Think Local

Royal Lush

By Dan Packel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 10, 2008

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You say tomato: Mary Corboy has a unique way of running her farm. (photo by michael persico)

For Mary Corboy, co-founder and chief farmhand at Greensgrow Farms in Kensington, an average day of work consists of much more than simply overseeing the myriad operations at the pioneering urban farm. As Greensgrow's reputation has expanded beyond Philadelphia, the one-acre plot in the deindustrialized neighborhood has become a destination for aspiring urban farmers--here and elsewhere--who want to draw lessons from Corboy's success.

On a recent afternoon at the farm Corboy was explaining its history and activities to a curious visitor from Brockton, Mass., who worked for a community food organization there. Meanwhile, farmhands and volunteers swirled about, readying the farm stand for sales and tending to plants in the 6,000-square-foot greenhouse. Some of the volunteers were there to learn Greensgrow's model to implement elsewhere in the city.

While the farm has evolved into a clearinghouse for locally grown products and a diversified vegetable farm, it began with only one crop: hydroponic lettuce. When Corboy and her initial partner Tom Sereduk moved their small farm from Jersey to Kensington in 1998, selling the lettuce to Philadelphia chefs was the only goal.

Now they sell not only lettuce but tomatoes, peppers, basil, spinach and arugula, among other items. While some of the food still goes to city restaurants, the bulk is sold to the public through the farm stand as well as through the farm's City Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

"We try to grow things that other farms aren't growing," says Corboy, pointing to unconventional varieties of peppers growing in one of the farm's raised beds. This is because, for both the farm stand and the CSA, Greensgrow brings in locally grown vegetables, dairy products and meats from other local producers in a 75-mile radius of Philadelphia.

The collection of food from Greensgrow's local partners is part of an ingenious cycle making use of a recently installed biodiesel generator in a corner of the farm. Waste oil procured from the fryers at the Standard Tap is converted into fuel for the farm's truck, which then makes the rounds: picking up fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses from producers scattered around the region.

There are plans for Greensgrow to continue to expand while concentrating its activities in Kensington. For example, Corboy will develop a production kitchen in the neighborhood that could be made available to local food-based businesses. The farm already converts some of its produce into ready-to-eat products like its massively popular pesto. "The drive for premade products never ceases to amaze me," says Corboy.

Turning vegetables into saleable goods is another way to eliminate waste: a tomato with a healthy crack down the side might not fly off the counter, but is right at home in a jar of tomato relish.

The vision goes well beyond a salvage operation for wounded vegetables. Corboy sees it as an incubator for other food-related entrepreneurs. "Ultimately, this neighborhood could become a gourmet ghetto ... like Berkeley was in the 1970s."

While the comparison between bucolic Berkeley and gritty Kensington may not seem obvious, it's been California stars under Kensington clouds at Greensgrow for years.

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