Hunched over a row of sprouts that will grow into heirloom tomatoes, Scott Brainard snips off some of their leaves with a small blade as twilight descends upon his half acre plot of farm land. Pruning the small sprouts will redirect their energy so the plants grow more, so they’ll be stronger and yield more tomatoes.
Brainard manages a half acre of farm for the North Light Community Center, whose Teens 4 Good program builds urban farms for youngsters throughout the city.The farm land cultivated by Brainard is part of the 300 acres owned by the Schuylkill Center, which allows Teens 4 Good to use the land provided they don’t infringe on the natural ecosystem. The Teens 4 Good volunteers sell their harvests to the Roxborough ShopRite each week, and they’ll also be selling their fresh crop of zucchinis, heirloom and cherry tomatoes and squash at the Manayunk Arts Festival this weekend.
“Communities don’t have access to sustainable, local food. It’s an incredible economic luxury,” Brainard says. “Philadelphia is such a unique place because it has lots of different groups figuring out how to grow different foods in the city.”
North Light Community Center welcomes students from Roxborough High School to volunteer three nights a week during the school year. In the summer, Brainard leads an internship program with teenagers. Brainard has farmed land everywhere from his native upstate New York to Iceland, where day and night last for 24 hours in certain seasons, but learning how to manage groups of high school students with varying degrees of interest about farming has been a challenge unlike any other for Brainard.
“It’s much slower when you’re doing it all by hand. But afterwards they realize this is how the world works,” he says. “When the food is finally wrapped and people are buying vegetables from them, there’s this disbelief that this really is food, and people want to buy this.”
Brainard must farm the land with even stricter standards than those commonly used in large organic farming operations because the Schuylkill Center’s land is reserved. That means picking and tending vegetables by hand, and removing pests by building insect walls and covering the crops instead of using organic pesticide, which Brainard says disrupts the hormones in insects.
“It forces us to do things you’d want to do anyway, but are impractical on a larger scale farm. It’s a more cautious approach,” he says. “This is my garden of Eden right here.”