Philly.com: A farm grows in Chester City, and so does supermarket partnership

A farm grows in Chester City, and so does supermarket partnership
By John Ryan Barwick, Philly.com
February 27, 2017
Original Article

Young men are spreading and shoveling piles of mulch on the raised beds on a pleasantly warm February afternoon. At the other end of the garden, a manager peers through the greenhouse at beds of collard greens.

Juxtaposed against the cracked concrete sidewalks, with its benches and plywood posters, the Ruth L. Bennett Community Farm in the struggling city of Chester’s West End, the farm might seem as incongruous as the February warmth.

Going on 10 years old, the farm marked a milestone last month when it reached an agreement with Fare & Square – the city’s only major grocery store – to sell its produce, starting sometime this spring.

“If they’re growing in this community, we want to be selling,” said Mike Basher, the market’s vice president of retail operations. “Folks shopping here are buying stuff that’s raised right in their community.”

The farm was created with the help of “a couple of Swarthmore volunteer college students, who wanted to start a community garden,” according to Steven Fischer, the executive director of the Chester Housing Authority, which manages the farm and the Bennett housing project.

It has grown to include a 2,500-square-foot greenhouse and more than 60 raised beds on fertile soil. Its customers have included neighborhood residents, the Chester Farmers’ Market, and Community Hospital.

The farm and Fare & Square have been cultivating a relationship for several years, dating to the time when the market donated hot dogs and hamburgers to a farm BBQ, aimed at raising awareness to the project.

In 2013, Fare & Square became the first supermarket in a decade to open in Delaware County’s only city – where a third of the 34,000 residents live in poverty. It isn’t unusual for patrons to purchase items at the deli counter in coin amounts – as in, “What can I [buy] for 25 to 30 cents” – said Amanda White, a spokeswoman for Philabundance.

Last month, Fischer met with both Basher and Andre Dixon, a Fare & Square senior manager, to talk about how the farm could be more self-sustaining, which led to discussions with farm officials about selling the produce at the grocery store.

“They thought there would be more red tape to forming this partnership with us, and we were like  ‘it’s approved.’ We cut the ribbon right there in the meeting. We’ll sell everything you have!” said Basher.

Most of the produce purchased by Fare & Square comes from Lancaster County and New Jersey, but any opportunity to be “ultra local,” as Basher puts it, is ideal.

Fare & Square will purchase the produce at the same rate as any other grocer.

“The residents of the community can be proud that something they are growing here is actually being sold here,” said Norman Wise, the director of the public housing project.

“We’re lucky that we get a lot of volunteer help, so it offsets the costs.”

On any given day, the Ruth L. Bennett farm can have anywhere from 20 to 100 such volunteers; federal grant money also helps.

Now the farm is looking for more growth. It is installing an irrigation system and bringing electricity to its two greenhouses, said Natania Schaumburg, the farm’s new manager. In addition to produce, the farm is looking into selling flowers, and even raising fish.

Originally, the farm was to be an educational tool. Most of the produce was given to neighborhood residents, said Fischer.

“We’ve had fits and starts of selling our product at farmers markets here and there but nothing on a daily regular basis.”

To Fischer, selling produce is a natural transition.

“All the good will in the world isn’t going to be support without a good business plan,” he said. “This is the newest part of our business plan, to seek new nontraditional revenue sources.”

“I’m really thankful to Fare & Square for giving us this shot,” said Fischer. “Chester needs more business doing well.”

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