday afternoons across the street from the Mount Airy co-op, and the popular Headhouse Farmers Market on Sundays. A little more goes to nearby Geechee Girl Cafe on Germantown Avenue.

Currently, the markets are fully stocked with cool-season crops like mustard greens, kale, turnips, radishes, and arugula. But as the summer moves forward, expect to see an impressive array of tomatoes (26 varieties were planted this year) and peppers (15 different kinds), in addition to other new plantings like  the strikingly shaped Romanesco cauliflower.

All this isn't bad for barely two acres of cultivated land, attached to a 55-acre arboretum in the middle of densely populated Northwest Philadelphia. "It doesn't really feel urban-- except for the sound of the sirens and the ice cream trucks," says Zelov. That, and the sounds of the saxophone.

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