Nearly 100 people and their bikes stood in the morning shade at Weavers Way Farm in East Germantown on a Saturday that soon reached 100 degrees.
Chris Hill, a member of the Weavers Way Board of Directors and the leader of the “long version” of the Urban Farms Bike Tour that was about to start, referred to these local agriculture tourists as some kind of elite unit: “few, proud, crazy people.”
Despite forecasts of punishing weather, and two versions of tours that would go from Northwest Philadelphia to Northern Liberties to West Philly and back again, bikers were eager to experience the best of the city’s home grown agriculture movement in the 6th annual Urban Farms Bike Tour.
“If you feel like crap, stop,” was the advice from Rachel Milenbach, the executive director of Weavers Way Community Programs, as the long ride started off.
Because of the heat, both the long and short versions of the tour shortened their courses by one stop each.
Margaret Lenzi, Vice President of the Weavers Way board led the short tour group to their first stop, the Wyck Historic House and Garden in Germantown. Along the way, they encountered a flat tire, the first of several minor hitches in the surprisingly easy, though long day in the saddle.
Stepping off the bikes and onto the Wyck property was like stepping back in time. The land at the corner of Walnut Lane and Germantown Avenue has been an operating farm since the 18th century, using much of those old school techniques as a form of history lesson for visitors.
Soon, bikes whizzed by the Pathmark, Dunkin Donuts and Wendy’s at Chelten and Wayne avenues, only holding traffic up for a moment as ride marshals waved the group through the busy light. Fresh produce was on the horizon; fast food and large scale grocery stores anathema to the day’s mission.
“I’m usually more of a Fresh Grocer guy, but I recently joined the co-op and have always tried to eat healthy,” said Shaheed Nasir, a North Philadelphia resident and employee at Abington Hospital.
The second stop on the tour was the SHARE Food Program site in Huntington Park. SHARE, a city wide feeding program, has been operating from this location on Hunting Park Avenue for 24 years, but the farm has only existed for two. The farm, which stands in the shadow of the abandoned Tastykake building, amid a sea of similar industrial behemoths, is dedicated to providing access to fresh and quality food for those in need. SHARE distributes low-cost groceries to individuals and food cupboards all around Philadelphia.
“Everyone has a right to good food,” said Steveanna Wynn, director of SHARE.
The farm is made up of raised planting boxes on a small plot of land that is sandwiched between railroad tracks and the parking lot of the SHARE warehouse. Wynn told the group that before they decided to start the garden, the lot had been a “typical abandoned city lot.” Morning Glories now wind around a trellis, decorating the support beam of a billboard that rises up from the edge of the garden.
Although the farm is a new project, it’s already experienced extraordinary growth. Sajir Hightower is one SHARE member who has grown right alongside the project. He was only five when he started coming there with his grandmother. He landed his first job crushing cardboard boxes behind the warehouse. Now, at nine, he mans a produce cart, helping to sell the garden’s bounty to raise money for the farm. When people come to the lot to pick up their weekly grocery supply, they can also swing by the produce stand to supplement their order with fruits and vegetables picked fresh from the garden for a low price.
The group left the beaten trail and took a side trip, riding single-file through the SHARE warehouse, a former ball bearing factory that now stores non-perishable foods. Out back, a SHARE volunteer showed the group the greenhouse that is currently being built and the watermelon patch. Sunflowers growing along the chain link fence spilled out onto the sidewalk. Bright yellow blossoms shined on the rusting barbed wire atop the fence.
“We are all about food and relationships,” Wynn said. “We play with a lot of people in our sandbox.”
It was clear many of the farms played in the same “sandbox.” At least three of the six sites worked with Penn State University to develop the “hoop house” grow system. At first glance, most riders thought these hoop houses or hot tunnels were greenhouses. However, they are an innovation in farming that provides a flexible structure in which to grow, without the need for a heating or cooling system. Each of the sites was quick to cite help from the Philadelphia Horticulture Society and other Philadelphia agriculture groups including the Philadelphia Orchard Project and the Philadelphia Bee Keepers Guild.
