The latest project at the Homewood Community Historic Farm is a meditation and healing garden in the shape of an ankh on the corner of Monticello and North Murtland. It will be furnished with aromatic herbs and colorful tiles, a place for refuge and reflection. Like many urban agricultural spaces, part of its mission is to bring people together, Raqueeb Bey says.
Bey is also leading the charge for BUG-FPC to expand into operating a cooperative grocery store in Homewood. “This is a neighborhood of food apartheid. We need a store here that serves the community. It’s not just about growing gardens. There is community organizing we need to do, too,” she says.
On a one-acre Perry Hilltop farm, in early August, Abdulkadir Chirambo, president of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh, works with three elders in the community to produce a field laden with okra, peppers, tomatoes, greens and a massive swath of sweet corn.
Last year, the food from what’s now called Mwanakuche Community Garden went to feed the Somali community, as well as the farm’s neighbors and anyone who happened to visit the occasional farmstand. This year, despite having open days for people to pick, the harvest is in danger of going to waste. “I have no idea what I’m going to do with all this food right now,” Chirambo says.
Chirambo says that he was planning on setting up a stand for the farm at the CitiParks Northside Farmers’ Market, but internal financial struggles prevented him from applying for a spot this year.
Even if he had applied, this year would have been hard for a new farmer to get access, according to Christina Howell, executive director of Bloomfield Development Corp., which runs one of the largest farmers’ markets in the city.
She says that because of the issues surrounding the pandemic they only added one new vendor, a fabric mending business, to the Bloomfield Saturday Market this year. Market attendance is down about 35 percent, but the growers are seeing sales that are equal to, or, in some cases, significantly exceeding previous years.
Howell says that the market operators hadn’t made much of an effort in the past to reach out to Black farmers, but that it’s become a priority for when the market is able once again to expand the number of growers it can support.
And there are organizations such as Grow Pittsburgh, Grounded PGH and Pasa Sustainable Agriculture that are offering in-kind labor, advice and help navigating barriers farmers run into.
Chirambo, for example, is now working on a larger project — Mwanakuche Farm, a 13.5 acre piece of land in Mercer County he is leasing from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
It is an endeavor that he says has benefited from advice and introductions from several of those organizations, along with the Penn State Extension. On the new farm, the Somali-Bantu community will grow food crops friendly to the western Pennsylvania climate, and will also aim to adapt Somali crops to the environment.
He also plans on raising animals such as goats, chickens and maybe even a few cows in a closed-loop system where animals feed the farm, and the farm feeds the animals. It’ll allow the Somali-Bantu to combine their homeland’s institutional knowledge with farming practices they’ve learned in the United States. They plan to bring the farm’s expected bounty back to Allegheny County to distribute in areas affected by food poverty.
“It will represent us. It will be a place for the community to visit and for people to come and learn more about our culture,” Chirambo says.
Growing the business
When TaRay and Raynise Kelly opened Soil Sisters in 2020, it was both a business decision and one made with a bigger purpose: They envision themselves as the next set of pioneers for systemic change.
Both sisters have significant experience in growing plants. TaRay Kelly works at the University of Pittsburgh, helping to maintain the grounds — she says she was the first Black woman, and only the second woman overall, to have her position in which she does pest control, hardscaping, tree care and flower planting on campus. Raynise Kelly studied horticulture at Bidwell and interned with Plantscape, Tree Pittsburgh and The Frick and then worked a two-year externship at Brenckles Greenhouses. After graduation, she landed a job at Grow Pittsburgh, where she still works.