Jack Goldenberg doesn’t talk like a typical urban farmer. “I’m not a catastrophist about vegetables,” he says, taking a break from pruning tomato plants at a small farm in the Wynnefield Heights neighborhood. His white T-shirt is stained with dirt and the cuffs of his jeans frayed around his muddy work boots. “I’m not concerned with GMOs and monocultures. I’m not doing this because of food deserts in the inner city. People in Kensington don’t need kale. If anything, the people that are hungry in that neighborhood need more hamburgers.”
Goldenberg is, in short, a pragmatist in a field crowded with idealists. But his unusual outlook has enabled him to do for a living what many others do for a hobby: grow vegetables, herbs and edible flowers, and then market and sell them, all within city limits.
In addition to the four 100-foot rows he tends on rented land in Fairmount Park, he also leases a lot near Sixth and Thompson streets and tends a third garden at Frankford and Cambria. These unlikely addresses are the origin point for some rather high-end ingredients, like garlic scapes, borage flowers and Malabar spinach, served up in some of the best Center City restaurants.
Goldenberg, 26, studied philosophy at Kenyon College and later cooked in kitchens like The Farm and Fisherman before turning to urban agriculture last spring. When he started, he had no real knowledge of agriculture or plants, let alone a business plan. What he did have was a firm understanding of the restaurant business and a desire for a change of pace. “I’m a chef and I know what to grow.”
However, Goldenberg didn’t actually know how to grow what his customers wanted. For example, early on he asked the chef David Gilberg of Portuguese BYO Koo Zee Doo (sadly slated to close July 14) if there was any produce used in Portuguese cuisine that was difficult to find in Philadelphia markets. The chef asked for malagueta peppers. Goldenberg promised he could grow them. It turned out he could not.
Eventually, a business model materialized through trial and error and hustle. Goldenberg realized that the lot at Sixth and Thompson was too small for a substantial vegetable crop, so he turned to growing edible flowers like squash blossoms. A summer squash goes for $1 or less at farmers’ markets; squash blossoms, harvested earlier in the season, can sell for 40 cents. Young, green shoots of garlic have recently become popular on menus as garlic scapes, and sell for more than the mature cloves harvested later in the year. He also forages at the Fairmount Park farm for chive blossoms and other edibles.
Now, Goldenberg and fellow Kenyon grad Adrian Galbraith-Paul run the farming operation full time with paid interns and neighborhood part-timers to assist them — and their business is expanding. Two weeks ago they tilled and planted five 75-foot rows they’re now renting at the Schuylkill Environmental Center in Roxborough. At the Sixth and Thompson lot, Galbraith-Paul pops a flower off a potted nasturtium plant. The orange petals taste fresh, crisp and primed to add a bit of color to a salad.
He and Goldenberg currently sell produce to about 10 restaurants, including the Farm and Fisherman, Fork and Standard Tap. Their customers need to be as agile and adaptable as they are, willing to reconfigure menu items based on what’s fresh each week. At first, to get new clients, Goldenberg drove around from restaurant to restaurant, showing his produce to any chef who would talk to him. Now, Galbraith-Paul says, “We don’t have to do cold calls anymore. Just last week, Jack got a text message from a chef he’d never met, asking for squash.”
The real hustle comes on Fridays, when Goldenberg makes his deliveries. “I’m driving around, honking my horn. I’ve got to run back to the truck and get out of there before PPA tickets me.” This is also where his farming venture differs from others that are devoted to community-building, nutrition or civic-minded projects. Goldenberg and Galbraith-Paul have one primary motive: making a living. Depending on what produce is in season, they basically can.
Goldenberg keeps the operation, which he calls Hood Rich Farms, small and focused. He still germinates all the plants in his bedroom. He sells for other farms in the city, but won’t wholesale produce grown outside of Philadelphia. “What, I’d have a whole truck filled with vegetables grown within the city limits and then I’d have this one tray of snow peas from outside? Like, what am I doing then?”
Urban farming, however, is at a distinct disadvantage when competing with large-scale rural agriculture. Urban soil, even when reconstituted in raised beds, can’t yield as much as soil in the countryside, so they have to truck over lots of compost from the Fairmount Park organic recycling center. And not every empty lot gets sufficient sunlight.
Goldenberg’s biggest concern, though, is land security. He and Galbraith-Paul have put time and effort into improving the lot they rent, adding raised beds and installing hoop houses, cleaning out debris and removing invasive weeds. But there’s nothing stopping the landlord from raising the rent and then kicking them off the property if they can’t pay. Galbraith-Paul says buying property or getting long-term leases will be necessary to make their business sustainable and secure.
Still, with many of the city’s 40,000 empty lots located in Kensington, Goldenberg and Galbraith-Paul’s neighborhood is ripe for innovative land use — and small businesses like this could be a bold solution.
Galbraith-Paul’s take, though, is simpler than that: “If you can make a little money and create jobs, I figure … it’s something positive.”
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