“After I first rode on this tour I joined the Philadelphia Horticulture Society,” said Tim Carey, a third year rider and bike marshal on this year’s tour. “You keep hearing their name come up, they do great work for people here in the city.”
The group rode on, the clouds cleared and the noon sun beat down on the riders. The promise of fresh fruit and shade kept them focused on the next stop, Marathon Community Farm in Brewerytown. After a quick snack of peaches, nectarines and blueberries at Marathon the procession set off to cross the Schuylkill. Intense heat meant the group would skip a planned stop at Greensgrow in Northern Liberties.
Jessica O’Neill, a Northern Liberties resident, marveled at how much the tour had changed since she last participated two years ago. The tour’s next stop, Mill Creek Farm in West Philadelphia was the only one that repeated. The variation is a testament to how much the urban farming movement has changed.
Another rider, Don Klingerman, noted the juxtaposition between the asphalt-coated, litter strewn landscapes they biked through and the small oases that are urban farms. He grew up in East Mt. Airy and recalled walking his dog decades ago in the unwelcoming and untended park that is now the site of Weavers Way Farm.
“It wasn’t that anyone told you to leave or not to go there, but it kind of went unnoticed back then,” Klingerman said.
The last stop on the tour was The Methodist Home’s Heritage Farm in West Philadelphia. This was by far the largest plot, taking up 2 acres on the sprawling campus which is now a community center for children and families in need. This first-year farm has had a tangible impact on the residents of the facility.
Lois, who has been living at the facility for 3 months and who preferred not to disclose her last name, spoke about how she began working in the garden almost as soon as she arrived here. She attributes her success in overcoming her various addictions and her newfound dedication to finding a job and a place to live to the Methodist Home’s life-skills classes, and to the opportunity to work in the garden helping it to grow and blossom.
“I love this garden and I had never gardened before in my entire life.” she said. “I was from Philadelphia and had no yard. When I got here I looked like a total street person, and now I come out here every day and work in this garden.”
The children who live at the facility are either orphans, in foster care or members of struggling families. The farm provides them with fresh food to eat and a chance to learn and have fun tending the plants. Several of the children ran through the garden showing the group their favorite patches: the watermelons and the cucumber like gerkins.
“This is what the whole world could be like,” said tour member Tim Carey. “These are examples that we need to show politicians, look, this is what we want more of.”
At the second to last stop on the tour, Annie Preston, the youth programs director at Urban Tree Connection in West Philadelphia, said tours like this don’t just give riders a chance to see, and taste what nature can provide from within an urban setting, but it also gives them a chance to get involved as farm customers and volunteers.
As the riders approached Weavers Way Farm and the tour came to a close, many dismounted and walked their bikes up the steep driveway. Some laid down, enjoying the shade, while others headed straight for the buffet to refuel with pasta salad, watermelon and their choice of beef, turkey or veggie burgers. After a few minutes, the long ride group returned and was welcomed into the fold. A beer keg was tapped, a bluegrass band plucked a jovial tune and a barbeque got to full fire.
Riders who were mostly strangers only a few hours ago talked about what they had seen and learned on the tour. Despite the heat, hills and challenges of the ride, many pledged to be back again next year.
The proceeds from this year’s farm tours benefit Weavers Way’s educational outreach efforts. To learn more click here.
The stops on the both versions of the bike tour:
Weavers Way Coop Farm, at Awbury Arboretum, 1011 E Washington Lane.
Wyck House and historic gardens at Walnut Lane and Germantown Avenue
W.B Saul Agricultural School, 7100 Henry Ave.
Urban Girls/Teens4Good farms near the Schuylkill Center Environmental Center, 8480 Hagys Mill Rd.
Urban Tree Connection, 5125 Woodbine Avenue 19131
Heritage Farm at the Methodist Home for Children, 4300 Monument Road
Marathon Farm produces produce for Marathon Grill, 27th & Master Streets.
Mill Creek farm, Brown St & N 49th St.
Refugee Urban Farm, South Philadelphia (Cancelled due to the heat)
Share Food Program farm, 2901 W Hunting Park Ave.