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PHOTO BY LAURA PETRILLA
Once again, asparagus and rhubarb are rising from the western Pennsylvania soil. While there is still uncertainty about what’s going to happen during the upcoming season, farmers in the region say they are poised to embrace one of the biggest takeaways from last year — a deeper connection with the people for whom they grow their crops.
“It feels more normal. Farming is never by any means an easy thing, but it feels better not to have all the extra stress of trying to recreate everything like we did last year. We’re doing what we know how to do, and that feels wonderful,” says Chris Brittenburg. He owns Who Cooks For You Farm with his wife, Aeros Lillstrom.
From seedling to specialty crops, these four farms represent what you might expect to find when looking for locally grown produce in 2021.
PHOTO COURTESY SOIL SISTERS PLANT NURSERY
Soil Sisters Plant Nursery
Sisters TaRay and Raynice Kelly launched Soil Sisters Plant Nursery in 2020, just as it was clear the COVID-19 pandemic was going to change all of our lives. One of the ways it affected many people was a renewed or new interest in gardening, which was helpful for the Kelly sisters, as they specialize in seedling sales.
Although the business was new, both of the Kelly sisters had a wealth of agricultural experience — TaRay maintains the grounds at the University of Pittsburgh, and Raynise has propagated plants for, among other local institutions, Brenckle’s Greenhouses, Tree Pittsburgh and Grow Pittsburgh (where she currently works as the Garden Resource Center manager).
“It was our first year. We were going through it, trying to figure it all out,” says TaRay Kelly. “People were so receptive of what we were doing.”
From their initial pop-up sale in April through the final push for autumn crops in October, growers throughout Pittsburgh took to their seedlings. On top of that, the Kelly sisters organized a physically distanced, growing-focused summer camp on Sunday afternoons for children ages 6 to 13.
Much like a well-tended seedling, the Soil Sisters Plant Nursery is ready to blossom in 2021.
“People were contacting us early in the year about camp. Now people are asking when the first day of seedling sales. It’s good to know people are out there inquiring about us and not just running off to Home Depot or Lowes to get their plants,” Kelly says.
The camp is back this year, and Kelly says it’ll be more immersive than it was last year; the five-week sessions will run on both weekend afternoons rather than just on Sundays this summer.
The seedlings are off to a good start, with hundreds of seedlings, including new varieties of peppers, tomatoes and leafy greens such as bok choy added to the mix. They’ve also expanded their focus on flowers.
The decision to sell seedlings was a deliberate one, chosen to address inequity at a hinge in the food chain that hadn’t yet been addressed in Pittsburgh. Their purpose is two-fold: Black growers don’t have a stake in the seedling economy in the region, and that by selling seedlings, they are empowering people to have agency over their foodways. “We’re not the first nursery in Pittsburgh. But we’re the first female- and Black-owned nursery in Pittsburgh,” TaRay Kelly says.
Their primary goal is to finish building their hoop house and plant nursery in Beltzhoover, a project that has taken longer than expected due to the rigamarole of permitting. The sisters expect to break ground on the next phase of their business in June. In the meantime, seedling sales begin Sunday at Ascend Pittsburgh’s BYO(Pot) Flower Market. For the time being, sales will continue at least twice a week on their lot in Mt. Oliver and as a pop-up in neighborhoods throughout the city. “A lot of businesses are asking us if we can do pop-ups. It’s nice because we’ll be able to visit a lot of different parts of town and be in areas that are local for the people who live there,” Kelly says.
PHOTO BY HAL B. KLEIN
Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Cooperative“It’s another growing season. It’s not just food; we’re growing minds,” says Raqueeb Bey. She founded Black Urban Farmers and Gardeners of Pittsburgh Cooperative (BUG-FPC) in 2015.
The 31,000 square foot Homewood Community Historic Farm is the heart of the BUG-FPC operation. The BUG-FPC community broke ground on the formerly blighted lot in 2017 and built a hoop house, healing garden and raised beds in the intervening years. It’s all part of a continuing mission to address food apartheid in the majority Black neighborhood. “We keep the neighbors engaged. We keep kids engaged. We feed people,” Bey says.
This year is no different. BUG-FPC is on the precipice of realizing several long-term action plans, and Bey says she’s particularly excited about the expansion of a farming-adjacent activity — beekeeping. “We are teaching Black people how to farm bees and the biodynamics of beekeeping,” she says.
Beekeeping serves many purposes. “We need bees. What we’re doing isn’t just going to service our farm. It’s going to send pollinators out to other farms around us,” Bey says.
They also produce honey, of course. It’s tasty, nutritious and can be used as homeopathic medicine. Bey says it’s also part of a small business development plan; BUG-FPC will sell this season’s honey at the new FarmerGirlEb store in the West End, Society for Contemporary Craft in Lawrenceville and Giant Eagle’s Shadyside Market District location.
On top of that, BUG-FPC is spearheading the Homewood Food Access Working Group farmers market, which will run on Saturdays starting in June; Sankofa Village Community Garden, Oasis Farm and Fishery and Junior Green Corps are the other primary vendors; community-focused food organizations such as Grow Pittsburgh and Just Harvest will also participate. Bey says that each farm will focus on specific crops so as not to overlap with each other; the Homewood farm, for example, will provide okra, greens and eggplant.
