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Taking a Bite Out of Philadelphia

Penn State Extension summer intern and Young Grower Alliance member, Nettie Baugher, has spent the summer working with the Philadelphia Orchard Project, a local non-profit. Coming from a rural fruit farm and nursery in south-central Pennsylvania, this summer has been a change in perspective and a valuable learning experience for her.
Nettie Baugher

Nettie Baugher

I vividly remember the first time that I dug my toes into freshly cultivated soil. It was exhilarating to feel my feet seep into the soft, moist soil. To this day, it is amazing to me that so much can come from this one simple material. Seeing soil transform a tiny, inconspicuous seed into a full-grown plant is something that I’ve always found fascinating.

Soil is a commodity that has made my life what it is today. I grew up on my family’s three-hundred acre fruit farm and nursery in Adams County, Pennsylvania, where I spent my summers working from middle school until I graduated from high school. I can’t say that I loved every minute working on the farm, but it was definitely an experience that fostered my love of plants and shaped who I am today.

During my senior year of high school, I decided to attend Penn State University to study horticulture. After I completed my freshman year, I started thinking more about what the career options were for my major. I had heard about urban farming, and it really interested me. I started researching farms in New York City, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia, and tried to contact some to see if they would be interested in taking a summer intern. I then saw an advertisement for intern positions with the Penn State Center - Engaging Philadelphia. I ended up getting this position, and the staff here placed me with a local organization called the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP).

The mission of POP is to plant and support community orchards around Philadelphia. Phil Forsyth, the director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project, says it best, “I love to talk about urban orchards as multi-structural urban system providing better access to produce for city residents. Orchards are a great tool for building a community; they create a place for communities to gather. Everyone connects to food, so it is a great way to bring people together.“ POP strives to create and support orchard environments in order to educate city residents on where their food comes from and the health benefits of eating fresh fruits. POP works with many different urban farm organizations, with whom they help design and plant new orchards. They then provide continued educational support to help the farm managers take care of the fruit and nut trees.

Working with POP has been so different than anything I’ve ever done in Adams County. When I first started with the Philadelphia Orchard Project, I found it was very hard to wrap my brain around the fact that its ultimate goal was not production based, but rather community outreach and education. POP works with many different farms in underserved sections of Philadelphia, and one of these orchards is located at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC). Every week, I work with Robyn Mello, a POP employee, and three low-security inmates. Robyn and I help teach these men about gardening and maintaining fruit and nut trees. Coming from my “rural bubble”, it has been so interesting for me to hear their stories.

The most striking story for me is of a young man who has been in jail for three years. When I asked him about his background, he told me that he went to culinary school and has a job lined up to be a chef in Center City when he is released. He simply said, “I mean, it isn’t the greatest job, but how many people can say they get out of jail on a Friday and are at work that Sunday?” Since the beginning of summer, he had been counting down the days until he got out, and I actually got to be there on the day before he left. His sense of eagerness and anticipation truly struck me, and I am so grateful I gained this experience of witnessing some of the struggles of living in a prison and the sense of a new beginning one has upon leaving the system.

POP brings to this prison this sense of consistency in an uncertain environment. Nina Beth Cardin, of the Baltimore Orchard Project, once described how she views her orchards, “Trees have a true spiritual element… It's the presence of the tree, the constancy of the tree, that's so special." The orchard creates an oasis for these prisoners to help them feel like a part of something bigger than themselves. And I can only hope that it has helped prepare this young chef for his new beginning.

In many instances, the farm is seen as a welcoming gathering space in an impoverished neighborhood. High school students are able to come and learn about how to grow produce, and local citizens are able to learn about nutrition and healthy foods. Contributors to the gardens always seem so grateful and so thrilled about access to fresh produce and excited to try new fruits and vegetables. On POP’s website, you will find a video in which a volunteer is interviewed. I loved his response to one of the questions. He said, “[The community orchard] makes me feel connected. At one time I was a guy that was a part of the problem. I stopped being a part of the problem and started being a part of the solution. It brings me out here to get my hands and my knees dirty for the good of the community and for our future generations behind us.” POP helps to create an environment where the simple act of working the land brings people closer to their heritage and creates a stronger sense of community.

I am not going to lie; I really struggled for the first couple of weeks working on some of POP’s partner farms. It is very difficult to come into a new environment where nearly everyone has a view that challenges your entire previous life. But in reality, Adams County production goals are completely different than those of the non-profit farms that POP works with. It has been incredible to see so many people changed by a simple community garden. POP supports 48 orchards throughout the city; the number of people they reach is tremendous. Not everything has to be about business. Sometimes it’s enough to make a place a little better than how you found it.

Many growers from Adams County, myself included, have an immense sense of pride for what they and their families have accomplished. Our families have been in the business for generations. Our farms are where we grew up; they are our livelihood and our legacy. But this sense of pride shouldn’t make us feel like this experience is ours, and ours alone. We should want to share it, and urban farms make this experience possible. They give children the opportunity to feel the joy of sinking their bare feet into the soil or having that first bite of a fresh, crisp apple. I’ve realized that the differences between urban and rural farms don’t matter because one vital thing remains the same. All farmers work with that beautiful thing we call soil. And we all have to get our hands dirty to create abundance in a neighborhood.

-Nettie Baugher