Greener Partners builds a strong bond

Last year might have been the third growing season at Hillside Farm at Elwyn in Media, Pa., but one groundbreaking scene is telling of this unique experiment in growing.


Carl Sargent, an older gentleman from Elwyn, a comprehensive special-needs community since 1852, remembered earlier days, including the last time the farm was in agricultural use.

It was raining. He played a few songs on his harmonica, and Greener Partners, a newer nonprofit dedicated to building community through sustainable farming and farm-based education in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs, planted the first row of Russian kale and bok choy.

Sargent died six months later and left $300,000 in his estate – enough to renovate two run-down barns at Hillside that are now used for educational programs, a CSA pickup for 155 members in 2011 (and a projected 250 in 2012) and farm storage.

“To broaden and expand appeal to real people, we’re rolling up our sleeves,” says Jason Ingle, Greener Partners’ executive director. “Making food accessible is our goal. We’re one company among many, but we want Philadelphia to be said in the same breath as Seattle and Vermont and others thought to be the educational leaders in supporting a sustainable food system. Thus far we’ve looked internally for refinement, but soon we need to see how Greener Partners relates to the bigger picture.”

It’s already a pretty big – or at least a rapidly growing – picture for the organization, which is operating two farm hubs and growing on what will be 150 combined acres in 2012, all used as resources for local produce. Growing efforts are overlapped with education and inspiration about food and farming, including a homesteader component (rain barrel and compost instruction, say) so that the farm experiences resonate at home as well.

Hillside is 6 miles from urban Chester, which is known for its lack of access to fresh food. It’s as fine an example of the local food market going directly to the consumer as there is. The approach is sustainable and mutually beneficial.

However, Greener Partners’ farm hubs are also near bursting suburban population hotbeds like Collegeville, Pa., where its Longview Center for Agriculture, formerly Willow Creek Orchards, has become the organization’s flagship farm.

Greener Partners’ farmers – there are 17 of them (three farm managers, four apprentices and the rest field and production assistants) – mostly grow vegetables, herbs and fruit for its farm market, CSA members and to sell at area farmers’ markets. Education programs engage kids, both on its farms and in schools through Greener Partners’ programs like Seed to Snack, The SOL Food Project and Growing Greener Summer Camps. Across-the-ages workshops focus on the “lost arts” of the nation’s agricultural and cultural past. The First Generation Farmer Program trains the next generation of farmers.

Making a difference

Beginning in 2008, Greener Partners began forming important partnerships to begin revitalizing underutilized land. After the creation of its Sugartown Exploration Garden and the Farm at Waterloo Mills that year, it expanded in 2009 to add Hillside Farm at Elwyn and Skunk Hollow Community Farm in Radnor Township’s Willows Park.

While Greener Partners is not currently farming the 2-acre farm at The Willows, it did keep its connection to that community by partnering with Gryphon Cafe in Wayne, Pa., to host a weekly drop site for 50 additional CSA members who are now served from the Hillside Farm.

To provide hands-on learning opportunities for young people, Greener Partners founded the ESF Dream Garden to work with students at Girard College.

“As a nonprofit, our job is to magnify a deep impact in our communities,” says 37-year-old Ingle. Ingle and three others founded Greener Partners in 2007. They all had young children and an interest in land use and converting land into living landscapes, as well as a growing disinterest in industrialized, impersonal food systems. In Ingle’s case, he wanted his children to experience growing up in farming, as he had on an organic family farm and winery in New York’s Finger Lakes region. He wanted his children to be fellow protectors and stewards of the land.

Jen Brodsky is chief operating officer, Meg MacCurtin is the program education director, and Joanne McGeoch is development director. Other innovators like Amy Johnson, the director of outreach, started one of the first CSAs in the area at Red Hill Farm in Aston, Pa. in 1998. Sebastian Kretchmer oversees all of the farmers and growing operations and has 20 years of experience in organic and biodynamic farming practices.

“Right now, we’re grassroots, but as time passes we want to become more of an advocacy engine,” Ingle says. “By then it won’t be a matter of what we do so much as why we do it.”