The Homewood farm will also serve as a location for workshops and classes such as growing medicinal herbs and using plants as natural dyes. Bey says that a second hoop house and more raised beds are in the works this summer, too.
And, Bey says, BUG-FPC has entered a partnership to open a cooperative grocery store, a project that’s been in the works for a few years. Homewood residents will have first access to membership in the cooperative and maintain a majority on the board. “I can’t say when, but it definitely will be this year,” Bey says.
PHOTO COURTESY BITTER ENDS FARM CO.
Bitter Ends Farm Co.
Jason “Joddo” Oddo started farming on just a quarter-acre of land in 2016. Oddo has specialized in growing flavor-packed vegetables from the onset, choosing crops for their potential for deliciousness rather than yield.
Pittsburgh is catching on to what makes Oddo’s outlook important. At the end of last year’s market season, Oddo was catering to a crowd at the Bloomfield Saturday Market. They were lining up for his superlative vine-ripened Italian cherry tomatoes, late-season spinach, carrots, chicories and other hardy greens.
Oddo expanded his operation last year as Bitter Ends Farm Co. but still was working on less than an acre and doing it almost entirely all by hand. This year, he says, “basically everything is different.” He estimates his new plot is 10 or 11 acres, and he plans on putting somewhere between 3 and 4 acres of it into production.
“I’m basing this model of farming on what I saw when I was in Italy [in early 2020]. A bunch of farms that are like 25 acres and just two or three people running the farm. They have a lot of machinery and just a few outlets for selling their vegetables. They can grow a huge amount of food by not trying to do a bunch of different things,” he says.
To that end, Oddo, with the help of a federal loan, invested in a 70-horsepower tractor (an upgrade from the two-wheel, walk-behind tractor the size of a lawnmower), a 72-inch French agricultural tiller, a transplanter and implements for digging vegetables such as carrots. “I can focus much more on harvesting. Last season, I spent maybe 10 percent of my time harvesting and packing. Now I hope it’ll be 60 percent,” Oddo says.
Oddo says that because of delays in obtaining his new farm equipment, as well as a customs hold up of some of his Italian seeds, his season got off to a slower start than he anticipated. Look for his production to ramp up in the summer and for it to boom in the colder months. “That’s really where the farm is going to shine. I’ll be doing special things that haven’t been available here as far as cold-weather diversity. I want my peak season to be through the winter. I hope to have stuff through even this time next year,” he says.
Oddo sells direct to customers at the Bloomfield Saturday Market and via Linea Verde Green Market, and he’s expanding his restaurant business to at least 10 establishments, including Morcilla, Apteka, Driftwood Oven and Bar Marco.
PHOTO COURTESY WHO COOKS FOR YOU FARM
Who Cooks For You Farm
Brittenburg and Lillstrom have seen many changes since they launched Who Cooks For You Farm in 2009. Over the years, they’ve grown their business from a niche operation to a mid-sized farm with robust direct-to-customer trade and significant restaurant business.
Last year, Who Cooks For You lost almost all of its restaurant business as the hospitality industry reeled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brittenburg says the farm was barely able to stay above water by pivoting to a more direct sales model, which included Lillstrom building an online marketplace that allowed customers to pre-order for market pick-up.
“Chefs wanted to buy more from us, but they just couldn’t. It was a stake to the heart. We adjusted, switched gears and packed boxes for federal programs. Markets picked up, too,” Brittenburg says.
Brittenburg says the now-deeper relationships with the farm’s consumers, as well as the uncertainty lingering around how robust the restaurant business will be this growing season, informed their planning choices for 2021. “We’re going to work with restaurants, but not nearly as much as we did in the past. It brings a lot of pain to Aeros and me because we expanded our business working with chefs and restaurants,” he says.
Two factors are helping bolster them in 2021, and both are based on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system, though they are very different in the way they function. Brittenburg and Lillstrom picked up many of Don Kretschmann’s long-standing traditional CSA customers when the modern pioneer of organic farming in western Pennsylvania announced his retirement late last year. On the flip side, the farmers have broadened their relationship with Harvie Farms, Simon Huntley’s innovative, technology-forward digital ordering system. On top of that, Who Cooks For You will set up at the Bloomfield Saturday and Squirrel Hill Sunday farmers markets.
“Those are all very viable enterprises. Those are where we can find our financial security, no matter what the circumstances,” Brittenburg says.
Brittenburg says he and Lillstrom are focusing on making what they typically grow even better by honing in on the small details, but there will be a few updates to their crop rotation, too; look for certified organic blueberries and strawberries (both rare finds at Pittsburgh markets), new varieties of tomato and potato and a Peruvian husk cherry the size of a small tomato.
“We’re rolling right along. The season is exploding. After last winter, I’m just so excited about fresh food. I want fresh tomatoes. I want cucumbers till it hurts. I want to eat local vegetables. It’s been a tough year,” he says.
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