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In Focus: Mark and Janice Stevens, urban farmers

When Mark and Janice Stevens turned some trash-strewn, city-owned lots into vegetable gardens several years ago, they became urban-farming pioneers. Since that time, the Wilson Street Urban Farm in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood has increased its agricultural output more than twentyfold.

The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer talked with the couple about ongoing efforts to promote urban farming. Here is a summary of some of the issues covered in an interview that is part of the weekly “In Focus” series.

Meyer: You’re certainly growing a lot of crops. What are you doing with them?

Mark Stevens: We sell a lot of them through CSA shares, which are community-supported agriculture, where people buy a season-long subscription. They get their vegetables every week for about 22 weeks. We also eat a lot, having a large family.

Meyer: Seven kids, right?

Mark Stevens: Yeah. And some is given to the neighbors. And then we sell some here during the summer, at a stand right here at our house.

Meyer: This is very much a family affair. I was in your kitchen area and saw the slate board with the tasks written. How do kids react to this adventure?

Janice Stevens: Generally, they’re pretty positive about it. I don’t utilize all of their day. If they know how much time they have to spend out here, they’re pretty good with it.

Meyer: If you folks were to give a state-of-urban-farming speech in Buffalo, where is the movement now? How much progress?

Mark Stevens: I’m really excited about it. I think it started out with kind of a big news splash. But now we’re really getting down to a real solid basis of joining together with a lot of urban farmers working cooperatively. In 2011, we began to form the Farmer Pirates Cooperative, where all those farming on the East Side began to work together, began to share resources, share equipment. We incorporated that in 2012. Now we’ve begun a residential compost program … We’re working on other composting services to help our own farms with our soil fertility. We’re working on land-access issues where the cooperative now owns three acres of land that is leased to its members... I think we’re really getting it on a really firm basis.

Meyer: You don’t think this is a flash-in-the-pan fad?

Janice Stevens: We’re here for the long haul, and the others have made commitments that put them in for the long haul, too. No, I think it’s going forward. It’s just such a good idea to grow your own food locally that it shouldn’t be a flash in the pan.

Meyer: The city has been working on a long-term plan to revamp its codes – the so-called Green Code. What has to happen to promote urban farming, to take it to the next level? What are some of the key things that need to be in that code?

Mark Stevens: No. 1 is just having the growing of food as a viable alternative in zoning. They’re addressing that in the Green Code, so we’re excited about that. They’re also addressing … market gardeners, which we are, down to homeowners with backyard gardens to be able to sell their food on a small scale without a lot of onerous issues. That is important to us, also.

Meyer: We’re inside your hoop house, which is kind of a low-tech greenhouse. Even issues like that need to be taken up in the code as it relates to what people can build?

Janice Stevens: Yeah, non-permanent structures. Those kind of issues do need to be addressed so you know what you can put out there and that it’s OK to put it out there [so] you don’t have to jump through all these hoops.

Meyer: How cooperative has City Hall been in recent years?

Mark Stevens: Actually, they’ve become quite cooperative. We’ve been very pleased with the response we’ve gotten from City Hall. As a pilot project with them, we’ve been reporting to them every year all the things that happen on the farm. All the positive things. We have many tours that come through. We have school groups that come through, university classes that come through. The city, I think, is very pleased with all the positive things, besides the food, that we produce.