Bringing Fresh Eats to the Food Desert"The farm has taken something discarded and turned it into something lush and interesting and productive."
The weed-strewn lots in front of a hulking steel mill seem an unlikely place to grow food, but organic lettuce, sprouts, squash, kale, strawberries and other plants rise from the lush soil of Braddock Farms.
The one-and-a-half-acre farm sits in the shadow of U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Works on desolate Braddock Avenue, the main drag of a battered industrial town a few miles east of Pittsburgh.
The raised beds of fruits and vegetables are an encouraging sign of life — and a much-needed source of fresh produce — in Braddock, a Monongahela River community that lost most of its population and retail stores during the '60s and '70s.
The idea of turning postindustrial decay into an open-air greenhouse surfaced in 2007 when Braddock Mayor John Fetterman approached Grow Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture.
Now in its fourth growing season, Braddock Farms has done a lot more than beautify an eyesore in the heart of town. As Mayor Fetterman says, "Metaphorically, the farm has taken something discarded and turned it into something lush and interesting and productive. It provides summer jobs for youth in our community."
Braddock Farms is the largest urban farm run by Grow Pittsburgh, which grows food in communities where grocery stores and other fresh food markets have often left town.
Grow Pittsburgh hires the manager for the site as well as local interns, who earn a paycheck as they learn about sustainable organic farming.
"We expose people to what it means to grow food in an urban environment," says Julie Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh. "Urban agriculture is an effective community development strategy. If there is an urban garden or farm, it adds value to your neighborhood. It makes everything more attractive."
Braddock Farms sells its produce to local residents at a discount at a farm stand on Braddock Avenue every Saturday.
"The farm has become a point of pride in the community," says Kate Hickey, director of external affairs for Grow Pittsburgh. "You see people stopping by and walking in and out of the farm. They hang out at the food stand, which is great fun."
Workers at Braddock Farms have enriched the soil, but even so, urban gardening has its unique challenges. Workers occasionally have to remove clumps of concrete left behind from torn-down houses and look up at spumes of steel mill exhaust in the sky.
There's no worry about industrial pollution, though. Grow Pittsburgh has had the soil, air quality and vegetables tested and found no contamination problems, allowing it to continue serving up safe, fresh produce to the residents here.