GERMANTOWN, Pa. — “It’s a crazy property,” urban farmer Amanda Staples says about her 1/2-acre farmed plot in the middle of Germantown, a northwest Philadelphia neighborhood.
The urban lot was abandoned and blighted when she first became acquainted with it, surrounded on all sides by 6- to 8-foot-high chain link fences and concrete walls. There is now a doorway or two cut out of the concrete wall for easy walking access from Staples’ house, which happens to be connected to the lot diagonally from her home’s back- yard on the same city block. The lot’s streetfront side is the location for her farmstand business, Germantown Kitchen Garden, started nearly six years ago.
Staples, 36, sells from her farmstand every Saturday throughout the growing season, typically May through October, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., to a small, but loyal and growing, group of customers.
Anyone can shop at the farmstand on Saturdays, but she hopes this season to get at least 25 paid “farmstand shareholders” — customers who prepurchase their season’s orders prior to May, for $625 a share. That comes out to approximately $25 a week, for 25 weeks of vegetables grown by Staples, but she gets the money up front in early spring. That follows the standard CSA (community supported agriculture) model, although she prefers to run a “market-style CSA,” in which the customers can choose what they want each week instead of having a box of produce prepared for them.
“As a producer, it feels so much better to let them choose,” she said.
Other regular customers can sign up at different price points. If they want to forgo the full share, for example, they can pay $100 ahead, and have Staples track their expenditures each week at the farmstand. She can then let them know if they need to add another $100 to their account when it is getting low.
“Maybe I started (farming) here for certain reasons, like providing access to food ... but I like farming. I want to do this,” said Staples, who had two years of organic on-farm training before starting Germantown Kitchen Garden. “I’m trying to run a business,” Staples said.
She grows her vegetables organically, including many heirloom varieties — everything from greens like head lettuce, kale, bok choy, napa cabbage, radicchio, endive and escarole, to potatoes, beans, shallots, onions, beets, carrots, turnips, tomatoes, herbs, and fruit (strawberries, blackberries, currants and gooseberries).
She is continually reminded of her space limitations in this urban setting, and often has to question how best to utilize the land she has to gain the most profitability. This is especially true since the discovery of concrete slabs under approximately 5 percent of the property. One answer for her has been to grow baby lettuce. It is her most profitable item to date.
“I love growing baby lettuce,” Staples said. “I know how to do it. I had a lot of experience growing it. It’s so fresh and it comes back after you cut it.”
Customers love it too. When she sells lettuce, it was harvested that morning.
“It’s the freshest around,” she said. “Local farmers care about giving you good food,” she emphasized.
She grows a variety of baby lettuce mixes that she sells in 1/3-pound bags for $4 apiece. That’s $12 a pound. Not a bad deal for the freshest, tastiest lettuce available, grown in the customers’ own neighborhood.
She makes her own custom mixes including baby spinach, arugula, mesclun and a spicy mix with mustards.
“Most people buy more than one bag,” she said.
She even finds space to grow baby greens down the shady rows of her hilled potatoes, harvesting them before the potatoes are dug.
Staples typically works on her urban farm plot 8 to 10 hours a day, from March through November. In July, it’s a bit less. In December and January, she turns to “inside” work. This February, she’s been working on the computer and on her website, and on starting her seeds in anticipation of spring planting. She raises all her seedlings herself.
“It’s full time,” she said. “I happily work here more than I would at a regular job. I set goals for myself — even if that changes throughout the day.”
Staples intends to increase her income this coming year. She is trying to diversify as much as she can.
“It’s never been a hobby,” she said, “but there were things I knew I could do differently, or better.”
This winter, she took a small-business course and developed a more detailed business plan for her acreage. She wanted to improve her business skills.
“I wanted to think differently,” Staples said. “I had a loose budget before.”
With her new business skills, she learned how to price her products.
“I figured out how to calculate my cost for a bag of baby lettuce,” she said.
The class gave her the confidence to call up other businesses to make connections.
“I was shy,” she said, but added that the class helped her approach people. “Now I’m trying to make more reasons for people to come (on Saturdays).”
For instance, she recently called up and invited another farm, Ironstone Creamery and Farm in Pottstown, Pa., to offer a weekly meat CSA of its products — pork, chicken, eggs, and soon, lamb and beef — to her farmstand customers. There’s been enough of her customers signing up for the meats to make it a regular Saturday pickup location.
In addition, she’s called local chefs and is hoping to increase her restaurant sales this season.
Two years ago, she finished digging more planting beds. She built 10 or 12 raised beds on one area formerly not utilized.
In December, she made and sold nearly 150 holiday wreaths, custom decorating them with dried herbs, even garlic bulbs, that she had grown. Some were as large as 4 feet in diameter.
“I would come home after work (she had been working for a landscaping company for additional income), start a fire out back (for warmth and visibility), and make wreaths,” Staples said.
“I grew up making wreaths with my grandma,” she added.
Some wreaths she sold to her farmstand customers, others to a landscaping company for its clients.
Staples has made it a goal in her business plan to pay herself $20 an hour this year.
Her overhead is small, she said, including seeds, compost, water, etc. Her pickup truck is her workhorse, hauling what she needs.
