Hilltop Urban Farm is growing food on the Hilltop
COVID-19 creates changes, opportunities
July 21, 2020
Recently, I had the opportunity to tour the Hilltop Urban Farm (HUF) with staff members John Bixler and Ned Brockmeyer along with members of Hilltop community organizations.
Mr. Bixler is the executive director of HUF and Mr. Brockmeyer the director of farm programs.
The men explained the COVID-19 pandemic has altered their approach to programming on the site of the former St. Clair Village housing projects. Last year's successful youth farm program had to be suspended until it's possible to bring kids to the farm again. In its various sections, the youth farm had more than 500 kids participate in 2019.
While youngsters haven't had the opportunity to learn the benefits of growing (and eating) their own food, Mr. Brockmeyer has been tending to the youth farm in the hopes that the kids will be able to return sometime this year. In the meantime, the HUF is donating produce grown in the youth farm to The Brashear Association's food pantry.
When it became apparent the youth programs would be suspended, the men decided to farm a vacant plot of land in the incubator farm program. Planted in the late spring, the quarter-acre plot is now beginning to bear fruit with all the produce being donated to community food banks.
Comparing last year's farm operation with this year's is like comparing apples to pears. Last year, the HUF benefited from more than 700 volunteers by this time. Although there is plenty of space to social distance, COVID-19 has limited the big volunteer events. A few events have taken place with a limited number of volunteers.
Volunteer days have restarted at the farm with proper social distancing. The next scheduled volunteer day is on Saturday, Aug. 1, from 9 a.m. until noon. Sign up to help at: https://www.facebook.com/HilltopUrbanFarmPGH/
Missing out on the volunteer days hasn't stopped things from moving forward. Hilltop Urban Farm recently benefited from the service of three externs from the Manchester Bidwell horticulture program and having members of Landforce onsite working the land.
The limited volunteer events have been offset with an increase in equipment at the farm. This year, they've been able to add three BCS tillers and a tractor. The heavy-duty tillers aren't hampered by the leftover pieces of brick and rock from when the buildings were demolished a decade ago.
Mr. Bixler said they recently took out 80,000 pounds of rock and brick they plowed up from a three-quarter acre parcel. He added that old building materials still pop-up after every rain.
The addition of the tractor, through a grant from Dollar Bank, has allowed them to do the mowing on the site themselves, keeping the fields cut to a manageable level. The purchase of the tractor has "paid for itself" in the amount of money the HUF has saved over paying an outside contractor to come in and do the cutting.
The farm is currently using about 10 acres of the 23 acres of land available to them through a site access agreement with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh on the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) land. In addition to the youth farm, there's an orchard with 155 fruit and nut trees; Bee Boy Honey with seven bee hives on site; Deco Resources' composting production; and, a hoop house to allow for preparation before planting.
In addition to the Hilltop Urban Farm planting its own plot, there are three farmers in farm incubator program, two growing vegetable and Sol Patch Garden in its second year of growing flowers.
John Boujoukos, a first-year participant, started early this year by taking advantage of the hoop house to start his vegetables before planting. Utilizing quarter-acre plots in the HUF and also in Hazelwood, he operates a small 28-member Community Supported Agriculture business.
Mr. Boujoukos also supports the Brashear food pantry by donating fresh produce each week.
Mr. Bixler said the site will be able to accommodate three or four more farmers in the farm incubator program. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis with preference given to Hilltop people or farmers that will benefit Hilltop residents.
A fourth farmer, planting on the other side of the site from the incubator farms, planted hops this year. Mr. Bixler said the hops plants will take three years to mature enough to harvest.
Immediate plans for the Hilltop Urban Farm include adding a refrigeration unit for farmers to store their produce, a "wash and pack" station to prepare the produce for distribution, and a second hoop house to expand the growing season.
Learn more about the Hilltop Urban Farm at: http://www.hilltopurbanfarm.org.