Managing a Farm During a Pandemic
By Beth Burrell
Maura Rapkin and Nick Sirio, featured Food Bank blog authors, are interns on the Food Bank Farm project this summer. Nick is entering his second year as a Master of Food Studies student at Chatham while Maura graduated from the program in 2019.
Managing a farm under normal circumstances is hard work, but adding the complications of social distancing, mask requirements and the need for handwashing in a field with no running water to a hot, dry summer and this season has become especially challenging.
The Food Bank Farm plot at Chatham is a 1-acre plot at the university’s Eden Hall Campus in Gibsonia, about half an hour north of Pittsburgh. The farm is dedicated to growing organic produce for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s (the Food Bank) Green Grocer Mobile Market. The Food Bank partnered with Chatham because of shared values around the impact of food on well-being. It is run by the Food Bank, Chatham students, Chatham staff and volunteers.
The concept behind this farm is to provide wonderfully fresh, pure, organic produce to Pittsburgh food desert communities – communities that lack easy access to traditional grocery stores and instead rely on other types of stores that usually carry a variety of shelf-stable foods but rarely offer fresh choices.
Work at the Food Bank Farm relies heavily on volunteers. A few volunteers gather weekly in the parking lot after having their temperatures checked and make small talk at a distance behind their masks until the group walks through the forest path to a large plot of farmland where we will be working for the day.
Volunteers of all ages have come out to join us this summer: parents and their kids, high schoolers and college students, all the way through retirees. Most of the work this summer wouldn’t have been possible without them as they’ve helped us at every stage. They put plants in the ground. They keep the beds clear of weeds and train the plants that grow along supports and trellises, and when harvest time comes, they help us gather all there is to reap.
This season the Food Bank Farm is growing beans, squash, collard greens, okra, peppers, melons, herbs and more. The successes we’ve had this season did not come easy. Many crops that were started late due to the pandemic this spring perished in the heat. Some didn’t even make it 24-hours after being put in the ground because of the lack of easy access to water. Thankfully, Chatham is building a new greenhouse and wind turbine in the field that will capture rainwater and allow it to be pumped onto the Food Bank plot.
This fall, the project we’re most excited about will get off of—or rather, into—the ground. We’ll be establishing a beautiful orchard. Between now and then, we’ll be focusing on preparing the site for those trees.
On the other side of Pittsburgh the Green Grocer mobile market pulls into a library parking lot, opens its side doors, puts up the plexi-glass divider and waits for customers to arrive. They’re packing a truck full of fresh produce including produce from the Food Bank Farm.
Customers of the Green Grocer are happy to hear that the produce is coming from somewhere close. When the Chatham crew is on the truck, they love to meet the customers purchasing their produce.
The partnership and program is still young. So many people are involved in making the farm plot work; it is truly a cooperative effort. The ability to create new systems of sharing local produce all around the city is gratifying and meaningful work. We’ve felt so lucky to work on the early stages of this project, and are looking forward to seeing it succeed as these trees grow big and strong over the decades to come.