She’s learned some lessons over the past years. “I can’t grow squash. It takes up too much space and has bug problems. I’ll just buy that from another farm,” she said.
According to Staples, there are problems with crime in the neighborhood, but so far, the vandalism on the farm has mostly come from foxes. The foxes, which live in nearby woods, killed the small flock of chickens she kept.
“I would like to secure the space more,” she said.
Over the years, more of Staples’ friends have started living in or buying properties in the neighborhood, and many of them have become her farmstand customers. The place has become a community of sorts.
“Most people are word of mouth,” she said about her customers. She also runs a website, a Facebook page, an Instagram account and a weekly email blast. Customers sign up for the season on her website. Many of her customers are relatively young and want to talk about where their food comes from and how it is grown.
“I really like talking to my customers,” Staples said.
Besides her CSA customers, she has some Caribbean neighbors who buy all her hot peppers, then make hot sauce and share some with her. A few Muslim women in the area are seeking healthier food and come regularly to shop at her farmstand.
At her stand, Staples has a digital device set up to swipe credit cards or to accept SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, cards from customers. The payment tools — an iPhone, Bluetooth printer and credit card reader — were provided to her for free for two years through a USDA program.
“It’s been a great experience,” she said.
This is her third year using the device, so she will now pay for it herself, and must renew her license yearly for $100. The program is designed to help SNAP customers to be able to buy fresh farm produce, she said.
Even so, she said, “I didn’t get more than a few SNAP customers.”
“We don’t live in a ‘food desert’ here,” she said. “There are plenty of places for people to buy food (in the area).”
She continues to get new customers from farther away, and hopes to attract even more with plans for additional activities on Saturdays, such as gardening workshops and music.
She took two years of horticulture classes recently with the Barnes Foundation Horticulture Education Program in nearby Merion, Pa., which satisfied her desire to do some horticulture design as well. That gave her the idea to possibly start a plant nursery in containers on top of the concrete slabs.
With the help of a friend and her new horticulture training, another new venture is to raise cut flowers for sale this year in nontraditional spaces, like her large backyard and other spots not suitable for food crops.
The entrepreneur has already spoken to two florists in the area who want to buy as much locally as they can get. Florists buying locally grown flowers is a popular trend these days.
“I don’t have contracts yet, but they are both interested,” Staples said.
Staples also knows of several Philadelphia farmers markets looking for cut-flower vendors this year. She explains that farmers must apply to vend in the city through either of two organizations — Farm to City or The Food Trust — which will place farmers at Philadelphia markets after reviewing what the farmer grows and wants to sell.
To help with additional market sales, Staples said she budgeted for a 10-hour-a-week helper.
She has challenges, like the two large tulip trees at the neighbor’s property that shade her growing areas at times.
She worries about getting enough customers, she said, and about weeds.
“If it rains on farmstand days,” she said, “you can lose a ton of money.”
In the fall of 2014, she and her husband, Matt McFarland, split up and she didn’t have a lot of time to grow as many crops as she wanted to last season.
But even though the two have decided to move on, and as she takes 100 percent responsibility for the produce business, they are amicable.
“I couldn’t have done this without him,” Staples said about the acreage and the business. It took a huge effort to get the land ready for growing. “We started this together,” she said. “I would not be doing what I’m doing without Matt and what he did,” Staples said. “I wouldn’t own the lot. It wouldn’t be cleared out.”
The couple had moved to Germantown in 2008 from another Philadelphia neighborhood only because the land became available, she said. Though they wanted to farm, she and McFarland had not wanted to live in Germantown.
“It seemed so far away,” she said.
But the blighted lot’s owner had decided to sell it and a friend living nearby told the couple. The original house on the property had burned down 35 years earlier and nature had taken over.
“It was like a small forest,” Staples said.
They had just a few weeks to decide, and ended up buying it for $28,000. Typically, this type of property might have sold for $100,000, so the purchase would be worth it, farmed or not, they figured.
They started farming it small, with just 10 CSA members the first year. Eventually, the intensive work clearing and preparing the land began to result in a fruitful plot. They went from renting living space nearby to purchasing a house on the same block.
“I think when we started, Matt and I thought at least one of us would always be working off the farm,” she said.
After their first three years working there together, he took a full-time job working as a software developer, which he still does today.
McFarland had built an insulated cooler in a shed on-site, which Staples still uses for harvest refrigeration.
They even planted an orchard, espaliered to make it fit into the small space.
Unfortunately, Staples has found that her apple trees have low productivity. And, she’s been using the peaches for home use only.
Because the orchard is not profitable, and with a premium on space, she may pull the trees up and use the ground for something else.
Staples agrees that there are myths about urban farming, even coming from the growers themselves. Sometimes, she said, it seems that “the farmer’s income has nothing to do with what they’re growing,” as with urban farmers receiving grants or working with a nonprofit organization.
“There’s a gap between the cost of food and the cost of farming,” Staples said. “When I see 5 pounds of apples for $1, or bags of navel oranges, six for $1, at Produce Junction (a store in the region), I know I can’t compete with that.”
She laments that she doesn’t have other farmers to talk to about running a business because a lot of them don’t think of urban farming as a business.
But it is true that in this dense urban environment, her oasis of productive green space is helping to feed the world.