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Two of Buffalo’s Farmer Pirates are planting urban roots

Under a giant cottonwood tree on an unexpectedly wide swath of undeveloped land on Buffalo’s East Side, two pioneers in Buffalo’s small but growing urban farming movement will get married next weekend.

The bride, Alex Stevens, and groom, Dan Ash, have started their own farm there – where Gittere Street dead-ends near railroad tracks. The former vacant lot had long been a dumping ground for garbage, and it has been the scene of far too many drug deals, car fires and other crimes.

With summer drawing closer, the couple has been busy planting seeds and seedlings in neat rows and tending to old apple trees that dot the property.

The upcoming wedding marks a milestone of sorts in the evolution of agriculture in the city. Ash and Stevens are part of a circle of friends who call themselves the Farmer Pirates, and they share a passion for growing food and self-sustainability.

The Farmer Pirates are now farming about 12 acres of formerly vacant lots across the East Side. Many have bought houses next to or near their farms and are fixing them up – and living there. Some of the farms are far enough along that they sell their produce at farm stands and through subscriptions where people pay upfront for weekly baskets of what’s in season.

The group has also embarked on an ambitious project on Ash and Stevens’ land: a large-scale composting operation.

“Momentum continues,” said Ash, 38. “… We’re getting more experience behind belts.”

While people have been growing vegetables in their city and suburban gardens for generations, it was the Massachusetts Avenue Project that introduced the idea a decade ago of growing food on vacant lots in Buffalo.

The West Side organization started with one little garden, and it has since grown to include a series of reclaimed vacant lots that feature elaborate hoop houses and even aquaponic fisheries, farm stands, a mobile market and a program for youth.

Diane Picard, executive director of MAP, is excited to see interest in urban farming grow.

“I was just at a meeting this morning where we were talking about how much potential there is in the city to do urban growing in all the various forms, whether it’s community gardens, people growing food in their own yards, urban farming or whatever,” she said earlier. “It’s exciting that it’s taken all these different forms, too.”

Food growing has become an integral part of community gardens in Buffalo, according to Susannah S. Barton, executive director of Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, which helps facilitate community gardens on both city-owned and private lots.

All four gardens starting this year through the organization are food-producing gardens.

“It’s what is bringing people to us,” Barton said.

The majority of the gardens in the group now have at least some sort of food-producing component.

“People are looking for a way to grow their own food and connect with their neighbors,” she said.

Both Barton and Picard are hopeful the trend will grow, especially as the city puts its finishing touches on its new Green Code, a revamp of the city’s codes and regulations expected to include provisions to support – and regulate – urban agriculture.

Adjusting to urban life

The Stevens family put a new focus on farming in the city where they came to Buffalo in 2006. The family of nine left their farmhouse in Wyoming County to start a new life in an old house near Broadway Market.

On a vacant 2-acre plot of land behind their house on Wilson Street, Alex Stevens’ parents, Mark and Janice, started an urban farm with the help of their children.

The city was resistant at first, refusing to sell the lot to the family, but the Stevens family eventually worked out a lease agreement. The Wilson Street Urban Farm is now in its fifth growing season, and the family sells a wide variety of produce at their farm stand in the summers.

The transition from country life to the East Side was a bit jarring for Alex Stevens, who was just 18 when her family picked up and moved to their new home near the Broadway Market.

She loved the idea.

“I was totally on board,” she said.

But looking back, she realizes she didn’t realize what was in store for her.

“I was totally clueless as to what city life was like,” she said.

Back in Wyoming County, she and her six brothers and sisters were used to greeting people they saw walking or driving by.

“We were the friendly kids who would wave,” she said. “Here in the city, people take it a little differently.”

When she walked down the city streets, she recalled, “guys would randomly call me ‘sweetheart’ and ‘baby’ or stuff.”

She soon learned.

“Don’t make eye contact with strange men on the street,” she said.

Looking to downsize

Ash left his old home in New York City, seeking a new life in Buffalo, the year after the Stevens arrived.

He had worked in information security and traveled the globe, but he had grown tired of the harried lifestyle and congestion.

“I was looking to sort of downsize,” Ash said.

He bought and started restoring an old Victorian in Allentown.