The farm hubs

Established in the spring of 2009, Hillside Farm is part of Elwyn’s 440-acre Media campus. The land is some of the last open space in Delaware County, which borders Philadelphia.

In 2012, 30 acres will be in cultivation, including 8 acres in diversified vegetable production (over 50 crops), 1 acre in a perennial soft fruit crop, 1 acre of strawberries, 7 acres in mixed grazing pasture and heritage fruit trees, 4 acres in pork production in adjacent woods and 1 acre for a healing herb garden and children’s garden. The remaining acreage is in managed pasture.

Education is a key element in the Greener Partners vision.

Plans also include two high tunnels for growing winter greens that complement winter storage crops, which will lead to more of a year-round approach.

At Hillside, Marcy Magness and Nathan Hasler-Brooks are co-managers. They have a staff of six farmers plus several farm educators.

Elwyn’s K-12 Davidson School students, each with varying levels of physical or mental disabilities, assist two or three hours a week, have put up raised beds, and help weed, mulch and plant, providing a sense of ability and stability on the farm, despite their disabilities.

An organic orchard

The Longview Center for Agriculture is on a 120-acre tract. Greener Partners is operating part of it as one of the few organic orchards in Pennsylvania where there are 15 acres of tree fruit (pears, peaches, apples, Asian pears). There’s also 6 acres of strawberries including three high tunnels in production for season extension, 4 acres of soft fruits (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries), 3 acres of pumpkins and 10 acres in diversified vegetable production (over 50 crops grown in a rotation). Two unheated greenhouses are used to grow winter greens, early tomatoes and cucumbers. There are 2 acres of pick-your-own and educational vegetable gardens, 2 acres of heritage tree and other perennial fruit, hops, hardy kiwi and 1 acre of mixed beneficial perennial/annual flowers and herbs. The remaining acreage is in managed pasture.

Established in the spring of 2009, Hillside Farm is part of Elwyn’s 440-acre Media campus.

The biggest challenge here is zoning issues, which control fence heights, setbacks and other technicalities. For example, at Longview, which has a farm market rather than a CSA, an ordinance stipulates that only the property owner can operate the farmstand.

“Prohibitive,” Ingle says. “Family farming descendants are gone, but there’s new interest, and we’re up and running off the starting block. We’re definitely not making money, but organic does not need to be so expensive. No one should be gouging the market. That gives all of us a bad name. The Smiths (the family owners who negotiated a long-term lease for the farm to Greener Partners, which is similar to the scenario at Hillside Farm at Elwyn) knew it takes a village – and that’s what we are.”

Longview is also the hub for training new farmers. In November, it hosted its inaugural Farmer Olympics, a competition between area farmers based on various farming activities.

Rick Fonda, production manager at The Longview Center for Agriculture.

“That highlighted not just the harvest season, but also those who’ve brought us the harvest,” Ingle says. “We’re focusing on the supply side, and not the demand side, on farmer training and opportunities for young farmers. Right now, there are not enough farmers to spread around.”

Longview Market’s selection of flowers.

Farming, he says, can be a solitary business, but his farmers travel in packs, transferring knowledge as they go. “There’s no law school [in farming] that’s captured all of the knowledge, “Ingle says. “It’s locked up in farmers who need to share and volunteer information.”

It’s about partnerships

Greener Partners’ Seed to Snack program is a trademarked farm-to-school program. This year 7,000 children in 20 area schools as diverse as Episcopal Academy and Agnes Irwin on the Philadelphia Main Line and five charter schools in Chester were involved.

“We want to go where there’s community need,” Ingle says. “We’re interested in having deep relationships. We’re not interested in one-time visits. We want to be there every week, every month. We want to foster an appreciation for the seasonality of crops.”

Greener Partners is also engaged in community discussions and work on soil improvements in preparation for opening its next hub, a small community farm in Norristown, Pa. The 8-acre farm is situated in a 690-acre state park called the Norristown Farm Park, which has been actively farmed since colonial times. The farm, which could open later in 2012, is surrounded by an ethnically diverse community of more than 65,000. Plans are for a community garden, a CSA pickup site, a farmstand and facilities for educational programming.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.