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Hoop Dreams

Sustainable agriculture comes to Lake Clifton Park

Joe Tropea
Tyler Brown manages Real Food Farm, which is bringing agriculture to city park land and plans to grow fresh produce for city school children.

By Joe Tropea | Posted 10/21/2009

More on Hoop houses in Lake Clifton Park on CPTV at citypaper.com/go/hoophouses.

"This is a great day for city schools," says Tyler Brown, the 24-year-old project manager of Real Food Farm, a new agricultural endeavor located in Lake Clifton Park. On a recent fall day, Brown is working with a group of 30-40 volunteers, students, and construction workers who are building three hoop houses, or high-tunnel greenhouses, on a stretch of land next to Lake Clifton High School. Between the school's parking lot and its track and football field, a semi is dumping a load of compost that has to be spread across three large plots, while three men use a pipe bender to make the skeletons of the hoop houses. The set up, Brown says, should take less than a week. Then, after the first three demonstration models are complete, Civic Works, the city's nonprofit youth-service organization, will build 20 more just beyond the football field. Located in the Herring Run watershed, Lake Clifton High has plenty of ground to spare.

The food grown in these greenhouses--all manner of vegetables and other produce--will be tended by students, educators, volunteers, and individuals training to be master gardeners. The food will be sold and distributed to schools, farmers' markets, and possibly through a CSA (community supported agriculture) that may be set up at Lake Clifton High.

If Real Food Farm is successful--and there's reason to believe it will be considering the success of a similar endeavor in the city called Great Kids Farm ("The New Meal," Feature, June 3)--it could mean the dawn of an agricultural economy within city limits that provides locally produced, fresh food to inner-city neighborhoods. The new greenhouses will offer learning opportunities for students, and if the effort takes off, it could also mean new "green" jobs for city residents.

Three days later, two of the hoop houses are finished. They are huge tunnels, 148 feet long by 20 feet wide. They're much like traditional glass greenhouses, only far less expensive--at $5,000 per house, they're priced at about one quarter of what a smaller glass greenhouses would cost. They're also greener, as they can operate without built-in electric fans and heaters. Inside tunnel number one, it's hot and steamy--more than 20 degrees hotter than it is outside on a recent 68-degree day. Brown demonstrates the house's venting system, which works by spreading overlapping plastic sections open, letting in refreshing gusts of cool autumn air.

"The beauty to this hoop house is that it's extremely simple," Brown says. "Everything can be off a little, it's flexible. So repairs are super easy."

The technology behind the hoop houses comes from Europe, says Tom Handwerker, director of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore's Small Farm Institute, who Brown refers to as the hoop-house guru. Handwerker, who's been working with Real Food Farm, not only brought the technology, he also brought a construction crew--his friends who agreed to work for free.

"I've been able to travel all over the world. This is technology I'm bringing from . . . Madrid, Paris, London," he says, adding that Real Food Farm "should be pulling [its] first crops within six weeks--and this is in the winter. What they'll do is they'll shift as the season shifts so you get the most energy-rich, nutrient-dense foods that are available without needing the heating and cooling. This is very petroleum-free."

"All of the food grown in here, which is going to be spinach, lettuces, cold crops for the fall, are going to be going directly to the kids," Brown adds. "The city school system has agreed to buy our first harvest."

Tony Geraci, department head of Food and Nutrition Services for the Baltimore City School System, confirms this later in a phone interview. "Nobody else is doing this in the country," he says, adding that the project was completed without taxpayer dollars. Instead, it was funded by grants and private investment and with crucial help from people like Ted Rouse, son of developer/philanthropist James Rouse.

Rouse, who responded to questions about his interest in the project via e-mail, says his interest in growing food in greenhouses dates back to 1977 when he built his first greenhouse on South Chester Street in Upper Fells Point. This past May, Rouse presented a plan created by Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance to the city that called for, among other things, the 20 hoop houses to be built at Lake Clifton. "The city was great about taking seriously our request for underutilized park land," he writes.

When asked what kind of potential he thinks Real Food Farm and other such sustainable-agricultural projects could have in the city, Rouse is enthusiastic.

"I believe there are at least 1,500 acres of underutilized land in the city that could be used for urban agriculture," he writes. "I think we could employ as many as four people per acre. Six-thousand jobs in urban agriculture is not a pipe dream!"

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