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Reaping urban rewards; The popularity and plausibility of farming in Buffalo continue to grow as more residents show interest and City Hall considers easing restrictions on it

In the spring of 2003, the Massachusetts Avenue Project turned a vacant lot on the West Side into a vegetable garden.

The neighbors didn't exactly know what to make of it.

"They thought it was weird," recalled Diane Picard, executive director of the organization. "Or they thought: 'Oh, this is a nice little gardening project.' "

Ten growing seasons later, urban farming is flourishing in Buffalo, just as it has in cities across the nation.

A small but growing group of people with a taste for local food, a passion for living sustainably and a devotion to ensuring everyone has access to healthy, affordable food has started urban farms in vacant lots on both the West Side and the East Side.

This year, urban farming is approaching a new level in Buffalo.

A group of young people who recently bought up old vacant lots on Michigan Avenue and Peckham Streets has teamed up with other East Side urban farmers to form a farming cooperative. Their goal is to pool their skills and resources so that they can generate enough produce to feed themselves and sell at market stands to the public.

And in a sign that the city may be ready to embrace urban agriculture, the proposed Green Code -- a total revamping of the city's zoning ordinances -- is filled with provisions that could address an array of issues related to local food growing, from backyard beekeeping to selling homegrown produce.

"It's amazing actually," Picard said. "It's so exciting now to see it start to be paid attention to. Policy makers and the movers and shakers are getting a handle on how this can be an economic development driver, a way to solve food security issues, a way to employ young people, and how it brings people together."

The Massachusetts Avenue Project itself has grown over the last nine years.

The nonprofit farms are on nearly an acre of vacant lots around the West Side, some in conjunction with PUSH Buffalo. The group's Growing Green, a youth program that teaches young people about farming as well as business and job skills, has employed 400 youths since it started. It also runs a farm stand and a mobile market in the summer and has ventured into tilapia farming.

The interest in growing food seems to be spreading around the city.

Over the last few years, more people have been applying to Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, an organization that helps facilitate community gardens on city-owned vacant lots, so that they can grow tomatoes, zucchini and peppers, not just flowers and shrubs, in empty lots in their neighborhoods.

>The Stevens precedent

It was not until three years ago, when a family of farmers from Wyoming County who had moved to the East Side and tried to start a farm on Wilson Street, off Broadway, that urban farming began to get more attention.

Mark and Janice Stevens initially wanted to buy 27 lots on Wilson Street, right behind their house on Fillmore Avenue. They sought to turn the vacant, garbage-strewn land into a farm.

But City Hall balked, saying the land might be used for housing someday. Eventually, they worked out an agreement for the Stevens family to lease the land through Grassroots Gardens.

Today, Mark and Janice Stevens and their seven children run the Wilson Street Urban Farm.

They have a hoop house where they grow vegetables all year, run a farm stand during the summer and also offer a community-supported agriculture program, providing boxes of fresh produce every week to customers who pay a fee upfront. Every year, they submit a report to City Hall about what they've done and what their plans are for the future.

About the same time the Stevens family moved to the East Side, Daniel Ash, a self-described "foodie" from New York City, started the Cold Spring Cooperative Farm at the corner of Masten Avenue and Northampton Street.

Over the past several months, Ash and other young people have pooled their money to buy vacant lots on Michigan Avenue by Riley Street and on Peckham Street by Detroit Street. On Michigan, they also bought a commercial building. Some of the farmers also bought an abandoned house that they're fixing up near the Peckham farm, which they have named the Common Roots Farm.

Their hopes are to till about a quarter-acre this growing season and grow vegetables. One of the Common Roots farmers, Terra Dumas -- who grew up in Buffalo, farmed in Maine for three years and recently returned -- has started some seedlings: onions, broccoli and peppers.

She believes that more and more people will turn to growing their own food, especially in a poor city like Buffalo. "We have all this open land here in Buffalo," she said.

