Urban Farming Proponents See 'Unlimited Potential' in Erie

February 20th, 2019, 12:00 AM

French Street Farms owner Carrie Sachse is testing urban agriculture in Erie. Will other farms follow?

Carrie Sachse saw a need for locally grown produce in Erie.

Gary Horton sees a need for jobs and fresh food in communities on the city's east side.

Both believe urban agriculture can serve those needs.

"How can you go wrong with food and feeding people?" Horton said.

Sachse has made her vision for an urban farm into a reality at French and East 22nd streets, where she launched French Street Farms on vacant lots she purchased from the Erie Redevelopment Authority.

Horton's idea for urban farming is still in the early planning stages. He would like to see a commercial farming facility built on the Joyce A. Savocchio Business Park, which the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation purchased in January.

Horton, who is the director of the Urban Erie Community Development Corp., said the group is considering options that could allow for growing produce even in the winter months, such as hydroponic farming.

"That's the goal: to grow food year-round, to have fresh vegetables available, locally grown, year-round," Horton said.

A timeline for the project is still in the works, Horton said. He sees urban farming as a way to tap into the skills of neighborhood residents who have experience growing food.

Sachse's venture, which is headed into its second growing season, offers a look at the economics of a fledgling urban farm. Sachse said she sold out all of the available shares in her community-supported agriculture crop-sharing program in her first year and in the upcoming year.

She hopes to offer more produce at farm stands this year. Trouble with getting water access meant she could only use half of the land she purchased to grow food last summer.

Sachse bought the four formerly vacant lots from the Erie Redevelopment Authority in 2017 for $950. Buying the land so cheaply helped her avoid going into debt to build the business, she said.

"That's huge for my business's bottom line," Sachse said. She also won a $5,000 start-up grant from the Idea Fund to help launch her business.

While she continues to build the farm, Sachse is keeping her day job at the Erie County courthouse. She hopes to begin hiring her own employees in the next few years, she said.

"There's no question in my mind that the biggest obstacle right now is just capital investment, and just not having the money to invest in the infrastructure that I need, but as I continue to invest what I can over time, the sky is the limit in terms of demand for local produce," she said.

Scott Henry, the executive director of the Redevelopment Authority, said he has received few inquiries about urban farming on Erie's vacant lots in the past year. But he believes there is still interest in urban farming in the community.

"I certainly think there's some people watching French Street Farms to see how that progresses," Henry said.

He also pointed to the Erie Food Policy Advisory Council, a new group organized by Lauren Azotea, an AmeriCorps volunteer who serves with the Erie County Department of Health.

The council, which is made up of stakeholders in the local food system, is developing an urban agriculture tool kit, Azotea said. The tool kit would provide useful information about resources that could be helpful to anyone interested in urban farming, she said.

"Trying to put it all in one place to make it as easy as possible," Azotea said. She said she has heard from a few people who are interested in urban farming and even more who are interested in setting up community gardens in the city.

The tool kit is still being developed, but will be made available on the Food Policy Advisory Council's Facebook page when it is complete, Azotea said.

Mike Bailey, a Penn State Extension master gardener who helps run the Emmaus Grove garden in Erie, said he has doubts about the viability of commercial farming in the city.

"It requires a lot of attention and there's a lot of money required, even for a startup venture for something like that," he said. "I don't want to discourage anybody from trying this, but it's not a real easy task."

He said the cost of remediating land in the city for farming could be prohibitive in some circumstances, and that it could be difficult to compete against larger operations that can grow and sell produce more cheaply.

He pointed to his work at Emmaus Grove, which produces 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of produce annually for the Emmaus Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry.

"If you look at the number of hours that we put in to those gardens and the community support that we have for some of those gardens, how would you have to price the produce coming out of those facilities to cover those costs, if we didn't have free labor, community support, financial donations?" Bailey asked. "We couldn't be competitive."

But Sachse said she sees "unlimited potential" for urban farming and the need for locally grown produce. She said the demand for produce from French Street Farms far outpaced her growing capacity during her first summer.

"A lot of people could do exactly what I'm doing and we still wouldn't be saturating the market," she said. "I think there's tons of potential."

Madeleine O'Neill can be reached at 870-1728 or by email. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNoneill.

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