Ash had an interest in growing his own food, borne out of the scrumptious meals he ate while in trips to Italy and other parts of the world.

“It didn’t have anything to do with cooking. It was the food itself,” he said.

But he was interested in doing more than just growing a couple of tomato plants in his backyard. So he started one in an abandoned lot on Masten Avenue.

He quickly saw that he needed more equipment and material, and he started consulting Mark Stevens. Soon they began pooling their resources, renting tractors or buying things in bulk to cut down on costs.

It was the beginning of an urban-farming cooperative.

Pooling their resources

Last year, the Stevens family, Ash and a group of other people interested in growing food and fixing up abandoned houses and properties in the city formed a cooperative.

They called themselves the Farmer Pirates – rebels against the industrialized food system.

They began acquiring vacant lots and abandoned houses near them throughout the East Side.

“The soil quality in the city is so low,” Ash explained.

What they needed was compost. And lots of it.

The cooperative was formed so that they could tackle soil fertility together. It also allowed them to jointly own the land.

Last summer, they raised $15,000 through an online fundraising campaign to buy a dump truck, as well as a trailer, to collect and distribute their compost.

While the community has welcomed some of the farms, others have run into resistance. Neighbors of a couple farms they tried to start on Michigan Avenue didn’t like the sound of an “urban farm.”

“People associate just the concept or the term farming with these big farms in the country, the smell and the things that are unpleasant,” Ash said.

Around the same time, the Stevens family got a letter, offering a donation of land near the train tracks at the end of Gittere. The land had been owned by a man who at one time envisioned starting a Polish neighborhood there. The plan never took hold, but the man ended up planting a few apple trees and other food crops throughout property and tended to them up until his recent death.

Though the donation fell through, Ash worked out a five-year lease with the new owner of the property.

Creating compost

To the sounds of freight trains passing, the couplings crashing noisily when they halt, Ash and Stevens have been busy working the land. They have planted cabbages, broccoli, potatoes and corn. They’re building fences around the produce.

“Not for people, but for deer,” Ash said, adding that all sorts of wild life, from rabbits to groundhogs, visit their land.

On another section, they have started giant piles of horse bedding, donated and trucked in by the Buffalo Equestrian Center. Nearby is the start of the food waste compost.

Most of it so far has been collected from local restaurants. In May, two fellow Farmer Pirates, Terra Dumas and Mike Raleigh, started a residential compost pickup program. People pay $100 and are given a 5-gallon, lidded pail to fill up with food waste, which the group picks up twice a week.

“They keep otherwise useful waste out of the landfills,” said Dumas, who in addition to the composting program runs a farm called Common Roots on Peckham Street. “Landfills produce a lot of methane, which contributes to greenhouse gasses and reducing of ozone layers.”

The food waste will be mixed in with the horse bedding to create compost, which will be used on the urban farms. Participants in the residential program will have the option of receiving some next spring.

“Eventually, we hope to produce it enough to sell it retail,” Dumas said.

Romance on the farm

As the composting operation began taking hold at the Gittere farm, Ash acquired a weathered, but structurally sound, house next to it for a $1. He lives there now, and he is getting it ready for his new bride, who will move in once they are married, in keeping with her family’s strong Christian values.

Alex Stevens and Dan Ash started dating about two years ago. Ash had grown close to the family but knew he wanted to pursue a relationship with Alex Stevens.

“When we first starting dating,” Alex Stevens recounted, “we did it really traditionally. He asked my dad permission, with the intent to marry me. We were serious from the beginning.”

Mark Stevens is happy to see his daughter carry on their family’s way of life – and to have Ash as a part of it.

“It’s nice that she’s definitely caught kind of the vision, our way of life. It’s good,” he said, “to see it carry on beyond us.”

Saturday, Mark Stevens will give his daughter away to Ash. They’ll be surrounded by other family, friends and Farmer Pirates under the canopy of the cottonwood, on land they hope will sustain them and inspire others to try to do the same.

Alex Stevens, who will wear a dress handmade for her by a friend, smiled at she looked forward to the simple ceremony.

“I wouldn’t want to get married anywhere else,” she said.

Coming Wednesday: Watch an interview with Mark and Janice Stevens of Wilson Street Urban Farm as part of The News’ ongoing In Focus series on