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Editorial: Urban farm success story is something to celebrate

Tour any number of farms in the “inner city,” check out the rows of planted tomatoes, kale, peppers, asparagus and berries and it becomes crystal clear: Here, it’s a city in name only.

Urban farms stand as proof that the once-scarred earth can be restored across swaths of land once deemed fit only for the purpose of populating cities and towns. It’s a lesson for urban governments to look beyond traditional ideas of development.

Consider the story of Janice and Mark Stevens. Ten years ago, they had the improbable dream of purchasing a field, composed at the time of 27 vacant, connected lots. They wanted to buy the land from the city and start an urban farm in the middle of Buffalo’s East Side.

City officials hesitated, eventually agreeing on a lease.

The Stevenses started the Wilson Street Urban Farm, and, on a 2-acre field, spent a decade dedicating themselves to the effort of not only feeding their own family but providing for the neighborhood and the city. Anyone who happened upon the urban farm through word of mouth, or just by riding around the once desolate area might have stopped at the sight of fresh vegetables.

But the fact that they did not own the land bothered this hard-working couple, whose children joined in what evolved into the family business. As News staff reporter Maki Becker, who has been following the Stevenses’ story all these years, wrote, all that recently changed. The couple is finalizing a deal with the city to buy the land.

It has been a long haul since 2007 when, as Becker wrote, “Mark and Janice Stevens moved their family of nine from a farmhouse in eastern Wyoming County to a century-old house on Fillmore Avenue they bought at a city auction.”

These devout Christians wanted to minister to people in the city and, as it turns out, feed them. They wanted to turn a dumping ground into farmland, starting by purchasing the land. City officials had other ideas, such as offering the land for possible development. What is more, the city’s outdated codes prohibited growing produce to be sold.

The News covered their story and Fillmore District Councilmember David Franczyk offered his support. The Stevenses and the city agreed to a $1-a-year lease, the couple arranged for liability insurance of up to $1 million through the nonprofit Grassroots Gardens and the business was set to go.

As it turned out, the land was no good for building but great for cultivating. The couple sold fruits and vegetables at a stand and launched a community program in which customers pay up-front for a season’s share of produce, which they pick up weekly.

As Becker wrote, the Massachusetts Avenue Project had already introduced urban farming to the city’s West Side years earlier, but the Wilson Street Urban Farm represented one of the pioneers of the East Side.

City officials who once opposed the plan now tout the Stevenses’ effort. The Wilson Street Urban Farm is now among several throughout once urban food deserts and with a regular flow of customers, schoolchildren and awestruck cyclists on the annual Tour de Farms bicycle event organized by GObike.

These farms provide more inspiration to the Massachusetts Avenue Project’s Growing Green program for youth and to anyone with a dream to harvest the earth. They also offer a lesson to elected officials about the value of looking beyond the usual uses of vacant city land.

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