At the same time, she said, they don't want to be "the white kids who think we're going to change everything."

To make sure they had the support of their community, Dumas and another farmer, Mike Harter, recently went door to door to tell their neighbors about what they would be doing.

"Everybody was really receptive," Dumas said. "They said: 'Yes, we'd love to come help and have fresh vegetables.' "

The Stevens family, Ash, Dumas, Harter and other farmers help each other out, sharing expenses to truck in supplies and equipment and lending a hand.

Like countless farmers have done for generations, they formed a cooperative. They named themselves Farmer Pirates.

>Farmer.. Pirates?

"Pilots?" asked a Buffalo News reporter, at first mishearing the name.

"Pi-rates," Ash reiterated. "Like, aaarrrrrr."

The urban farmers call themselves Farmer Pirates because they see themselves as rebels fighting against the industrial food system.

The biggest challenge urban farmers in Buffalo have faced is the soil. While there's plenty of vacant land across the city, the land isn't very fertile. It's highly acidic and made up mostly of clay.

"Contamination is what gets talked about," Ash said. "But the bigger problem is the overall health and quality of the soil."

The urban farmers have struggled tirelessly to revitalize their soil, doing everything from planting nutrient-rich ground cover to trucking in aged manure from the countryside. They found that the most effective way to bring life to city dirt is compost made from food waste -- mainly vegetable scraps. But making enough has proved a major hurdle.

"There are plenty of restaurants that have contacted us in the past that would love to not just throw away their compostable food," Stevens said. "We have 25 lots, but we're not fully utilizing them because we're very limited in being able to get the amount of compost we need."

Collecting all that food waste is time-consuming, inefficient and environmentally problematic, the farmers found. They have to use their own vehicles -- none larger than Ash's pick-up and the Stevens family's van -- or spend money renting trucks and buying compost.

What they needed, they realized, is their own dump truck.

Being Farmer Pirates and all, they weren't interested in going the traditional, grant-writing route.

So they began a campaign on Kickstarter -- a website that helps coordinate crowd-funded ideas -- to raise $15,000, which will allow them to buy a truck and expand their communal composting program.

The campaign, which can be found at by typing in "Farmer Pirates Compost Program," includes a video of some of the farms involved and a rendition of "Home on the Range." The lead singer is Janice Stevens, and the other farmers join in for the chorus:

"Home, home in the 'hood. There are things that I'd change if I could. Like taking the waste in this limited space and growing a product that's good."

>City embraces farming

The city recently released a report about the proposed Green Code -- a complete overhaul of the City Code.

Part of it addresses urban agriculture -- and urban farming advocates couldn't be more thrilled.

Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the city's Office of Strategic Planning and the person who is overseeing the Green Code process, acknowledged that current ordinances "prohibited a lot of the types of activities people wanted to do."

The new code could allow an array of food-growing practices, including building greenhouses and hoop houses -- greenhouses with plastic roofs stretched over metal piping -- in yards and letting people sell their homegrown produce, perhaps even from stands in their front yards, Mehaffy said.

But the new provisions also include rules that would ensure these agricultural endeavors don't get out of control.

Urban farming "has captured the imagination of a lot of people," Mehaffy said, "but at the end of the day, when they go to do it, it's hard work."

The code would spell out the rules on what can and can't be done, such as how tall a hoop house can be, whether someone would need permission from neighbors to keep a beehive and what should be done if a neighbor's compost pile has gotten too stinky.

"There's a limited group of people now doing it in Buffalo," he said. But there's no way to gauge how popular it could be in the future if the rules change, he said.

So, he said, "we might as well have that conversation."

Ash believes the formation of the farming cooperative and the proposed Green Code are signs that urban agriculture has a real future in Buffalo.

"We've seen the momentum build up year after year," Ash said. "There's more support. On the demand side, there's been a steady increase. The fact that we've been able to find people to make a serious commitment to move to the East Side and grow food, that shows a lot. We look at this as the next major milestone."