Volunteers at the quarter-acre farm, which once was a lot strewn with tires
Clifford Brown seems to be unburdened by the task at hand.
He’s packing compost while fielding questions about the recent resurgence of the successful community farm, La Finquita, where he’s played a big role. As the soft-spoken 32-year-old stops to take stock of the quarter-acre plot of land, he seems immensely calm about its prospects.
“From the beginning, we’ve always been concerned that the community might lose this space to development,” he says, discussing why cultivation was begun on this plot of land at the corner of Lawrence and Master streets in South Kensington. He knows what could lie ahead in any neighborhood facing the pressures of development, a hard-fought battle against big financial and political interests.
But here, Brown and others on the determined team behind La Finquita have made this land work for the community. The namesake “little farm” began as a small set of plots for individuals in the neighborhood in the late ’80s, back when more of the community was Latino (primarily Puerto Rican) and urban farms had far less visibility than they do now.
“This was a tire factory, and the land was filled with burned-up tires,” says Jeff Monjack, who got involved when community members in the Catholic Workers Movement started it. At the time, he had moved from West Virginia to work with CWM, and the farm’s tiny plots were salvaged from the factory’s ruins.
Monjack says South Kensington was a lot different then.
“On Jefferson Street, the crack house across the street from us would be in full swing. There would be cars lined down the street BMWs and Mercedes, with plates from New Jersey. It was an open-air crack market,” he says.
Despite facing hardships, the farm flourished in some form for nearly a quarter century. And, the blocks around La Finquita took on a different character. New faces emerged people who were looking to be part of a community that balanced entrepreneurial spirit with a strong respect for tradition. Those leading this micro-farm’s renaissance in mid-2011 intentionally worked to make the project benefit long-term South Kensington residents.
For Brown, that meant conversations with the first generation of gardeners, many of whom were starting to phase out and wanted others to take active responsibility. He and Zach Prazak, whom he met through friends in the neighborhood, then began to clear the rest of the overgrown land on the plot, clearing tree roots and eventually doubling the farm’s arable land.
Many volunteers have been enlisted to help in planting and composting, creating a multi-generational community that is crucial to La Finquita’s sustenance. With financial and material support from Philly Stake, South Kensington Community
Partners and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Growers Alliance, the not-so-little La Finquita grows food for a food pantry and a soup kitchen. As a 2013 City Paper article describing the farm’s unique yacón tubers noted, the farm also grows popular and hard-to-find vegetables.
Meanwhile, supporters remain dedicated to the farm’s original spirit, selling their fresh crops at a Sunday farm stand at lower prices than most similar operations. The stand closed in mid-November and will reopen in mid-May.
“You ride every damn street between Sixth, Girard, Lehigh, Front there isn’t a lot of green space rocking. It’s just a lot of post-industrial, wasteland, graveyard-type stuff, which this was, but it was brought back,” explains Prazak, who continues to work the land with his wife, Liz. “That’s what makes this space really special.”
The farm recently received a donation of a greenhouse from Michael McShane, and last weekend it was removed from his roof at Fourth and Girard and carried over to La Finquita. Because of the addition of the greenhouse, the farm expects to get an early start on spring crops and have greens all winter.
Brown and Prazak say the winter also will be an important time for the farm’s strategic development. They are hoping to expand the underpinnings of support that allow farms like these to flourish, knowing how important momentum is in a volunteer-only enterprise.
“We’re working on ways to maximize participation from the community and beyond, building a governance board and getting people to contribute however they can,” Prazak explains. It takes a lot to hold a farm together, and a lot of that work is time-sensitive as its based on growing seasons.
“Because we’re all on borrowed time here,” he says.