Sowing a vision for fallow land surrounding Philadelphia

In Philadelphia County, there are 1,100 acres of unused land that could be used to grow food. In Chester County there is almost 20 times that amount, which could generate tens of millions in revenue, according to a study by GreenSpace Alliance, an organization advocating for open space in Southeast Pennsylvania.

The reports adds up acres of state-owned land, federal-owned land, and lands held in trust in the four counties of Southeast Pennsylvania, then subtracts property with restricted uses. Then it subtracts more land not physically amenable to farming, leaving about 40,000 small plots scatter-shot across Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Philadelphia counties.

Due to concerns over environmental damage, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will not allow much of that land to be used for commercial farming.

“DNCR policies were formulated within the context of agriculture being large-tract monocultures that really don’t create habitats,” said co-author Peter Simone of Simone Collins Landscape Architects.

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“What we’re seeing in a lot of the sustainable farms – three, five, 10 acres – because they have a diversity of crops, they find they are creating unique habitats — especially for birds and pollinators,” Simone said. “It’s changing the equation about sustainable agriculture as opposed to traditional agriculture.”

Last year an effort to transform a portion of Manatawna Farm in Roxborough — a publicly held tract of land — into small commercial farming plots was defeated by environmental concerns.

The board chair of GreenSpace Alliance, Molly Morrison — also president of the Natural Lands Trust — will use the study to help municipalities define the parameters of sustainable farming in making public policy decisions.

“These efforts to introduce sustainable agriculture in a community are not going to succeed until this community dialogue takes place around how sustainable agriculture is defined, and how the community can benefit from it, and define what is permitted and not permitted,” said Morrison.

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